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Polynesian Cultural Center: Laie, Oahu, Hawaii.
Polynesian Cultural Center: Laie, Oahu, Hawaii.

Easter Island Moai in America

We live in a civilization seemingly at its pinnacle, a dreamy world which even offers, with a straight face, scholarly careers in Tiki pop culture. There are esteemed dumpling professors, coconut brassiere doctors, Mai Tai masters. The editors of Roadside America hold no such formal degrees -- but we know a good roadside head when we see one.

Easter Island Head, Tucson, Arizona.
Easter Island Head, Tucson, Arizona.

Easter Island was first spotted by Westerners (and named for the day of its discovery) in 1722. The otherwise remote patch of land quickly became world-famous for its hundreds of huge, inscrutable stone heads, carved and laboriously moved -- with enigmatic motives -- by the island's ancient inhabitants. Apparently they had a lot of free time.

Hardly publicized: small human bodies are carved at the base of the heads; the heads are so strikingly strange that no one notices.

American fascination with the Easter Island moai, as they're known to Easter Islanders, grew with post WWII popularity of Polynesian pseudo-culture.

Over several decades, businesses in cities with sufficient population and tourism cashed in on the magnetism of an absurdly peaked roof, fake palm trees, and a couple of entrance tikis (restaurants such as The Kahiki, Trader Vic's, the Mai-Kai).

The Easter Island head found itself on the American mainland a bit later. Author Thor Heyerdahl had drawn mass attention with his Pacific-crossing adventures in "Kon-Tiki" (1947). Heyerdahl's "Aku-Aku, The Secret of Easter Island," featured unforgettable cover art of a moai, practically guaranteeing immortal confusion in a decoration stew of tikis, moai, carved idols, rum mugs and novelty cocktails.

Polynesian Putter, St. Pete Beach, Florida.
Polynesian Putter, St. Pete Beach, Florida.

Moai replicas began appearing as hazards on some of the USA's more elaborate miniature golf courses, at themed restaurants and bars, and eventually populated other roadside attractions and outsider artists' front lawns.

Plushie moai in the gift shop at Hawaii's Polynesian Cultural Center.
Plushie moai in the gift shop at Hawaii's Polynesian Cultural Center.

America today is home to dozens of imitation Easter Island heads. While you might expect to find them in the country's subtropical zones, they also stand in the vast dry oceans of Iowa, Massachusetts, and Nevada -- distant lands beyond the sailing range of a Kon-tiki raft.

Easter Island heads in the U.S., unlike the originals, have no presumed religious significance. Americans just love synthetic exotica. To be seen from a moving vehicle, some American moai have been built taller than any on Easter Island, including a 40-footer in Connecticut, of all places. And they're entertaining; you can stick your arm out of the nose of one in Florida.

Moai are occasionally cross-bred with tikis, creating fanciful hybrids with open-for-human-sacrifice mouths, towering headgear, and glowing eyes.

Giganticus Headicus, Walapai, Arizona.
Giganticus Headicus, Walapai, Arizona.

The big heads are also tempting projects for novice artists, who know that their finished work will be recognizable even if they don't get the brow ridge exactly right.

Easter Island moai in America have had relatively short lifespans, some succumbing to cars, some to bulldozers, some because their chicken wire and stucco aren't as solid as the originals' volcanic rock. Subsurface settling has caused several USA heads to lean like a Tiki Bar patron who's had one too many Ko-Ko-No-Ko Koolers.

However, the dogged appeal of America's Easter Island heads (though languishing a bit in the not-cool 1980s-90s) suggests that even as old ones fall, new ones may rise, although not as mysteriously as those on Easter Island. Visit one or two on your next road trip, and sip their stone head mojo.

Moai Tiki Heads

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