Sentinel Island: Why Sentinelese wish to remain isolated?

Known to be isolated and unwelcoming to outsiders, the tribesmen of the Sentinelese tribe have been in the news lately, after they reportedly killed and buried an American missionary John Allen Chau, who had gone to the islands to tell the remote tribe that "Jesus loves you".

The Indian police, who had gone to the islands to retrieve the body of the 27-year-old American on November 24, were forced to turn back from the off-limits island in North Sentinel after seeing the tribesmen on the beach armed with bows and arrows.

Why are the Sentinelese in news?

The Indian government’s regulations for the region forbid any sort of interaction with the Sentinelese, who are known to shoot arrows at outsiders.

John Allen Chau was reportedly shot by an arrow and buried on the beach on North Sentinel Island, after paying Indian fishermen to illegally take him to the island in the Andaman Sea.

The officials believe they have a general idea of where Chau's body is buried, because of information provided by fishermen who took the 27-year-old near the island on November 17.

The fishermen, who were paid $325 by Chau to take him close to the island, say that they saw the tribespeople drag Chau's body along the beach and bury his remains.

Seven people accused of helping Chau reach the island were arrested.

Who was John Chau?

Chau was a graduate of Oral Roberts University, a Christian college in Oklahoma. He was a Christian missionary and had previously visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2015 and 2016.

It's not clear whether his attempts to reach the Sentinelese tribe were part of a religious mission. However, in the diary entries left behind by him, he said he felt called to "declare Jesus to these people."

Background

According to a press release issued by Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Chau had enlisted the help of local electronics engineer Alexander and a water sports service provider and hired five fishermen to evade the police patrol teams, Coast Guard and Navy to approach the island. The local fishermen were reportedly paid around Rs 25,000 by Chau to help him reach the islands.

The statement reveals that Chau along with the fishermen reached near the islands around midnight of November 14 and the next day, he took off for the shore alone using a kayak that he had got towed with the fishing boat.

The fishermen reportedly saw the tribesmen and they also saw arrows hit Chau. Then, they saw the tribesmen dragging Chau’s body and burying it under the shore. The press release stated that in the morning of November 17, the fishermen saw a dead person being buried at the shore, which from the silhouette of the body, clothing and circumstances appeared to be that of Chau.

Subsequently, the fishermen returned to Port Blair and narrated the incident to Alexander, handing him the 13 pages of the journal written by Chau. Alexander then informed a friend of Chau in the US, who in turn informed his mother. His mother then informed the US consulate that finally alerted the police on November 19.

The Andaman Police took off for the island on November 24 in an attempt to retrieve the body, however, they were forced to turn back after they saw the tribesmen lined on the beach with bows and arrows.

What do we know about Sentinelese?

Who are the Sentinelese?

The Sentinelese tribe is one of the most isolated tribes in the world. The tribe, reported to be pre-Neolithic, rejects all contact with outsiders.

They wear no clothes, they are known to cover their bodies using leaves and wreaths fashioned out of plants.

Further, they have a relatively short stature, dark skin and hair that suggests that they may have migrated from the African subcontinent centuries ago.

What is their language?

The tribe reportedly has its own language. Their language was found to be incompatible with that of the neighboring islands.

According to Indian census documents, attempts to contact them with Jarawa, the language of nearby islands, have been unsuccessful.

How do they survive?

The surveys of the North Sentinel Island haven't found any evidence of agriculture. The community is assumed to be hunter-gatherers, getting food through fishing, hunting and collecting wild plants living on the island.

Where do they live?

They live on the North Sentinal Island, which is a part of the Andaman group of islands in the Indian Ocean.

The island is officially a part of the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, yet the government, recognising their desire to be left alone, considers the Sentinelese as a sovereign entity, meaning that they govern themselves and live according to their own rules.

The island is in effect a sovereign area under the protection of the Indian Government. The Indian navy regularly monitors the parameter of the island from afar.

What is the estimated population of the Sentinelese?

The Indian government doesn't include the Sentinelese in its census. However, the government has counted its residents based on photos taken from afar.

In the first census on the island, taken in 1991, the government estimated that around 117 people were living there. In 2011, the government counted 15 people.

Are all islands on Andaman so isolated?

The Andaman Islands are far from the coast of India and are home to the Andamanese, a group of various indigenous tribes that have historically been hunter-gatherers.

At this point in history, most of the groups that make up the Andamanese aren't as isolated from the rest of the world as the Sentinelese, which has maintained a reputation for keeping other groups away. Since its language appears to be incompatible with that of other Andamanese groups, it's isolated from them as well.

Are Sentinelese cannibals?

