by Mekalyn Rose
Editor in Chief
A few years ago, I found myself in the middle of the Mekong River headed for the remote village of Ban Pak Nguey in Northern Laos. For seven hours, I meandered on a long wooden boat decked with chairs from old minivans, slipping deeper into a rugged landscape softened by silky waters and the envelopment of a milky red smog—the byproduct of slashing and burning the fields that time of year. Meanwhile, fishermen in long canoes with hand-held motors propelled effortlessly past our slow-moving mass.
Beliefs in animism are widespread among the Laotians, where spirits are ascribed to both animate and inanimate objects. Besides the wild cows grazing on sandy banks and restless birds braving air choked with ash, whatever spirits resided in the land itself appeared deep in slumber. Around midday, the boat came to a halt. Several women bathed on the banks while washing their clothes, and a group of men rushed to secure the boat on the river side. Here the river was the road—the slow rolling belt by which the villages obtained supplies.
It was an overnight stay with games taught by laughing children, homemade rice-filled banana leaves and rice whiskey, and an enchanting Baci ceremony. Looking back, it’s easy to recognize that this is an exceedingly uncommon experience, as the grip of the modern age has encapsulated every inch of land within a label, impaled most soil with tall telephone lines, and done away with most primitive living. Even in Laos, where there remains an estimated two hundred ethnic groups, tribes limited in contact with the outside world are at further risk of cultural and geographical toe-curling to make room for infrastructure such as the current high-speed railway project connecting mainland Southeast Asia to China, set to displace over four thousand families.
In other regions of the world—notably the Amazon of Brazil, New Guinea, and the Andaman Islands off the coast of India and Myanmar—there are still isolated groups of people representing the tail-end of an ancient and uninterrupted lineage where the idea of a homestay is both unheard of and dangerous to all parties. Where the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island in the Andamans are concerned, attempted contact is even prohibited by law, which is why a recent attempt made by a young Christian missionary has sparked widespread controversy and rekindled the debate over the ethics of tribal contact.
In November of 2018, an American man named John Allen Chau paid several fishermen to transport him to North Sentinel Island with the desire to convert “one of the most isolated hunter-gatherer tribes in the world.” As the sole inhabitants of the island with a presumed population of “no more than a few hundred,” the Sentinelese are “deft archers” and notoriously hostile toward any encroachment on their shores. Needless to say, Chau’s solo mission cost him his life, and to this day—despite efforts by the Indian government—his body remains unclaimed.
This is not the first time contact has been attempted with the tribes of the Andaman Island chain. In the 1960s, an anthropologist by the name of T.N. Bandit and his colleagues ventured to the archipelago to gain greater insight into its inhabitants, all while recognizant of previous failings of indigenous contact in Australia and the United States. Some of the tribes, such as the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island, lived in greater isolation than others and Bandit’s “gift dropping” expeditions to deliver coconuts and bananas produced tentative and distrustful relations with the Sentinelese. However, relations with the Jarawa tribe gradually progressed and what at first appeared to be a positive reconciliation between the modern and the primitive eventually veered toward insidious patterns of dependence leading to cultural destruction.
“What an amazing community, but it has been diluted in its outlook, its self-confidence, its sense of purpose, its sense of survival. Now they take it easy. They beg for things.”
Abandoning hunting and gathering practices, stealing food, crude and disrespectful interactions between tribal members and tourists, and intergroup breeding ensued. As a result, “gift-giving expeditions” were halted in 1996 and around the world, “no-contact” policies were being implemented to protect indigenous communities.
Maintaining this distance has been far from easy. In 2015, the murder of a mixed-race baby born to a Jarawa woman gave way to an investigation fraught with complications. In the case that Jarawas are found wandering in the local villages, policies have been “to send the Jarawas back into the 300 square miles of forest that has been set aside for the tribe” in the effort to minimize contact. However, the prospect of trying a Jarawa man for murder was treading new territory, especially when the Jarawa tradition condones killing babies born to outsiders. Attempts to locate the baby were met with resistance due to tribal tradition dictating that “bodies should be left for months, until dry bones can be retrieved,” and elders confused by the request to locate the remains claimed that “the baby was no longer in that place, but had joined his ancestors in another place.” Some argue that the Jarawas are not above the law, while others claim we have no place within the dealings of their own tribe.
John’s death has raised new concerns about the safety of the tribe who has lived on North Sentinel Island for tens of thousands of years and whose language and customs are still shrouded in secrecy. It brings up important questions about the morality and viability of coalescing the past with the present, as opposed to maintaining the innocence of primitive groups of people in a rapidly expanding and consumerist world.
Clashing Beliefs on Indigenous Contact
While it remains a complicated issue, there are essentially two sides to this debate: no contact versus controlled integration. The group Survival International, a non-profit organization founded in 1969, has made it their mission to protect indigenous groups from further contact and their lands from exploitation, ensuring that these people are given a voice and the freedom to craft their own future. In unison with U.N. policies and human rights groups in Brazil and Peru, their platform is based on the “no-contact” argument, one that has been supported by many indigenous peoples post-contact. London resident Nixiwaka Yawanawa—a member of the isolated Amazonian Yawanawa tribe—“opposes controlled contact,” noting, “We almost lost our spirituality, our culture, our identity, because of the Western influence. And we are still battling the effects of materialism, disease, and separation.”
Claims and anthropological observations that many indigenous groups in the Amazon are dwindling in numbers and struggling to survive have faced rebuttals by Survival International, who argue these tribes are actually thriving and any efforts toward reintegration “play straight into the hands of those who want to open Amazonia up for resource extraction and ‘investment.’”
Disease is another enormous concern linked to contact, the effects of which have been echoed throughout history with devastating consequences. Rob Walker, who studies Amazonian cultures as an anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of Missouri, notes that between 1875 and 2008 “117 epidemics claimed the lives of more than 11,000 members of indigenous Amazon societies” and the “estimated 100 or so uncontacted and isolated tribes of today would have little or no immunity.”
However, it is for this reason—in conjunction with the inevitable penetration of native lands due to illegal activities—that Walker challenges the “no-contact” stance and believes increased efforts to safely integrate indigenous groups into modern society is the most protective and responsible solution. Survival International offers an attractive ideal, but Walker questions their motives. Is the goal to protect people or culture? “No-contact” acts as a game of chicken, but assumes the future will veer on alternative tracks. Meanwhile, “miners, loggers, and hunters” exploit land and resources, drug runners continue to murder indigenous peoples, and decreased environmental coverage increases exposure to further contact on all sides. Walker claims,
“Here you have these groups that may be going extinct because we are leaving them alone—but we’re not really leaving them alone, are we? We’ve got loggers and miners that are out there massacring these people, and we can’t help them…. And if they do go extinct, here we just sat back and watched these people die out.”
Still, the risks associated with controlled contact are significant, and there have been many failed attempts by the government and missions. There have also been many successful attempts, and this is largely due to intensive planning and preparation that include “sustained, around-the-clock medical treatment” and food.
It’s a tricky ethical question and one that by no means offers simple solutions. Walker argues every situation is different and any group that is prospering should be left alone. Perhaps the answer also lies in geography. The Sentinelese of the Andaman Islands—isolated, water locked, resistant, and who have proven capable of defending themselves—make “no-contact” policies appear reasonable to implement. As for the estimated one hundred uncontacted tribes living in the Amazon, exposed and vulnerable to external forces, the answer becomes much more complicated. Either way, there are valid concerns that the living relics of our past are inevitably bound to disintegrate as the mechanical engine of the modern day grinds forward into the shadows, uprooting the old for the new.