Friday, August 27, 2010

I will never meet the Sentinelese

Have you ever imagined taking a sailing trip through the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal? I have. And though I hear the scuba diving is excellent and the sunsets are spectacular, my greatest interest is not in the water or on the horizon but for the little known island of North Sentinel. What would it be like to step ashore, I've wondered.

Welcome to a version of the Stone Age, where sure death is the answer. For on that tropical islet, among lush vegetation and behind a ring of white sandy beaches, resides a group of people for whom outsiders are unwelcome, and time has stood still --- meet the legendary Sentinelese.

In visiting North Sentinel, one has to move cautiously. In an article on the website AtlasObscura, it is reported that two fishermen who made the mistake of illegally casting their lines within the shadow of the island were killed in a barrage of arrows. Even the helicopter sent to retrieve the bodies nearly fell prey to the tribesmen's expert shots.

No, the Sentinelese don't take to strangers, and for that and other reasons, their idyllic speck of real estate has been declared off limits by the Indian government, which oversees the area --- and that has been the saving grace of their society and culture.

When we talk about culture, I like the definition set forth by Lederach (1995) in the book Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures: "Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them" (p. 9). 

The social reality for the Sentinelese, we might surmise, is one in which the idea of in group and out group is very strong. If you are one of us, you look like we do, you act like we do, you speak like we do, and you live in the lean-to next door --- then you're safe. If you don't fulfill those criteria --- you are a danger for us, and if you get too close, you will die.

The Sentinelese "perception" of outsiders as dangerous aliens who merit a response of finely-crafted iron-tipped arrows has been corroborated by the experience of other islanders in the Andamans. Without the protection of the Indian government, the Jarawa, the Onde and others have been individually and collectively exploited, their social universes broken apart in much the same way as those of the native Americans from the 17th through 19th centuries: men forced into working as cheap laborers, women conscripted into the invaders' kitchens and beds, and children stripped of their sense of identity as the tsunami of outside influences rushes in.  

There are different perspectives, of course, on what action a government can and should take in this case. Some would argue that it is better for the inevitable to happen, that the assimilation/integration of "primitive" groups to the dominant, more "civilized" society is social evolution, a necessary stage in historical development, and the sooner the better. That argument gains strength when one considers, for example, the advantages of giving these people access to modern health care. 

Still, as the experience of the Penan in East Malaysia and countless other tribal groups from Borneo to West Papua shows us, forced assimilation -- with reneged upon promises of health care, housing and formal education -- can come at a high price: thwarted expectations, dire new living conditions and cultures in decay.

So India's current policy of enforced protection of the isolation of the Sentinelese stands, and my dream of visiting their island will never be realized. Good for them.

For more information on the culture of various tribes in the Andaman Islands, see this link.


Rohan Rajiv said...

Interesting. I didn't know this. Thank you for sharing!

Is this an exercise for your students to comment on though? Am I interrupting.. ? :D

Brad Blackstone said...

You could never interrupt, Rohan. Your comments are always welcome!

Yong Feng said...

Personally, I think these people should be left alone to live their own lives. Their lifestyles might be perceived by the rest of the world to be deviant, but they are not posing any threat to the other 6 billion people on Earth (apart from their deadly arrows).

Nanhai said...
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Nanhai said...

Mr. Brad, I am surprised yet delighted that your favorite definition of culture is what I also like best. Perhaps that's why you elaborated a lot on this definition during the class.

My personal opinion towards the tribe in Andaman Island is that we'd better not interrupt them as we want.We may want to give them modern health care, however, they may never need that. Their Stone-age lifestyle has its own way of doing things. They have been getting used to that for a very long time and we'd better leave them alone.

Sylvester Lee said...
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Sylvester Lee said...
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Sylvester Lee said...

