Death of American missionary sparks controversy

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The death of John Chau, an American self-styled missionary, at the hands of the Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman Islands has shone a spotlight on one of the last completely isolated groups of people. The Sentinelese arrived on the islands 35,000 years ago, and are believed to be descendants of the earliest humans to migrate out of the African continent. Chau tried approaching the tribe twice after bribing fishermen to transport him to the North Sentinelese Island in the Andaman Islands: once on Nov. 14, when tribe members had warned him away, and the last time on Nov. 16, when he did not heed warnings and was shot by an arrow. Calls then began to “modernize” the tribe, to punish those responsible for the death of Chau, and also to integrate the Sentinelese into the mainstream.

Chau had broken laws that protected the Sentinelese. The laws were put in place because the tribe members have been isolated for so long that their immune system does not protect them from common diseases that affect so many of us. Diseases like the smallpox, measles, typhoid, and cholera were all brought to North America by European settlers. The Native American people, whose immune system had never faced such diseases and hence weren't protected from them, died in huge numbers when epidemics struck them. Even today, Native Americans continue to struggle with particular diseases. If the Sentinelese are exposed to a disease as simple as a common cold, there is a great danger of them being wiped out. “God, I don’t want to die,” Chau had written before his tragic death, but he was risking the lives of those in the tribe by even approaching them.

As for the calls to “modernize” the Sentinelese, isn’t it our ethical duty to take into consideration the fact that the Sentinelese have repeatedly expressed that they do not wish to contact outsiders? Although most consider the Sentinelese as primitive and deprived as they do not enjoy the material conveniences and benefits that we do, anthropologist Dr. TN Pandit, who had successfully made contact with isolated tribes like Onge and Jarawa in the Andaman Islands back in the 1970s and 90s, disagrees. “Social mores are such that an individual knows that when he commits a wrong, he has to punish himself. There is no tribal chief or council to enforce anything. The community indicates its disapproval by not looking at him, not talking to him. If food is in short supply, they will share. If there is plenty, they will feast. Selfishness is unknown. The clan follows monogamy and close relatives do not marry each other,” explained Pandit, about the tribe’s societal structure and way of living.

The Sentinelese also do not attack outsiders immediately. They show warning signs through facial expressions, knives, arrows, and bows. And if one does not heed the warning, they consider it a disrespect and then take action. Chau’s death was regrettable and tragic, but experts opine that had he heeded the tribe’s warning, he would still be alive.

Several people, in comments on social media, described the Sentinelese people as savages due to them not wearing clothes. Pandit explained, “The absence of attire does not mean anything to them. They believe that the body is nature’s gift and should be treated with respect.”

Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, observes that "human societies, at least the more advanced cultures, have rarely offered the individual anything but imperialism, racism, and ethnocentrism to deal with ‘other’ cultures.” Chau had written in one of his last journal entries: “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” He was denouncing the island’s people without knowing, or wanting to know, what their culture is; his focus was on spreading his own culture and religion. He was imposing his “superiority” over them, despite his ignorance of the Sentinelese’s faith. In fact, the Sentinelese, like most Andaman tribes, are animists. They worship nature: the sky and the sea.

In 1991, Madhumala Chattopadhyay was the only woman in the team of anthropologists that had, for the first and last time, made friendly hand-to-hand contact with the Sentinelese before the Indian government imposed restrictions in 1993 that prohibited contact with them. Reflecting on her visit to the island, she said “you feel that you are there to study, but actually, they are the ones who study you. You are foreign in their lands.”

The Sentinelese are the last people left of an ancient culture that has been untouched by the violence and conflict that predominantly defines our “mainstream” history and culture. And we should celebrate these people who continue to live and preserve their culture without any outside help. We have breathed the same air and peacefully coexisted with them for centuries, and we should leave them alone if for no other other reason than that contacting them will most likely result in their deaths.