There were many reports in the past that suggested that the Sentinelese were cannibals but there was no evidence to either prove or deny the rumour.

However, in 2006, following the death of two Indian fishermen, the Indian government concluded that the tribe's group definitely does not practice cannibalism.

What do they eat?

The tribe reportedly hunts animals using bows and arrows and survives on mud crabs and seafood.

According to Welfare of Primitive Tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the tribe does not even know how to light the fire.

Attempts made to contact Sentinelese

British Colonisation

In the past couple of centuries, there have been a few recorded expeditions to North Sentinel Island.

In the late 1880s, British colonisers captured six Sentinelese people, an old couple and four children and took them to the main island of the Andaman Island archipelago.

The couple died soon after, possibly because of contact with diseases, while the four children were returned. They may also have been infected with illnesses that the Islanders' immune systems were unequipped to deal with.

It is believed that there were 8,000 islanders when the British tried to colonise them in the 18th century and now only 150 - 50 people are estimated to be alive.

Who was the first Indian to enter the Sentinel Island?

TN Pandit was the first anthropologist to enter the isolated Andaman island of North Sentinel, back in 1967. Pandit was in-charge of the regional centre of the Anthropological Survey of India in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The mission was a joint venture of the Anthropological Survey of India and the Andaman administration. The main objective of the mission was to explore the North Sentinel island and become friends with the tribe there.

The team included 20 members, which included anthropologists, local administrators, policemen and naval personnel. They took a small ship to reach the island.

The team was not met with any resistance upon their landing on the island. In fact, they were able to explore the island for around an hour. The team was able to locate the living area of the tribe, spotting the settlement of 18 huts, roasted fish and bows, arrows and spears, but they did not meet any of the tribe’s people.

Subsequently, the research team paid a series of visits to the North Sentinel Island. However, they faced resistance each time. Every time their boat reached the island, the tribesmen would make warning gestures, suggesting the team to turn back.

Over time, the team developed a strategy to interact with the tribe and from a distance, they started to give gifts such as coconuts, iron rods and utensils.

The gifts were well received, as both men and women used to come out and collect those gifts.

The first proper contact was made with the tribe in 1991 when the research team was able to hand over the gifts to the Sentinelese from their own hands. However, the tribe did not allow them to go inside the island.

Other Contact Attempts

1974: A team from the National Geographic team with the intent of shooting a documentary about the Sentinelese tried to approach the island, bearing gifts, which included coconuts, aluminium cookware, miniature toys, and a live pig. They were greeted with a shower of arrows and the pig was slaughtered and buried under the shore. The only gifts they took were the coconuts and the aluminium cookware.

Post-1990s: The tribe began allowing boats to come closer to the shore and would engage at times, in mildly friendly contact, accepting gifts and leaving their weapons behind. It was a breakthrough, although the tribe did not allow their foreign visitors to stay for long.

1991: Pandit visited the island again with his team and this time the tribe's people came unarmed to greet them, climbed into their dinghy and were curiously touching everything. It was a breakthrough, although the tribe did not allow their foreign visitors to stay for long.

1996: Indian government closed expeditions to the island, after the introduction of diseases to which their bodies were not immune had resulted in several deaths in a similar programme conducted with the Jarawas, another tribe in the Andamans. Post it, the tribe went back to its defensive ways.

2004: Surprisingly, the 2004 tsunami left the tribe unscathed and the helicopters that went to drop food packages three days after the disaster observed several of the tribe’s members on the beach. The tribe refused any aid that the helicopter attempted to provide and instead, attempted to attack it.

2006: Two fishermen who were illegally looking for mud crabs got a little too close to the island, which led to both of their deaths. The helicopter sent to retrieve the bodies was shot at with arrows. This was the first instance when someone was killed by the tribe before the American missionary, Chau.

Laws governing the Island

What is the law restricting people’s entry into the Islands?

Indian laws do not allow anyone to trespass their territory as the tribe, living without vaccines, is highly prone to catch diseases. Till recently, the North Sentinel Island came under India’s Restricted Area Permit (RAP) regime.

In June 2018, the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) was withdrawn from 29 islands, including the North Sentinel Island, which required foreigners to take special permission to visit them.

In November 2018, however, the Union Home ministry clarified that the relaxation of the prohibition was intended only to allow researchers and anthropologists, with pre-approved clearance, to visit the Sentinel islands, as it is protected under two other acts - protection of aboriginal people and forest acts.

Can the Sentinelese be punished for their acts of murder under the Indian law?

The Indian government treats the island as a sovereign region. They do not prosecute the Islanders for killing non- Sentinelese people.

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