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Who’s really to blame for John Chau’s death on North Sentinel Island? Not the natives.

 

Update: For a thoughtful essay on how Chau’s mission fits into the grand scheme of things, click here.

John Chau, 26, an adventurer and Christian missionary, knew he was risking his life by sneaking onto North Sentinel Island, a speck in the Indian Ocean inhabited by an isolated tribe with a history of violently repelling intruders. He was not ignorant of the danger; he had spent years preparing for his encounter with the Sentinelese, and this was his sixth attempt to establish contact with them.

Chau had a degree in health and physical education from Oral Roberts University, a private Christian college. He had done youth work in Iraq, South Africa, and with Burmese kids in Tulsa, much of it involving the sport of soccer. He was, by all accounts, a good and decent person. His untimely death is a tragedy, and has brought grief and sorrow to his family and those who knew him.

What happened is partly his fault, but he was aided and abetted by grownups who should have known better. A Kansas City group calling itself All Nations trained Chau for missionary work and sent him to North Sentinel Island. Their Vision and Mission Statement proclaims,

OUR VISION IS TO SEE JESUS WORSHIPED BY ALL THE PEOPLES OF THE EARTH.

OUR MISSION IS TO MAKE DISCIPLES AND TRAIN LEADERS TO IGNITE CHURCH PLANTING MOVEMENTS AMONG THE NEGLECTED PEOPLES OF THE EARTH.

“All Nations aspires to see disciple making movements in every people group of the world so that Jesus may be worshipped by every tongue, tribe and nation.”

(See it here.) Following Chau’s death on North Sentinel Island, All Nations issued the following statement:

KANSAS CITY, Mo., U.S.A. — Leaders, members and friends of All Nations (www.allnations.us), an international
Christian missions training and sending organization, are mourning the reported death of one of its missionaries,
26-year-old John Allen Chau of Vancouver, Wash., U.S.A.

All Nations representatives are working with authorities in the U.S. and overseas to confirm details of Chau’s
reported killing sometime between Nov. 16 and Nov. 18, when he visited remote North Sentinel Island, located in
the Indian Ocean.

Chau is understood to have died after being attacked by local tribesmen. He is a graduate of Oral Roberts
University (ORU) who had studied, planned and trained rigorously since college to share the gospel with the
North Sentinelese people.

“All Nations is deeply saddened by this news and wants to publicly express our deepest sorrow for this
monumental loss,” said International Executive Leader Dr. Mary Ho. “We have been in contact with John’s family
and ask all to join us in praying for his family and friends during this time. We have been in contact with the U.S.
State Department and continue to cooperate fully with all international, national and regional officials.”

A seasoned traveler who was well-versed in cross-cultural issues, Chau had previously taken part in missions
projects in Iraq, Kurdistan and South Africa. He joined All Nations as a missionary in 2017 and trained at its North
American headquarters in Kansas City, Mo.

“John was a gracious and sensitive ambassador of Jesus Christ who wanted others to know of God’s great love for
them,” said Ho. “As we grieve for our friend, and pray for all those who mourn his death, we also know that he
would want us to pray for those who may have been responsible for his death.

“We remember too, how throughout church history, the privilege of sharing the gospel has often involved great
cost. We pray that John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit in due season.”

(See it here.) It’s clear from this letter that All Nations are the true bad guys in this story. The only thing they care about is spreading the Gospel. Whether this is good or bad for the people they’re proselytizing is an element they ignore and don’t care about. In this case, they’re guilty of many things: Ignoring the Indian law prohibiting trespassing on the island or entering the 3-mile exclusion zone surrounding it, knowingly sending a well-intentioned young man into danger; and above all, of hubristic insensitivity to the Sentinelis’ right and need to be left alone.

Survival International, an organization that advocates on behalf of indigenous peoples, issued the following statement:

“This tragedy should never have been allowed to happen. The Indian authorities should have been enforcing the protection of the Sentinelese and their island for the safety of both the tribe, and outsiders.

