An American missionary is presumed dead in New Delhi, India on November 2018 after being killed by the Sentinelese, a tribe in North Sentinel Island and one of the remaining isolated tribes in the world. The American, identified as a Christian missionary and EMT 27-year old John Allen Chau, paid a group of fishermen to smuggle him to North Sentinel Island with the intention of converting the tribespeople into Christians. Upon landing, the fishermen witnessed the tribe fire arrows. Based on the fishermen’s claims they saw the tribe dragging his body around, he was likely killed.
The island, a part of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, is protected by the Indian government. Authorities prohibit anyone from approaching the island any closer than three miles from the island. This is to protect the outsiders – since the Sentinelese are known to be hostile and have harmed and killed outsiders in the past – as well as the Sentinelese, who are pre-Neolithic indigenous people and are unvaccinated for viruses such as influenza or measles. However, the Indian government will not prosecute the people responsible for Chau’s death because contact with the island is illegal in order to maintain their indigenous way of life.
While Chau’s surviving relatives have already forgiven the person responsible for his death, and Chau was illegally trespassing in the first place, it opens the question about morality and the culture practiced. Most of modern civilization looks down on murder and calls for justice, but India will not do this on account that modern culture does not apply to the Sentinels’ own. Because they are uncontacted, they have their own civilization, and with it, their own set of culture and rules. And because they are protected and their way of life dictates that murder is okay, even for outsiders, they will not receive the same punishment a person in our civilization receives.
But should it really be that way?
Anthropology 101: An Etic Vs. Emic View on Culture
In terms of anthropology, sociology, and other social sciences, it’s not simply a matter of arguing that modern civilization’s culture is superior over the Sentinel’s pre-Neolithic culture because it’s more developed. We have to understand that these people live on an island isolated from the rest of the world and thus have built a civilization untouched by war or the developments in history that other countries have been in. We can look at it two ways: from an etic perspective and an emic perspective.
An etic view is that of an outsider looking in. It’s an American studying Southeast Asian culture, or a white person studying a person of color. We do not interact with the culture we’re observing to avoid altering the culture, and instead answer the questions from the perspective of outsiders.
The downside of observing it this way, however, is that we hold our own culture and beliefs and pin it against the other culture. The Yulin Dog Meat Festival in Guangxi, China, for example, raises outcries from people every year as the locals partake in eating dog meat. Westerners and people who see dogs as “man’s best friend” would be against this and call it a cruel and inhumane festival. However, if you’re in the perspective of someone from India, you could argue the festival is no different from our parties and cook-outs involving beef since cows are considered sacred in Indian culture. In another example, forcing minor girls to marry older men is practiced in some parts of Pakistan; in the United States, parents and adults can be reported simply by having a questionably intimate relationship with a minor. In these cases, the etic point of view could pit cultures against each other and questioning their way of life.
An emic view is an “insider’s perspective” on the culture. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a study of the culture you are in, but you will have to ingratiate yourself into the culture and partake in all their rituals to fully understand it. It’s a much more descriptive view because it’s full of culturally rich information you can get that isn’t clearly seen by an outsider.
However, studying your own culture may lead to biases in your observations. There may be practices in your culture that seem odd to other cultures. In the US, for example, women can wear jeans and a shirt without thinking twice about it and considering it to be a part of culture. However, in Saudi Arabia, women are required to cover up their whole bodies in a niqab in public.
Examining the Sentinelese
It may be difficult to study Sentinelese culture in an emic view given their hostility to outsiders. From the 1880s to 2006, all recorded attempts to contact the Sentinelese resulted in injury or death. However, the government has found basic information on their way of life such as their unique language system, their practices that haven’t evolved much since the Stone Age, their appearance, and their diet which, contrary to popular belief, isn’t cannibalism. And because we know so little about them, trying to understand where they’re coming from might be an inaccurate analysis because part of studying them will be guesswork, which will be influenced by your own culture.
On the other hand, an etic point of view is also difficult because this is a culture that has not changed for over hundreds, if not thousands of years. Everything about them – from the public nudity to the murder – goes against a lot of what we do. So, if we try to push our culture on them and hold them accountable for Chau’s murder, we’re forcing our system of justice onto their culture, which has not observed any other culture but theirs for the longest time.
Introducing the Sentinelese to the World
We know about the Sentinelese, but they don’t know the rest of the world exists. For all we know, their fear of outsiders is because they are an island surrounded by water for miles on each direction. To see a boat or helicopter with outsiders arriving on their area may already be similar if we saw aliens drop from the sky one day. So, would it be a good idea to continue trying to make contact and introduce them to modern civilization and teach them our ways? After all, what is the logical reason behind keeping a tribe in the dark when they have caused the deaths of multiple people already and, without modern medicine, are prone to diseases that modern civilization has spent centuries adapting to?
Best Left Alone
To suggest we destroy their culture, however, is to suggest that there is a better culture. The Sentinelese are not the only uncontacted people around the world. There are multiple reported tribes in South America, Southeast Asia, and unknown tribes in Central Africa. Perhaps the Indian government had the right idea by deciding to leave the Sentinelese as is. If no outsider tries to invade their territory, no one will get hurt.
And how we act on tribes like the Sentinelese will speak volumes when we look back and see our history of “manifesting destiny.” We’ve colonized and conquered and expanded, and look where’s that’s gotten both the colonizer and the colonized countries. Chau’s disregard for the policies placed on Sentinel Island is another footnote of a white man trying to impose his beliefs on a tribe whose culture he refused to accept and leave be.
While the Sentinelese continue to live on their island and practice what we see as outdated methods of civilization, we should respect their culture and leave them be. To do otherwise would not only be disrespectful to their culture by imposing ours, but it could be a dangerous and potentially fatal mission to try.