Friday, August 26, 2011

I will never meet the Sentinelese (repost)

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.


Samuel (es2007s) grp 3 said...

Hello Mr Blackstone,

I've never heard of the Sentinelese or even their island haha. Anyway I'm gonna dive straight into my thoughts of your post.

Culture is a big part of our lives, as evidenced from the government's efforts to preserve our historical roots. Not just in India but in almost every country will the government set aside areas that they view as cultural heritages. Yet, people like the Sentinelese who exist in their own world cannot acknowledge such efforts, considering that they don't even know they are considered "endangered", for lack of a better word. Civilisation has its flaws, as shown in the forced social evolution of the indigenous people that history has in its books. Who can say if one should leave development alone, or race ahead to becoming a global player?

Enough about the topic. I love the way you use imagery in your writing, especially the part of "dangerous aliens who merit a response of finely-crafted iron-tipped arrows". It invokes such strong images in the reader's mind that the reader can't help but get caught up in the action of the passage. Brilliant.

After reading this, I also would dearly like to visit that lush scenic island one day, if the government ever allows, at one's own peril of course. But you're right, maybe it is best that we leave it alone, lest we destroy something as yet undefiled by the world at large.

Christopher Tiong said...

Hi Brad,

Your post is truly informative. Before reading your post, I never expected any government to protect the world from native tribal groups. Because these tribal groups can provide a good boost to one's tourism industry.

If only more of such tribal groups are spared from Modernization, our world would be so much more diverse.

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noelle said...

Hi Brad,

Sorry to hear that your dreams of visiting the Islands may never be realised because of the protection of these tribes! Though for me, I am actually quite pleased for it to stay that way, heh!

While the culture and way of the Adamanese is really rich and interesting (with so much significance attached to every detail of their customs and practices), I don't think I would like a close encounter with them! For one, I can't bear the thought of witnessing a scarification ceremony..

On another note, I doubt these tribes have ever thought about cross-cultural interaction. After all, I don't think they see a need to! Thus integrating these 'primative' groups to the more 'civilised' society, for what ever the reasons, by the government or any social groups, will be a great challenge. Effective communication, like hands, takes two to clap.

Ramanan said...

I remember growing up to stories about savages and cannibals inhabiting the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Sad to say, much of the popular media then, didn't do much to dispel this misrepresentation. It was only after my introduction to the world of the internet, that I could navigate my way through the facts and fiction that surround these people.

Looking at the case of the indigenous people of the Americas, the data shows us that a huge portion of the tribal people had fallen prey to 'European' epidemics like measles and smallpox, against which they had no natural immunity. Between one-half and two-thirds of the population had died within the first 100 years following European contact.

If we seek to establish contact with the Sentinelese, we might be wounded by their arrows. The wounds we effect on the Sentinelese, I fear, would lead to much more disastrous consequences.

Considering at-least this aspect, I have to side with the government's stance of not pursuing further contact with the Sentinelese. Lastly, you might find this article interesting, on how far Brazil has gone to protect it's Amazonian man. (

Brad Blackstone said...

Thanks, guys, for the thoughts and insights. As you've surmised, I support the Indian government's stand on protecting the Sentinelese.

Michael said...

Hi Brad,
I never heard the Sentinelese before.
After reading the post, I feel that we should spare no effort to keep the diversity of culture. Culture is a reflection of history of the nation.But I am a little bit worried about the Sentinelese. Will they survive a thousand years later? Their could not be any gene exchange with the outside world under such close circumstance.
I hope the uniqueness of the Sentinelese can be maintained forever.

Matthew Gaylard said...

Mr Blackstone,

Regarding the benefits of modern healthcare - in all the video footage of the Sentinelese that is available, it appears that they are singularly fit and healthy. Can one say the same about your average suburbanite, modern healthcare notwithstanding?