“Instead, a few months ago the authorities lifted one of the restrictions that had been protecting the Sentinelese tribe’s island from foreign tourists, which sent exactly the wrong message, and may have contributed to this terrible event.

“It’s not impossible that the Sentinelese have just been infected by deadly pathogens to which they have no immunity, with the potential to wipe out the entire tribe.

“The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone, and their wishes should be respected. The British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survive. So the Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable.

“Uncontacted tribes must have their lands properly protected. They’re the most vulnerable peoples on the planet. Whole populations are being wiped out by violence from outsiders who steal their land and resources, and by diseases like the flu and measles to which they have no resistance.

“Tribes like the Sentinelese face catastrophe unless their land is protected. I hope this tragedy acts as a wake up call to the Indian authorities to avert another disaster and properly protect the lands of both the Sentinelese, and the other Andaman tribes, from further invaders.”

(See it here.) While this suggests the Indian government had relaxed its prohibition on travel to North Sentinel Island, let’s be clear: John Chau’s trip to the island was unauthorized, illegal, and carried out secretly.

The Sentinalese are a negrito people who live by hunting and gathering. Anthropologists believe they’re descended from humans who migrated from Africa about 60,000 years ago. Nothing is known of their history prior to being first sighted by Westerners in 1770, but evidence suggests they’ve had little contact with other human groupings despite relatively close proximity to other islands: Their canoes aren’t ocean-going, their language is unintelligible to natives of nearby islands, and they’ve never adopted agriculture or other modern ways. They don’t wear clothing; they go about naked. They haven’t learned to fletch arrows with feathers, which limits their range. Some experts doubt they know how to make fire, although it’s clear they’ve been using fire for as long as their existence has been known to Westerners.

However, they’re certainly aware of the modern outside world. They’ve scavenged shipwrecks for metal, they’ve seen helicopters, and from the 1860s onward they’ve had periodic encounters with outsiders. But in nearly all of those encounters, they’ve made it clear that visitors are unwelcome. Yet there’s no evidence they ever sent raiding parties to other islands in the vicinity; their belligerence appears to be purely defensive, with the aim of keeping intruders away from their homes.

North Sentinel Island is small, about 24 square miles, surrounded by reefs, and forested except for the beaches. It is believed that about 50 to 400 Sentinelis live there.  The Sentinalis’ hostility to outsiders may go back to the 1860s, when a British colonial administrator kidnapped half a dozen natives, two of whom quickly died (the other four, all children, were returned to the island). Based on what we know about other indigenous cultures, we may surmise that legends of this event were passed down the Sentinelese generations by word of mouth, and that episode may be one of the sources of their distrust of outsiders.

The deaths of the two adults in the kidnapped group, who were healthy when captured, likely were due to their lack of immunity to “civilized” diseases. Their isolation from other humans for thousands of years makes them extremely vulnerable. Even casual contact with an outsider like John Chau could wipe out their entire population. That’s one reason why the Indian government decided in 2005 to ban visits to North Sentinel Island:

“It will now be our avowed policy to minimise unnecessary and inappropriate contact between the primitive tribes,” said Tribal Welfare Secretary, Uddipta Ray. Only a few officials in our administration will have access to the aboriginal habitats to protect them from poaching and illegal intrusions by the settlers … We will ensure their food security, the security of their habitats, we will encourage them to pursue their traditional lifestyle, there is no question of imposing any outside culture or beliefs on them,” Ray told the BBC.

(Source here.) No question of imposing any outside culture or beliefs on them. That’s exactly what John Chau went there to do — what All Nations sent him there to do — and it was directly contrary to a government policy designed to protect the Sentinelese from people like them. That’s why Chau recruited local fishermen to sneak him to the island; he knew he wasn’t allow to go there.

