“Contact may be dangerous, but so is no contact”

Sentinel Island

There were strong reactions when news first emerged about John Allen Chau, the missionary killed by the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island.  We have done several posts about the story.  Read them here.

As we learn more about Chau and the humans who inhabit North Sentinel Island the stories are becoming more nuanced.  For example, here is a taste Jeffrey Gettleman’s piece at The New York Times:

“There is no question that this attempt to make contact was totally wrong and a major violation of their human rights to autonomy,” he said. “Outsiders need to respect their wishes and treat them with dignity as fellow human beings. Respect means we don’t assume to know better how they should live.”

To me that is the operative question. How do they want to live? Can outsiders presume they don’t want contact without communicating with them? Where does their hostility come from? Maybe it’s from an old grudge (in the 19th century, a young British naval officer kidnapped a few of the islanders and some soon died). Maybe it’s from superstition or something else.

Kim Hill, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, thinks total isolation on a tropical island is a bit of a fantasy anyway. He said that it’s “unwise and inhumane to forcibly keep these groups isolated by building protective fences around them.”

First, if a population gets too small and isolated, like the people on North Sentinel, it will probably become extinct. Contact may be dangerous, but so is no contact. Second, some type of encounter with an outsider is inevitable, Mr. Hill said, and “accidental contact is a disaster waiting to happen.” North Sentinel is isolated, but it’s only 30 miles or so from Port Blair, the region’s growing capital. How long can the Indians keep people away from the island? Mr. Hill’s solution is to learn what the islanders want so that they can make the decision about their future.

“Humans are an extremely social species,” he said. “No groups want to live isolated forever. They do it out of fear.”

Read the entire piece here.

One thought on ““Contact may be dangerous, but so is no contact”

  1. Kim Hill’s argument seems specious. Yes, humans are social animals who tend to do better in more social environments — “tend” being the operative word; attempting to integrate and blend in with the majority populations didn’t help European Jews much in the 19th or 20th centuries — but she’s missing a key point which is that social interaction should be voluntary. The U.S. Constitution is believed by the Supreme Court (via the 1st Amendment) to guarantee the freedom of association, which implicitly also means the freedom * not * to associate. From what I understand the islanders are small in number and probably doomed from a demographic perspective — but it is their right not to deal with the outside world, even if that means their demise.

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