In the winter of 2018, a 26 year-old American missionary named John Chau travelled to North Sentinel island to preach the word of God. It is a small, square-ish landmass just off the cracked spine of the Andaman islands, technically under the jurisdiction of the Indian government. Almost nothing is known about the islands’ people, their language, their culture, or their worldview. Some observations have been made from a distance: there are about 50 to 200 inhabitants who sleep in small huts, carry spears and bows, sail in canoes, and who are mostly naked save for bark strings and some jewellery. But for the most part the culture and practices of the Sentinelese are unknown, and the Indian government forbids travel to their shores. Chau was intent on making contact with them and paid Indian fishermen to take him to the island illegally. The Sentinelese people were not receptive to his message. They killed him with arrows on 17 November.
This launched the isolated community into global headlines. The Sentinelese have often been called the most isolated or ‘uncontacted’ tribe in the world. But they are more than just the tribe who killed John Chau. Their newfound prominence on the international stage is an opportunity to rethink our attitudes to isolated peoples – and our interactions with them.
Chau, a medical technician and evangelical Christian, had travelled to the Andaman islands several times as part of a years-long interest in the Sentinelese people. He was an avid adventurer, and left behind an Instagram filled with landscape photographs, as well as shots of him and his friends hiking, camping, and canoeing. It was on Instagram that Chau’s family announced his death, writing, ‘He was a beloved son, brother, uncle, and best friend to us. To others he was a Christian missionary, a wilderness EMT, an international soccer coach, and a mountaineer. He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.’ The New Yorker reported that Chau first learnt of the Sentinelese through the Joshua Project – a registered non-profit organisation in the USA which identifies groups of people without links to Christianity, and compiles them into a database for would-be missionaries. Chau believed the Sentinelese people had been denied their right to the gospel; he was going to save their souls. He left behind fervent journals and letters which detail his desire to make contact with the community, and which also acknowledge that he could die in the process. In a letter to his family, he wrote, ‘I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed.’ These records paint him as a well-intentioned man, wedded to an enterprise that was both dangerous, and reminiscent of the colonial past. Chau made two trips to the island, paying Indian fishermen to take him as close as they dared, and making the rest of the way in his own canoe. The first time he approached, he attempted to offer gifts but was forced back by arrows. The second visit ended in his death. Chau’s mission was quickly condemned by Survival International, the main advocacy group for isolated and indigenous peoples, who urged no recovery of his body. They wrote: ‘It’s not impossible that the Sentinelese have just been infected by deadly pathogens to which they have no immunity, with the potential to wipe out the entire tribe. The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone, and their wishes should be respected.’
Much news coverage of the Chau story, and of any story that involves the Sentinelese peoples, suggests that the tribe has never had any experience of people outside of their own community. It is part of the typically sensationalized coverage that follows indigenous peoples and their interactions with other communities, coverage that describes a faraway tribe who are completely unaware of the outside world – but it is simply not true. The past two hundred years of recorded history in the Andaman islands are sprinkled with stories of the Sentinelese. Ships have wrecked on their shores, they have killed fishermen poaching in their waters, a documentary crew captured video footage of them from a small boat, and the exiled King of Belgium, Leopold III, was even taken to view them from afar. In the strictest sense, the Sentinelese people are not ‘uncontacted’ at all, and many have taken issue with the use of the phrase to describe isolated communities. Anthropologist Greg Downey writes, ‘I feel a little queasy that we have to sell the drive for cultural autonomy and respect for foraging peoples with the whole “never seen a white man” drivel. The term “uncontacted” is part of the problem; “isolated” would be better, as these groups have seldom “never seen a white man.”
They usually have developed a habit of reacting hostilely when they do, perhaps suggesting that it’s not so much lack of contact, but certain kinds of contact that they have experienced.’ The Sentinelese are not isolated because they have never encountered others. Rather, they have deliberately rejected contact from beyond their shores since at least 1771, when the East India Company first noticed light coming from the island. In the 1880s, when the Andaman Islands were part of the British Empire, a British Officer named Maurice Vidal Portman kidnapped members of the tribe, two of whom quickly died from exposure to disease, prompting the British to return the other tribe members. Memory of the horrific crime may live on in the cultural consciousness of the Sentinelese people, and could explain why the community so fiercely protect their land. And these moments of communication and conflict are only those which have occurred since the rise of the British Empire. There were likely events and communication that occurred between the Sentinelese people and other peoples of the Andaman islands in the thousands of years before the East India Company sailed in those waters. Our idea of what counts as ‘contact’ is itself colonially derived.
The inaccuracy of the term ‘uncontacted’ is why Felipe Milanez and Glenn H Shepherd, Jr. have described the concept of contact as a ‘colonial myth’. The Sentinelese do not live as they do because they have been denied the salvation of ‘contact’ with the globalised world, but because they have consciously opted out of our version of modernity. The general conception of an ‘uncontacted people’ is of a tribe who believe themselves to be the only people in the world and who are unaware of the existence of neighbouring communities. But there are no people on Earth that match this description. Survival International continues to use the term ‘uncontacted’ as a descriptor for such communities. But some argue that the label fetishizes indigenous groups. ‘Uncontacted’ for many conjures an image of an ‘uncontaminated’ group living in a pure and natural state away from global evils. We are not far here from the idea of the ‘Noble Savage’ – a mythical figure untouched by the modern world, and who occupies a quasi- mystical status.