Hi Brad,

This is a interesting article about the Sentinelese. You have brought up the topic of culture during our last tutorial session on Thursday and related the idea of culture to this exclusive group of inhabitants that lived in the Andaman Islands. I was indeed intrigued by the fact that this group originally had about 200 clansmen before the impact of the Asian tsunami and the number still remained the same after the lash of the tidal wave. I was thinking to myself at that point of time: "WOAH.. this group of people are truly impressive!"

So much so for being inhabitants of the island and being around since the Stone Age Period, I think these people should be left alone.

In my opinion, if we were to intrude and popularise our culture, the sense of uniqueness in the culture no longer holds. There would be no sense of identity being fostered within the group. This is a common phenomenon in other countries due to the impact of globalisation.

Not only the sense of identity being affected, their livelihood would also be affected. The situation would be somewhat similar to the analogy where an animal is introduced into the wild after staying captive for a long period of time. The animal would thus be left to fend for itself and would be struggling to survive.

Thus I feel that this group of people should not be disturbed now and for the coming years again :p

Elgin said...

I do share your interest in knowing more about this group of people, but just like you, my sense of adventure has not exceed my value of life. Although they may seem to be hostile to others whom they see as dangerous, they have a united society. They stand together to defend their precious island. Nevertheless, the same need still remains, that they want to protect their culture and society. Not much different from our modern society, but if there is a chance to have some communication with them, maybe there will be a chance that mutual understandings can be built.

yl said...

This is really just a random comment. I was reminded of the Na'vi tribe in Avatar, except that they are even better--they exist! Apparently it was reported that there were people who went into depression in realization that the planet Pandora was fictional.

On a side note, I read with interest about the significance of colours for their various cultural activities. It is just so fascinating how such information can be obtained to such detail about the tribes. Thanks for this eyeopening read!


$W?h0w$ said...

Hi Brad, building up on Nanhai's comment, the world may want to introduce, for example, modern health care, to the tribe, but what we offer may be harmful to them. (For example, when Captain James Cook arrived in Hawaii, the number of native Hawaiians was in the hundreds of thousands. Over the next century, this number decreased to a few tens of thousands.) Our presence alone may introduce diseases that will wipe out the population on the island.

Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks to all of you for your insightful comments.

Riyan said...

I also believe these people should be given their own privacy and not be interferred by others. Still, I wonder how will the world respond to them if they encounter any catastrophic disasters (eg. a tsunami) that threaten to wipe out their existence.

Vinod said...

Wow Brad this really is an eye opener. A tribe reminiscent of those in the Stone Ages living right alongside us. Well maybe not in such close proximity. The support of the Indian government is an added element of surprise, a pleasant one.

The popular opinion seems to revolve around us not intruding their privacy; leave them as they be. I certainly respect this opinion and I can see their reasons and intentions behind them. In all honesty though, that wasn't my first impression after reading through it the first time. In fact it was totally opposite. There's so much of mystery and intrigue involved behind it one can't help but wonder just what goes on in their way of life. As mentioned in the article it looks like a case of curiosity killed the cat(almost literally) every time someone pried.

There's a case for type of intentions behind the prying. For good or bad, for one's material gains or educational gain? The latter surely deserves a crack at it, I reckon. How? Beyond me actually. Maybe going back to yl's comments about Avatar we could adopt something similar like Jake 'turning' into one of them before being allowed to mingle with their kind? In cognito's the way to go. Or maybe it's just pure wishful thinking on my part :D

Anonymous said...

it's a good thing the ss minnow wasn't marooned there.

Brent said...

Your information about the 'fishermen'is factually incorrect. They were poachers, they got drunk, driftd to shore an were beaten with adzes not killed with arrows. Your second photo is not of the Sentinelese people but others from the Andaman Islands.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I did a search on this group after seeing a story on the Weather Channel website of places you'll never be able to visit.

I think it's amazing that there is still a society left that hasn't been polluted by advanced civilizations and I hope it remains that way. Any contact could bring disease which could wipe out the entire group. Not only that, but the trade off for health care isn't that great.

They'd have to turn into a group that uses money which means working. Their civilization is just fine without it.