Most islands of India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelagos, near the Bay of Bengal, have been explored. Moreover, the native people of respective islands have established and developed relations with the Indian government. However, the North Sentinel Island is not only protected from strict treaties by Indian government, but also remains largely untouched by outsiders.
Although the indigenous people of the North Sentinel Island have often been subject to those who want to contact them, they want to stay isolated and deserve to be left alone.
The Sentinelese are one of approximately 100 tribes left in the world that have not integrated in some way with modern societies; however, the Sentinelese are unique even among the rarest indigenous people of the world. Throughout their history, they have responded to intruders with extreme hostility. Due to the violent attitude of the group, their language, precise population, and culture remain largely mysterious.
Yet, the Indian government and others have constantly tried over recent decades to contact the Sentinelese people. Whether the purpose has been for science, and even when contact is accidental, the locals have successfully, and violently, resisted. Even after 24 years of constant gifting of coconut and iron chunks and efforts to befriend the Sentinelese, Indian anthropologists were unable to convince the Sentinelese to allow them to conduct studies. The Sentinelese fired arrows at returning anthropologists in 1970 and 1973; in 1974, a National Geographic director was shot by an arrow through his leg; more recently, in 2006, the islanders killed two fishermen whose boats drifted near North Sentinel.
Gyu-min Jung, a rising junior attending Seoul International School, expressed his disapproval to JSR, saying that the Sentinelese “are unnecessarily violent and uncooperative to modern people.”
Jung continued, “I’m aware that they belong in a special category of indigenous people; however, none of the contacts were meant to harm or disconcert the tribe. Anthropologists aren’t advancing into their territory with weaponry. Passive studies will benefit both the tribe and us. By unraveling some of the mysteries and structures, the Sentinelese will lose their ‘mysterious’ status and attract less curious anthropologists and the similar kind.”
On the other hand, James Park, a rising junior attending Phillips Academy Andover, supports the Sentinelese people, claiming they “are doing the right thing. Once the tribe allows a team of anthropologists into their culture, the degeneration of the culture will begin. By absolutely rejecting any outside influence, the Sentinelese are declaring to us that they are [off-limits]; unless they resort to strong violence, modern people will never respect their isolation.”
History suggests that the course of action taken by the Sentinelese might serve them best, considering what has happened to other tribes in the Andaman Islands. After the British made contact with the South Great Andamanese in the late 1700s, a penal colony was established and the population of the tribe decreased dramatically to the point of near-extinction in the twentieth century. Similarly, after the advancement of settlers and researchers in 1997, African-Andaman tribes such as Onge and Jarawa suffered from disease exposure, sexual abuse, and alcoholism. The indigenous people of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago often shifted their lifestyles and lost their cultures after the advancement of dominant, and modern, superpowers.
Trilokinath Pandit, an anthropologist in New Delhi who studied and contacted the Andaman tribes including the Sentinelese, for more than two decades, claimed that his team and he are “hesitant about how – or whether – these tribesmen should be ‘civilised’.”
“Civilizing” behavior should be avoided when we study the Sentinelese. As the past has shown, and as the Sentinelese strongly desire, perhaps the best course of action is to leave them be. The Sentinelese are currently writing their history as the most isolated tribe in the world; hopefully, we can help them rather than thwart them.