Earlier this week a missionary from the United States, John Allen Chau, decided to take his “work” to a remote island off the coast of Myanmar. North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman Islands, is home to the only remaining undisturbed tribe in the world. Indian law forbids individuals from visiting the island due to a history of hostile and violent exchanges with the Sentinelese. His attempt to bring Jesus’ love to the tribe ended by the tribe killing him. Organizations dedicated to protecting the tribe are now concerned John’s contact with the tribe may lead to their extinction.
For more than 60,000 years, anthropologists believe the Sentinelese have inhabited the island of North Sentinel. Because of limited contact with the tribe, very little is known about their culture and language.
According to Survival International, North Sentinel is the size of Manhattan. Most information gathered about the tribe has been by observations from boats moored near the shore.
Other information obtained about the group came during a rare friendly exchange with the tribe in the 1990s. The Sentinelese allowed Indian authorities to get close enough to the shore to hand them coconuts.
From these observations, the Indian government learned a little about the group. The Sentinelese live on an island densely populated by forest and brush. Due to the landscape, the tribe does not grow their food. Instead, they appear to live off forest vegetation, hunt, and fish in coastal waters.
Authorities believe the Sentinelese live in communal huts with space for multiple families. Indian officials have also noted small temporary shelters near the coast with no sides. The little structures are large enough for one family.
For the most part, the Sentinelese wear no clothing. Men wear headbands, necklaces, and wide waist belts. Men carry arrows, bows, and metal tipped spears. Women wear fiber strings tied around their heads, necks, and waists.
Observers say that the tribe appears strong, healthy, and proud from a distance. The men are lean and muscular. On one visit, authorities noted the saw many pregnant women and children.
According to reports, the Sentinelese language is part of the Andamanese language family. Initially, authorities assumed their language was similar to the Onge language of the nearby Jarawa tribe.
However, on two documented trips to the island, authorities brought Onge-speaking individuals with them hoping to be able to communicate with the tribe. Unfortunately, the tribe did not understand the Onge language and communication between the groups was not possible.
For years officials from Britain and India have attempted to contact the tribe. However, the tribe is hostile and defensive when anyone tries to make contact with them. The group made international headlines in 2004 after an Asian Tsunami.
Following the tsunami, the Indian government flew a helicopter over the island to determine if the tribe needed assistance. The tribe greeted them by shooting arrows at the helicopter and forced the aircraft to fly away.
Over the past three hundred years, the Sentinelese consistently resist outside contact. Due to their unwillingness to engage with the outside world, the Indian government decided to abandon efforts to engage with the people.
Due to the island location of the Sentinelese, the isolation makes them unique to all other tribes in the world. No other people live on the island but the Sentinelese. They know nothing about electricity, the internet, or the global economy. While the world around them continues to modernize, the Sentinelese remain content in their way of life.
Tribal organizations protect the group. Over the years, the tribe numbers have diminished considerably. Authorities believe less than 50 Sentinelese are remaining on the island.
Because of their isolation, the tribe does not carry immunity to viruses common in the modern world. Illnesses like influenza could easily wipe out the entire population. For this reason, the Indian government and tribal groups protect the Sentinelese from exposure. No one is permitted to go within five nautical miles of the island to ensure the Sentinelese remain unexposed to unfamiliar pathogens.
While many remain outraged at the death of John Chau, individuals tasked with protecting the tribe are outraged by Chau’s contact with the group. Survival International released a statement about the risk Chau’s visit imposed on the tribe.
In the statement on their website, Director Stephen Corry stated:
“This tragedy should never have been allowed to happen. The Indian authorities should have been enforcing the protection of the Sentinelese and their island for the safety of both the tribe, and outsiders.
“Instead, a few months ago the authorities lifted one of the restrictions that had been protecting the Sentinelese tribe’s island from foreign tourists, which sent exactly the wrong message, and may have contributed to this terrible event.
“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.
” Uncontacted tribes must have their lands properly protected. They’re the most vulnerable peoples on the planet. Whole populations are being wiped out by violence from outsiders who steal their land and resources, and by diseases like the flu and measles to which they have no resistance.
Chau’s mission to spread the word of Jesus was selfish and self-serving. According to notes he left with the fishermen that took him to the island, he understood the risks and dangers of going to the island. He wrote they sailed to the island at night to avoid detection by the Coast Guard.
Chau completely negated all laws set up to protect these people from extinction.
In notes obtained by CNN from the fisherman, Chau wrote, “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”
Friends interviewed by reporters said Chau knew that laws prohibited his mission to the island. He knew the history of the violent contact between the Sentinelese and outsiders.
In the face of all that information, he still made the irresponsible choice to contact with the Sentinelese.
While his friends and Christians are hailing his death as a martyrdom for Christianity, I believe his death by the Sentinelese was justified and expected. The tribe doesn’t know the language Chau speaks, and the group has no way of understanding his intentions.
Even though Chau wrote in his journal, “I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you, and Jesus loves you,'” the Sentinelese cannot decipher a message of love from one that is threatening.
To the Sentinelese, Chau represented a person attempting in infiltrate and steal their resources. Of course, they would defend their land by killing off the threat Chau imposed on them.
The Sentinelese acted precisely how they have for hundreds of years. They protected their land, their culture, and their existence by killing Chau.
Perhaps our biggest concern in this story should not be to remember Chau’s legacy, but rather, we should be most concerned if Chau infected the tribe with deadly pathogens.
If Chau’s contact infects and kills the Sentinelese, he is not a martyr for Christianity.
No, Chau’s legacy will be that of a man that enabled the genocide of a tribe. A genocide started by Chau because he wanted to rid a fictitious “satan” from an island.
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