By Keely Savoie
The towering stone statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)— moai— have lured Western archeologists to the island for decades. There, teams of researchers unearth, catalog, and haul away the heritage of a culture that has been historically sidelined and disengaged from the process.
“When I saw the disengagement of the Rapa Nui community from the archeological digs that were taking place on the island, it struck me as strange,” said Britton Shepardson, an archeologist at Northern Arizona University. “The university and the U.S. government were pouring money into these projects that had no positive benefit to the communities where they were located.”
Now, thanks to Britton, his brother Dylan, a Mount Holyoke College professor of mathematics and statistics, and Mount Holyoke student interns, the Rapa Nui community is reclaiming its culture and taking on the vital tasks of preserving and protecting it for generations to come.
The community reengagement program, Terevaka Archeological Outreach (TAO), was founded in 2003 by Britton. He realized that a sense of ownership requires personal investment, so he started offering work to some local high school students.
“I wanted to give them an opportunity not only to see what I was doing, but also to get involved,” he said.
TAO continued to expand over the years, but soon Britton found himself with a good problem: the program was becoming larger than he could handle.
Fortunately, Dylan had joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke as an assistant professor of mathematics and statistics and immediately saw an opportunity to help Britton continue to grow TAO that would also provide Mount Holyoke students the opportunity of a lifetime: to live and learn on Rapa Nui.
“It was such a good fit between Mount Holyoke and TAO,” he said. “It made so much sense to get them involved.”
Dylan worked with MHC’s McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives to enable Mount Holyoke students to take six-week summer internships helping with TAO’s work on Rapa Nui.
“Rapa Nui’s economy is largely based on these exploitative archeological digs,” Dylan Shepardson said. “The point of TAO is to develop a sustainable archeological program that involves rather than exploits the local inhabitants of Rapa Nui.”
Rather than simply training the students in Western archeological techniques, one of TAO’s principal goals is to incorporate local knowledge about artifacts into an interactive Google map that encodes archeological knowledge in a digital format, complete with pictures and text.
“It is a phenomenal project,” said Kelsey Briggs ’15, a Spanish and anthropology major from North Berwick, Maine, who spent six weeks last summer on the island. “They have this rich oral history and knowledge about the sites from the parents and grandparents. We would often stop at a cave or by moai , and they would tell these stories that they learned. That was my favorite part because it was a real exchange of information, not just one way.”
That equal and open sharing of information bolsters learning on both sides. “Mount Holyoke students are learning from the program as much as the Rapa Nui students, and they are taking it back with them to ask really advanced questions of their field,” said Britton Shepardson. “They are asking things like, ‘What is my place in this world? And how does my work serve not only me, but the greater global community?’ “
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