On John Chau: North Sentinel Island and the secular sacred of uncontacted peoples
I was recently invited to comment on the tragic killing of John Allen Chau on North Sentinel Island RN Drive on Radio National. Chau was a missionary affiliated with All Nations in the United States. He was shot with arrows on the beach when he attempted, in his words, to bring Christianity to the inhabitants of the island who have often responded violently to the approach of any outsider.1
Not being very experienced with radio interviews (and maybe a little nervous) I thought my answers were a little stumbling. It was a great learning experience for me though, and I’m happy that Radio National chose to cover this story since it does create an opportunity to discuss the assumptions many people have about human cultural diversity, human history, and global Christianity. Of course I had an intense feeling of l’esprit de l’escalier immediately after I left the studio and thought of all the things I could have said had I prepared better for the interview. So here’s some further thoughts on the Chau incident.
The first question was actually the hardest: What’s the significance of the North Sentinel Island people? I think the people of North Sentinel Island are fascinating, and I think many people’s interest in this story comes from simple, genuine curiosity which I share, and I think is very valuable. The people of North Sentinel, who have spurned any contact with foreigners for some time, show us how different people can be, and that fundamentally there is no one single way of being human. Humans are by definition changeable and constantly changing. Learning this basic truth led me to become an anthropologist, and I am glad whenever people have an opportunity to grapple with the implications of it.
But when we focus on what makes the North Sentinel people different—treating them like aliens or animals rather than people who have the same cognitive capacities as any other person—we distort this situation. There is a tendency in the reporting and discussion of this story and other stories of so-called “uncontacted peoples” to treat remoteness as pristine isolation, and to then assume that this isolation is ancient, that is, to assume that people live in isolation because their ancestors arrived thousands of years ago and never budged. Uncontacted peoples are generally described as living fossils or, like other indigenous societies, “contemporary ancestors” of humanity (Chagnon 1983, 214). Their supposed isolation is thus is shorthand the idea that they exist frozen in amber, and that they are hence primitive.
In fact, the dominant pattern throughout human history is interaction across boundaries rather than isolation (Terrell 1988). The Andaman Islands were settled 26,000 years ago, and I believe that it is fair to assume that this was a result of interactions within a region which continued as people settled in new areas. British colonialism in India and Southeast Asia did not, as colonialists themselves believed, break through the barriers between people. Rather it changed the grounds on which people related to outsiders and neighbors, making new connections while severing others. The very first European contacts with the people of the Andaman Islands, including North Sentinel, involved turning indigenous people into exhibits in a (photographic) human zoo (S. Sen 2009). Colonial and then Indian government pacification campaigns throughout the Andamans led ultimately to the creation of “tribal reserves” for North Sentinel and several other groups (U. Sen 2017). Until recently, one could even travel through the tribal reserve for Jarawa people on South Andaman, 50 kilometers to the east of North Sentinel, but would be cautioned against giving food or clothing, having any interactions with people, or even stepping off of the road (Falzon 2000). North Sentinel is a small island and South Andaman is occupied by settlers and indigenous people, but in both cases the isolation is not natural or primordial. Imposing isolation is one of the main ways that more powerful cultures have asserted their domination of indigenous people of this region.
In that sense, as strange as Chau’s actions may seem to secular metropolitans in Australia and the United States, he was operating with the same fallacy of human diversity and human history that the mainstream media does. Christianity, as a global religion, is characterized by a desire to remake the world. In order to fulfill the great commission to make disciples of all nations, Christians must relate to people in other nations, but see in these nations a lack or a deficiency that they believe they can correct. For example, the Australian Methodist church established its first mission in colonial New Guinea at the close of the blackbirding period in Queensland in the 1890s. For the Methodists, Dobu island off the eastern tip of New Guinea was their own version of North Sentinel. While it was never considered to be truly isolated, the Dobu people were viewed through the same stereotype of the primitive. They assumed that Dobu people were inveterate cannibals because they were uncontacted by white civilization. This was why the Methodists wanted to go there. They believed that they would be entering virgin territory, and could thus bring about genuine and lasting religious conversions among people who had not yet been corrupted by civilization. In fact, Dobu people and many people of this region had been recruited to work in Queensland, and many had returned with some knowledge of English and Christianity by the time the missionaries arrived. Although the missionaries had their own Lost World fantasy, their own presence (and their eventual success) depended on meeting people who already had a clear idea of Australians, whom they called dimdim, and missionaries, whose religion they called taparoro (Schram 2016). Missionaries had to wilfully ignore the glaring facts interaction and interconnections across cultures in order to establish the terms on which they would relate to Dobu people.