Racism is not always exemplified by hatred, loathing, or superiority (though it often has been). Conceiving of indigenous peoples as perfect, mystical beings is an example of racism that is supposedly rooted in admiration. But if it is admiration, it is a kind that does not acknowledge the humanity of its object. The noble savage is not human in the way that we are human. Many still cling to paternalistic ideas of intervention, claiming they are acting to the benefit of the communities themselves. These people are often well-meaning, and to some extent so are their reasons. The islanders may be dying of preventable diseases – why not let them have access to advanced healthcare? But, historically, forced contact has never benefitted indigenous groups. One need only look at the problems facing indigenous communities in the USA and Australia to see that, even hundreds of years after ‘contact’, indigenous groups are still recovering from the experience.
Health has historically been a major threat for isolated groups. Pathogens which do not threaten neighbouring communities may be harmful to them. In the second half of the twentieth century, the mortality rate for ‘contacted’ indigenous peoples in Brazil reached 90%. On a more philosophical level, forced contact denies a people’s right to autonomy and self- governance. As mentioned, there are no genuinely ‘uncontacted’ groups and even those with limited contact, such as the Sentinelese people, are more than aware that there are other peoples and communities outside their own. To disrespect their decision to remain isolated in the face of this knowledge is to see them as somehow incapable of making an informed decision. If these cultures and ethnic groups are truly respected and seen as equal in their capability to reason, then there is no reason to believe that there is ever a justification for imposed contact.
Those who argue for imposed contact often do so indirectly, demanding more knowledge and more investigation of these people, for a selfish desire to simply know more about them. It would, of course, be fascinating to know more about the Sentinelese. What do they think of the rest of the word? What do they make of the helicopters that circle above them, the packaging with writing and photographs that wash up on their shores? How similar is their language to languages of the Andaman islands? What stories, histories, and artistic endeavours does their culture have that are currently unknown to us? But the desire to know must be weighed with the safety, wellbeing, and preferences of the people themselves.
But there is one thing that might disrupt the general principle of non-interference: the increasingly tenuous future of our planet. As global temperatures rise, and sea levels rise with them, isolated communities will be placed at risk. With limited infrastructure to cope with disasters and no scientific predictions on climate change, these communities will experience a threat disproportionate to many in the globalised world. If the Sentinelese become threatened by climate change, could we, and should we, force interaction? To some extent, it has already been forced; any climatic danger would stem from the actions of industrialised nations. We could continue a policy of strict autonomy, or else use technology, surveillance, and aid supplies to assist.
There is a precedent here after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the Indian government sent a helicopter to check on the wellbeing of the Sentinelese people. They found that although the tsunami had altered the shape of the island and affected the waters in which the Sentinelese fish, they could not detect any fatalities. This was an extreme situation, but as climate change progresses incidents like this will only increase. We must establish a set of ethical guidelines for such interactions, which will become more common with the onset of climate change. We must decide how to approach these people as they experience a disaster that we have caused, and against which they have little protection or forewarning. This is not unanimously the case for every indigenous or isolated group – for example, nomadic communities may be empowered by their familiarity with migration to cope with the changing environment – but with respect to the Sentinelese, it seems like more than a mere possibility.
Indeed, climate change is a demonstration that although we tend to think of uncontacted peoples as living in the past, they share the same world that we do. After John Chau’s death, several accounts described the Sentinelese as a ‘Stone Age’ tribe, or otherwise framed their existence as a people from a forgotten era. Even if we take ‘Stone Age’ to simply be a description of the type of tools the Sentinelese people are using, it is not correct – the Sentinelese people have used metal from a shipwreck on the island to tip their spears and took a gift of metal cookware from a 1970s documentary crew.
But this is not what is meant when journalists and commentators describe the Sentinelese as ‘Stone Age’. It is instead a comment on their way of life in respect to ours, one which places culture not on a varied palette of human experience, but on a linear chronology of advancement, in which those who do not live as we do are behind – with the implication, perhaps, that it would be in their interests to catch up. While this romantic notion is understandable, given the rapid technological advancement of the global era, it is nevertheless inaccurate, patronising, and possibly dangerous. The Sentinelese people live in a small community, forage and hunt for their food, carry spears, and live very much in this specific moment in time, which we call the 21st century. They face the same existential threats that we do. They are not outside of time – they share time with us, and share the world and climate with us too. And as we harm the global environment, we must remember the present, current peoples who will be most affected by the damage we inflict as the cost of the progress which we hold so dear. By framing them as geographically and chronologically other, we are removing ourselves from liability and responsibility to treat other human beings and the land they live on with respect, dignity, and restraint. We do not live better or later than them – merely differently.