The governor of Easter Island made an emotional plea to the British Museum for the return of an ancient sculpture, featuring the Rapa Nui’s famed stone faces, which has been on display in London for 150 years.
“I believe that my children and their children also deserve the opportunity to touch, see and learn from him,” Tarita Alarcón Rapu, governor of the Chilean island, said of the sculpture, according to the Agence France-Presse.
“We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul,” she added.
Rapu, along with a delegation of indigenous Rapanui people, met with museum officials in London this week to petition for the 8-foot sculpture, named Hoa Hakananai’a, which translates to “lost or stolen friend.”
The Hoa Hakananai’a is one of nearly 1,000 monolithic statues, known indigenously as moai, created by the island’s early Polynesian inhabitants between 1100 and 1600 A.D.
Rapanui islanders believe the moai have spiritual ties to their ancestors. According to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, moai represent Rapa Nui’s ancestral chiefs and are believed to be direct descendants from the gods.
The Hoa Hakananai’a is also one of only 14 such sculptures to be made of basalt.
The delegation’s meeting in London didn’t result in a resolution, but British Museum officials did accept an invitation to continue talks with the indigenous group in Easter Island, according to Artnet News.
Chile’s national assets minister, who accompanied the Rapanui delegates, told Agence France-Presse that negotiations over the moai’s return could go on for a while.
“This is the first of many conversations we will have,” he said.
Members of the U.K.’s Royal Navy on the H.M.S. Topaze took the Hoa Hakananai’a from the island, reportedly without permission, in 1868. They gave it to Queen Victoria, who then gifted it to the British Museum.
“You have kept him for 150 years, just give us some months, and we can have him,” Rapu said in tears outside of the British Museum this week.
“We want the museum to understand that the moai are our family, not just rocks. For us [the statue] is a brother; but for them it is a souvenir or an attraction,” Anakena Manutomatoma, a member of Easter Island’s development commission, told The Guardian in an article dated Nov. 16.
“Once eyes are added to the statues, an energy is breathed into the moai and they become the living embodiment of ancestors whose role is to protect us,” she added.
In recent years, the Rapanui people have ramped up efforts to preserve the island’s indigenous culture and gain independence from the Chilean government, which in 1888 annexed the island. Easter Island is located some 2,200 miles from the South American continent.
The campaign to return moai to the island is a part of those efforts.
“Perhaps in the past we did not attach so much importance to Hoa Hakananai’a and his brothers, but nowadays people on the island are starting to realize just how much of our heritage there is around the world and starting to ask why our ancestors are in foreign museums,” Rapanui sculptor Benedicto Tuki told BBC.
Tuki volunteered to create an identical moai for the museum should it decide to return the original.
“Perhaps it won’t possess the same ancestral spirit, but it will look identical,” he said. “My only wish is for him to return home; for me this is worth far more than any amount of money. As long as I live, I will fight to see our ancestors returned to the island.”