Let me reiterate: It’s against the law to attempt to contact the Sentinelese people:

The Andaman police say that the North Sentinel island is a tribal and forest reserve and hence, protected against visitors including foreign nationals unless they have specific permission. Even if someone has permission, they are barred by law from collecting or carrying any forest produce, books, maps, photographs, films, religious or scientific artefacts to and from these areas as per the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes (Regulation) Act. …

(Source here.) It’s explicit: No books (e.g. Bibles) or religious artifacts allowed. All Nations chose to ignore this law and policy; by so doing, they put both the Sentinelese and John Chau at risk. What were they thinking? About spreading the Gospel, nothing else, and certainly not the welfare of either the Sentinelese or Chau. All Nations is a predatory organization pursuing a selfish goal of pushing their religion on others and invading their space to do so, whether they’re wanted there or not. Most people call that hubris.

The Sentinelese don’t need saving, except from outsiders who refuse to respect their right to be left alone:

The islanders are clearly extremely healthy, alert and thriving, in marked contrast to the two Andaman tribes who have ‘benefited’ from Western civilization, the Onge and the Great Andamanese, whose numbers have crashed and who are now largely dependent on state handouts just to survive.

Pressure from Survival and other organisations has led the Indian government to alter its policy towards the Sentinelese, from attempting to make contact, to recognising that similar policies have proved disastrous for other Andaman tribes, and accepting that they have the right to decide for themselves how they wish to live. Underpinning this shift is the simple acknowledgment that the people themselves are best placed to decide what is in their own interests.

(Source here.) Healthy and thriving: it’s clear the Sentinelese don’t need our help, or All Nations’ or John Chau’s. What they need from us, and them, is to be left alone. That is their legal and moral right. All Nations’ attempt to interfere with their way of life was not only illegal, it was morally wrong. But, being a group obviously not given to reflection, they’ll probably learn nothing from this experience, or from John Chau’s unnecessary death.

(The video below contains footage from 1974 and 1991.)

 

 

 


5 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Mark Adeams #
    1

    And we have had other young men who joined the United Kingdom’s military and fought against Hitler before the US entered the war and it was all controversial and some of those young man died. Chau under our American way of life could go do what he did. Perhaps he should have climbed a mountain or played soccer and his motivations can be questioned, but change his vocation to naturalist or anthropologist and some folks would not question the motivation.
    The greatest threat to the Sentilese people is that there is something of value on their island. As it is there are fish in the water and that is attracting fishermen to the area. Knowing human beings just how much of a Chinese wall actually exists between all the fishermen and other tribal members from nearby islands and there maybe more contact between the tribe and the outside than is known by the Indian government. It does not look like the Indian government has its coast guard out there on a regular basis to prevent contact.

    We don’t really know what the Islanders want as they have not really told us. Or only a few mainly male and dominant tribal members have expressed an opinion.

    The islanders have been successful thus far only because there is no resource that is known to be on the island in abundance for other human beings not to go in there to get.

    There is fish though. There could be petroleum resources nearby. If there it is going to be hard to keep Standard Oil or Shell out of the area to do drilling. If there are opals, gold, silver, ect on the island good luck keeping other humans out. Or the natives will be fine unless they kill the wrong foreigner, then we will see some more hubris.

  2. theaveeditor #
    2

    Yep. So it is inevitable that Muslims, Christians, and Google will get their way with everyone.

  3. Roger Rabbit #
    3

    “We don’t really know what the Islanders want as they have not really told us.”

    Yes, they have. How many spears, arrows, and dead intruders does it take to figure out what they’re telling us?

  4. Roger Rabbit #
    4

    “Chau under our American way of life could go do what he did.”

    No, he couldn’t. When he entered Indian territory, he was subject to Indian laws. He broke the law by going to that island.

  5. Roger Rabbit #
    5

    “The greatest threat to the Sentilese people is that there is something of value on their island.”

    No, the greatest threat to the Sentinelese people is exposure to diseases against which they have no immunity.



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