From the Series: Assimilation, Dispossession, Erasure, or Refusal
A year and a half after the events leading to the death of John Chau on Sentinel Island, India, media attention has died away and the islanders have been left to go on with their lives affirming the “no-contact” policy of the Indian government. In this piece, I reflect on the islanders’ situation.
In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in November 2005, a significant event convened in Belem, Brazil, which gave birth to a new international network: the International Alliance for Voluntarily Isolated Indigenous Groups. Spearheaded by the legendary explorer, activist, and ethnographer Sydney Possuelo, of Fundação National do Índio (FUNAI) in Brazil, the first symposium on isolated, indigenous groups brought together participants from more than a dozen countries, including seven Latin American countries. The high-powered, multilateral forum sought to facilitate active participation and discussion through simultaneous multilingual translations, enabling everyone present to contribute to the symposium declaration and policy document.
I, too, was in Belem and my purpose was to draw attention to the situation of the Sentinel Islanders from the Andaman Islands, a voluntarily isolated indigenous group. My enthusiastic participation at the event achieved something noteworthy: during a forum that was primarily focused on addressing the situation of voluntarily isolated groups across the Amazon and the Gran Chaco, we reached an agreement to establish a platform for voluntarily isolated groups worldwide. Thus, the International Alliance for the Protection of Isolated Indigenous People came into existence and extended its mandate to include a voluntarily isolated group from the Andaman Islands and West Papua.
But such alliances are fragile and, without the ability to strengthen and consolidate common cause through further exchanges at other forums, they tend to wither away. Hence, in the years that followed, the International Alliance lost sight of the promise of its global purview and reverted to its original focus on Latin America, as evident in this 2013 document set out to address voluntarily isolated peoples of the Americas. Subsequently, the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted at the General Assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in June 2016.
International legal scholar Stefania Errico highlights the significance of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which “[includes] specific situations relevant to the region such as the rights of indigenous peoples in ‘voluntary isolation or initial contact,’ and indigenous peoples affected by armed conflict,” thereby expanding the scope of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). But, as Errico elaborates, the American Declaration also falls short of the latter in other important aspects. Political scientist Holly Eva Ryan’s analysis of the aftermath of UNDRIP addresses its non-binding attributes and the vast gulf between agreements as they appear on paper and their implementations in practice, particularly in Brazil. This gulf assumes far graver implications given the ongoing dismantling of any protections accorded to indigenous groups across Brazil as a result of the new government elected there in 2018.
Earlier in 2011, anthropologist Greg Downey held an extended discussion in response to another furore about “uncontacted” tribes in the Amazon. Here, he dwells on the urgency of the situation facing some of the groups in the Amazon, especially along the Brazil–Peru border, where various economic and political interests imperil the lives of voluntarily isolated groups seeking cover from these expansive forces:
In truth, our reactions to and perceptions of these people reveal far more about us than about them. We easily believe that a band of hostile Indians confronting an airplane from a clearing do so out of ignorance and fear. But the likely truth is harder to face: The tribe might have threatened the observers precisely because they had encountered some of the worst aspects of our culture before and suffered grievously. These images of a people courageously standing against us are not symbols of their ignorance, but of ours.
The same can be said of the Sentinel Islanders and the explosion of global media interest in the wake of the 2004 tsunami and, subsequent events leading to the demise of John Chau on the Sentinel Islands in November 2018. Like Downey in 2011 in the above-cited discussion, I, too, “feel like the world’s periodic flashes of interest in these isolated tribes is one of those rare teachable moments in discussions of indigenous rights, so it’s a shame to squander it by dumbing the issue down to the point of caricature with the ambiguous and easily misunderstood idea of ‘uncontacted tribes.’”
International instruments such as UNDRIP and the subsequent American Declaration evolved over an extended duration by virtue of processes that considered the input of indigenous groups spanning various nation-states and holding different views of rights and aspirations. Self-determination, autonomy, and collective ownership of lands are some of the key features of these instruments, and the American Declaration in particular accords these rights to the “voluntarily isolated,” rather than the “uncontacted,” as the media tends to refer to these groups.
It is more troubling when anthropologists also slip into similar inaccuracies and are unable to perceive those who remain voluntarily isolated. By doing so, these anthropologists refuse to grant voluntarily isolated groups the ability to “know” what they do. Referring to Sentinel Islanders as “among the world’s last uncontacted tribes—that is, indigenous groups that maintain no contact with modern civilisation,” political anthropologist Karolina Follis, for instance, collapses the two distinct categories into one in order to set up her argument, thus remaining oblivious to any presumption of what “uncontacted” people might want. Given the comparisons that she draws with the Amazon, it is surprising that Follis does not mention the American Declaration, which in fact directly addresses voluntarily isolated peoples. Although Follis refers to the key tenets of autonomy and self-determination from UNDRIP, she queries their relevance to the Sentinel Islanders, pitting these rights against “potentially competing entitlements all humans have.” Citing the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of the right to health—“the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health”—Follis concludes that “it’s possible that some rights can only be realised at the expense of others.”
Rehashing well-worn tropes of extinction and the risks of in-breeding, which have typically justified benevolent “salvage” operations directed at other “vulnerable” groups both in the Andaman Islands and elsewhere across the world, Follis defends bringing the Sentinel Islanders into the fold despite the inherent risks associated with such a step. What Follis demands in the name of further communication with the Sentinel Islanders is the exercise of yet another set of imperatives: the will to knowledge and the will to know better that has always directed colonial interventions.
Unable to fathom the possibility of hindsight or prescience demonstrated in the actions of the Sentinel Islanders, Follis remains as blind to “refusal” as John Chau was a year ago, wittingly or unwittingly causing his own untimely death.