Here is where, I think, the story gets more interesting. In its response to the incident, Chau’s church All Nations called his death a “sacrifice.” In much of the coverage of the Chau incident, he is treated at best as a humorous oddity if not a villain. An article on the web site of the Australian public broadcaster ABC states for instance that Chau’s religion gave him a “white savior complex,” both pathologizing him and linking him to the history of colonial Christian missions. The reaction to one person’s own moral project is thus also voiced in moral terms. We are dealing with a conflict between rival conceptions of the sacred. On the one hand, All Nations believes that bringing Christianity to the world is sacred work. On the other, the North Sentinel people’s isolation is sacred to the opponents of missionary work. North Sentinel people should be protected from contact and left in isolation because their isolation makes them pure. Here too isolation works as a symbol of primitive innocence. This presumed innocence is what drew Chau to North Sentinel in the first place. While they draw different lessons, both sides operate with the same mistaken view of North Sentinel people’s otherness.
Survival International, which is perhaps the leading advocate for what it calls “uncontacted tribes,” rejects the sensationalism and stereotypes of primitive cultures that often surround the media coverage of remote communities, but it also feeds into a more pernicious belief that uncontacted people’s lack of contact is what should be preserved. Yet it is not contact that threatens the lives of indigenous peoples of the Amazon, it’s violence. Survival International’s name itself underscores that the ultimate priority should be the preservation of people’s culture as a fixed pattern of life. Contact is dangerous because it will lead to disruption of this pattern. Missionaries by contrast value contact. Missionaries seek contact with non-Christians, and hope ultimately that this contact will lead to contact between an individual and God. Thus the Chau incident brings to light a fundamental conflict of values.
It also poses a true ethical dilemma for a global and yet always multicultural community. There are compelling reasons to believe that people need to be part of a coherent cultural order, and when various forms of cultural domination rob people of the capacity to find meaning and value in their own lives, they can experience a trauma which is as deep and lasting as physical injury (Gone 2013). At the same time, boxing people into cultures as self-enclosed wholes is potentially just as harmful because it assumes that these cultures cannot change or adapt. More importantly, a world in which people are simply bearers of their culture is one which must be ruled by an anthropologist-king whose expertise as an observer determines who can speak and act politically and in what ways. This is a job I don’t want and shouldn’t have. No rational mind exists that can define the extent of cultural diversity because this diversity is always changing and creatively responding to changes.
Ultimately, the secular, modern commitment to cultural preservation is a narrow way of framing human cultural diversity that avoids the questions it raises. There may be sound reasons for protecting North Sentinel people from contact with people like Chau and the rest of the world, most likely that they would introduce a flu epidemic. Nonetheless perhaps we fear contact between North Sentinel people and the world, and demonize the people who do not share this fear, because we worry that history will repeat itself. Maybe it will, but it is not inevitable that contact must result in domination. Our challenge as a global community is to discover the way that people can relate to each other and learn from each other on truly equal terms.
Chagnon, Napolean. 1983. Ya̦nomamö: The Fierce People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=MPArAAAAYAAJ.
Falzon, Mark-Anthony. 2000. “A Brief Note on an Encounter with the Andaman Islanders.” Cambridge Anthropology 22 (2): 70–76. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23818785.
Gone, Joseph P. 2013. “Redressing First Nations Historical Trauma: Theorizing Mechanisms for Indigenous Culture as Mental Health Treatment.” Transcultural Psychiatry 50 (5): 683–706. doi:10.1177/1363461513487669.
Schram, Ryan. 2016. “‘Tapwaroro Is True’: Indigenous Voice and the Heteroglossia of Methodist Missionary Translation in British New Guinea.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 26 (3): 259–77. doi:10.1111/jola.12138.
Sen, Satadru. 2009. “Savage Bodies, Civilized Pleasures: M. V. Portman and the Andamanese.” American Ethnologist 36 (2): 364–79. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1425.2009.01140.x.
Sen, Uditi. 2017. “Developing Terra Nullius: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Indigeneity in the Andaman Islands.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59 (04): 944–73. doi:10.1017/S0010417517000330.
Terrell, John. 1988. “History as a Family Tree, History as an Entangled Bank: Constructing Images and Interpretations of Prehistory in the South Pacific.” Antiquity 62 (237): 642–57. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00075049.
This New York Times article describes his background based on interviews with his friends and families.↩︎