North Sentinel Island is a mystery that might be better left untouched

FILE – In this Nov. 14, 2005 file photo, clouds hang over the North Sentinel Island, in India's southeastern Andaman and Nicobar Islands. An American is believed to have been killed by an isolated Indian island tribe known to fire at outsiders with bows and arrows, Indian police said Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. Police officer Vijay Singh said seven fishermen have been arrested for facilitating the American's visit to North Sentinel Island, where the killing apparently occurred. Visits to the island are heavily restricted by the government. (AP Photo/Gautam Singh, File)

North Sentinel Island is a mystery that might be better left untouched.

Over the past week, the world has become captivated by the story of an island off the coast of India and the missionary who tried to penetrate its culture. North Sentinel Island is home to an isolated tribe where outsiders have been known to visit and never return due to hostility by the tribespeople. John Allen Chau recently fell to this fate after attempting to spread his religion and beliefs to the people inhabiting these islands. Now, as government officials struggle to retrieve his body, many are wondering why these civilizations continue to exist.

North Sentinel Island is not the only place not currently affected by modern civilization, but it is the one currently thrust into the spotlight. In truth, there are most likely hundreds of communities similar to this one that are seemingly untouched by the outside world. While these tribal communities are diverse in location, traditions and way of life, they all share a commonality: They are mysterious to the outside world. With virtually no contact with modern civilization, it makes sense that these tribes are so unknown. To some, however, this mystifying quality makes them all the more appealing to outsiders with keen curiosities. Perhaps this is what drew John Chau to North Sentinel Island.

John Chau visited North Sentinel Island a handful of times before he was killed. According to the journal he took with him on his journey, he interacted with a few members of the island’s tribe during multiple trips he made using a kayak to travel to and from an offshore fishing boat. During all of these trips he commented on the hostility of the people, as well as his hopelessness for the future of his mission. At one point he even wrote, “God, I don’t want to die. While Chau knew the risks associated with visiting this island, his judgement was clouded by the appeal of visiting and seeing the unseen. However, while he seems to have considered the risks to his own safety, he did not seem to consider what vising an isolated population might do to the tribespeople.

To start, as an isolated tribe, it is expected that the Sentinelese people have very different immune systems than those of us in the modern world. These people have never been in contact with modern medicine, technology or people, so they have also not come into contact with many of the same diseases we have built up immunity to. Thus, any outside contact could prove deadly to these tribespeople and their culture. Knowing this, are these senseless acts of violence really so senseless? Or are the Sentinelese people simply trying to protect themselves from the outside world?

By visiting the island and attempting to spread Christianity, not only was Chau attempting to spread his faith, but he was trying to assimilate these people into his culture. Previous efforts from other groups to assimilate these types of Indigenous islands into modern society have failed, and also often ended in violence. Why should we all be shocked that this attempt had a similar outcome? These people have different morals from us, and their way of life is much more primitive from ours. Throughout history, it was common for people to kill others that tried to invade their territory. If these people never moved on from this way of thinking, it should really come as little surprise that they react this way. This in no way means that it is okay or justified that these people killed Chau, but we do need to remember how we all used to behave in the absence of modern technology.

Violence and hostility aside, there is something special about the fact that a culture can be preserved for possibly thousands of years without being influenced by the modern world. By attempting to learn about these people or assimilate them into our society, we would be losing a huge amount of unique history on our planet. Sure, we currently cannot learn about this culture due to its hostility to the outside world, but does that mean we want to destroy it?

The fact that John Chau perished at the hands of the Sentinelese people does not come as a surprise given their history, but of course it is still a tragedy. However, it also serves to remind us of the opportunities we have to preserve cultures not yet affected by modern society. There are many misunderstood aspects of Chau’s story, and those who have been made victims by these tribes before him, but the fact is there is not one easy way to interact with these isolated cultures. Perhaps they are better off just left alone.


Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor  for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.hungaski@uconn.edu.