Easter Island, Chile ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt

Papa Ra’au

Papa Ra’au 1024 768 Cyndie Burkhardt

I arrived at Hanga Roa hospital on Easter Island at 3pm on Tuesday afternoon. I was looking for Pamela, the woman in charge of Papa Ra’au. The day before I was on a tour of the island, in awe of the Moai statues and the landscape, and I struck up a conversation with Benjamin, the Samoan guide. He asked about my work and when I mentioned health and wellness he told me about a woman who helps people with “alternative” medicine. Two years prior he had a physical ailment that kept him from playing rugby and he was also experiencing anxiety. When he spoke to her he started crying. With Pamela’s herbal baths and energy massage he got better. He suggested I go see her.

Easter Island
Easter Island

All images ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt.
Sitting at the hospital

Sitting in her office/treatment room, Pamela immediately struck me as intense. I asked about Papa Ra’au, the ancestral medicine from traditional Rapa Nui culture. She held my gaze as she spoke slowly and deliberately, carefully choosing her words. Pamela said people need to look inside to find out what’s wrong with them and she repeatedly pressed her thumb into her chest to emphasize the point. She said people are inflexible and narrowly focused, they need to control everything—within themselves, with others, and with laws. We’re sick because of the mind.

Papa Ra’au is the treatment of disease and illness through natural medicine and especially medicinal plants. The custom is to treat the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. Health is strongly linked to the connection between all beings (human and animal), the earth, plants, air, water, spirits, and the universe.

A different kind of therapy

I asked Pamela how she gets people to go inside. Her massage therapy focuses on the pineal gland, where she “opens people up, cleans them out, then closes them back up again.” I was both intrigued and intimidated, thinking I’d personally prefer her herbal bath or harmonization (like reiki but not reiki). There’s also a bit of talking in order to help people understand, which adds an element of psychology to her work, although she’d see it as spirit.

This ancient knowledge has been passed down through generations and Pamela has spent her entire life learning Papa Ra’au from her family. She proudly defends her Rapa Nui heritage and her beliefs.

Easter Island
Moai sculptures

A university wants her to teach and a pharmaceutical company wants to learn her methods. They want to “take” from her and make lots of money. “Why should I give it to them?”, she asks. “This is my life, I’ve learned everything from my grandmother, and it’s her life. How can I give it away? …it’s not a piece of paper from a university.”


Pamela asked what I needed and I said I didn’t need anything. She wouldn’t accept my answer and kept asking. I relented and chose harmonization—the energy massage. Lying on her table with my eyes closed, I could feel her body close to mine and her hands over me. My mind was exceedingly restless. Eventually the random thoughts subsided and I became aware of feeling blissfully calm and sleepy. Then she left the room. 

Afterward, I asked Pamela what energy she felt from me and was told “it’s not important.” As I prepared to leave I felt a strong urge to hug her. We held each other in a close embrace and she whispered, “I held you like a little baby.” She started to sway, as if lulling me. When it was over we simultaneously kissed each other on the neck. Whatever I did or didn’t need, the hug was the real harmonization and I was grateful.

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