Should isolated tribes like the one that killed John Chau be left alone?

The death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the indigenous natives of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal has renewed the debate over what to do about the remaining isolated tribes around the planet who neither have nor desire contact with the outside world. The Sentinelese have been in the news before and are somewhat infamous for their aggressive stance toward outsiders. They’re not the only ones, however, and such people are increasingly coming into conflict with modernity in the 21st century. (USA Today)

The death of an American killed by members of an isolated Indian tribe has turned a spotlight not only on the bow-wielding natives of North Sentinel Island but on “uncontacted” tribes around the world.

Fishermen who took John Allen Chau to the island reported later seeing tribespeople drag his body across a beach before burying his remains. Chau, 27, hoped to “declare Jesus” to them.

The Sentinelese lack immunity to common diseases such as the flu, and exposure from outsiders threatens their population, according to Survival International, a nonprofit focused on indigenous rights. Tribes elsewhere in the world face disease as well as land loss to industries such as ranching and logging.

The linked article provides a fairly comprehensive rundown of the other uncontacted tribes around the world (at least the ones we know about) including the Awá of the Brazilian Amazon, the Mashco Piro in Peru and Venezuela’s Yanomami tribe. Some of these groups number less than a hundred surviving members.

So here’s the question which has been raging for decades. Do we “owe it” to these tribes to drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century so they can all have cell phones and Facebook accounts, jobs, modern medicine and all the other benefits of modern life? The Sentinelese are clearly aware that we are out here and that advanced technology exists. They just want nothing to do with it, fearing that they will fall victim to disease and lose their cultural heritage. (Both valid concerns.)

I would say the better question is to ask if we have the right to do that to them, rather than an obligation. If we want to open up the Sentinelese in that fashion we’d have to do it by force. At that point you’re not rescuing them… you’re conquering them. I understand that John Allen Chau was answering a higher calling and looking to spread the Word of the Lord to the “savages.” But missionaries run many risks when trying to do this work and Chau was well aware of the chance he was taking. He knew that those tribesmen were ready to kill him if he approached. He is rightly mourned, but let’s face it… his death was not the fault of the Sentinelese.

In South America, we have a different problem. Continued logging and mining are driving some of these tribes from their ancestral homes and sending them into nomadic lifestyles where their numbers are dwindling. The governments of those countries certainly own the rights to their resources, but perhaps they could leave some of the lands of the indigenous peoples alone?

I’m not saying there’s an easy answer here, but no… I don’t think we have the right to force modernity on these isolated tribes. If they wish to stick to their old customs and they’ve been on the land for thousands of years, it seems to me that they deserve to be left in peace. If they want to come out of the jungle and ask for help… great. Let’s help them out. But until then, they’re better left alone.