Ghosts of European colonialism still haunt us today even in the 21st century. This was evident from the untimely death of American John Allen Chau, 26, from Washington state on Nov. 16 at the hands of Sentinelese-Jarawa people from the Andaman Islands.
The last days of Mr. Chau are reminiscent of the novel “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”(1965) by late naturalist, Peter Mathiessen, where everything goes wrong for the Christian missionaries, as they did for Chau. This young American was naively determined to eradicate what he called “Satan’s last stronghold” in the world and paid for it with his life.
There are only about 100 Sentinelese-Jarawa people left. They are fiercely independent, rejecting contact with outsiders and culturally remaining intact. Jarawa are small-statured and ebony-complexioned and thought to be remnants of people who originally migrated thousands of years ago from Africa and settled in the Andaman Islands east of India and west of Myanmar.
For the most part, the Indian government has been successful in preventing interlopers from accessing their island. Chau paid some local fishermen to reach these remote Jarawa people. As these tribal people have managed to remain isolated, they are also highly susceptible to viral contagion, even from the common cold and flu.
As an anthropologist who writes about indigenous issues, I am aware how much European colonialism is an ever-present issue in the minds and memories of many indigenous peoples because of the horrifying genocide wreaked upon them.
Indeed, there are very few “uncontacted” indigenous peoples remaining in our globalized planet. The majority of uncontacted natives may be found in the Amazon region in the borderland areas of Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru. Anthropologists are continually worried about the safety of such vulnerable people because of their lacking immunity to Western-borne illnesses and threats from outsiders as tourists, illegal loggers, and gold miners encroaching upon their territories.
In assessing the situation of isolated people like the Sentinelese-Jarawa of the Andaman Islands as well as the isolated Amerindians in the Amazon, we need to return to the history of Western thought and Western civilization for explaining the problems associated with contact in relation to indigenous peoples and Europeans.
We may begin with the Abrahamic religions’ origin story of Adam and Eve, who bit from the forbidden fruit of knowledge in the biblical Old Testament and were ejected from Eden by Yahweh. The symbolism is fairly clear. The Garden of Eden represents idyllic nature, the millennia when humankind spent hunting and gathering until the Neolithic Revolution about 12,000 years ago with the domestication of plants and animals.
This was the so-called transition to civilization, eventually producing states, writing, hierarchies and class systems, organized religion, slavery, mass warfare, science, astronomy, mathematics and genocide. It was a knowledge supposing humankind was somehow separate from nature and humans were superior to nature — at least to Western minds in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
What is more, in the “Age of Exploration,” Europeans believed they had to “civilize” non-Western people and bring them God’s word and convert natives to European ways. As such, along with killing and torturing natives, Europeans made it a practice of saving indigenes from their supposed state of nature, ignorance and savagery.
When the Portuguese first landed in Brazil in 1500, Pêro Vaz de Caminha wrote King Manoel I: “They seem to be such innocent people that, if we could understand their speech and they ours, they would immediately become Christians. For it appears that they do not have or understand any faith…” Salvation of natives indeed became one of the primary projects of the conquest.
Such religious proselytizing supposes, like Mr. Chau, native peoples have no minds and no wills of their own and are devoid of proper religious thought. They are rather native objects and vessels who require filling with the true faith brought to them by force, if necessary—why would God give the means of force to the colonizers unless He wanted them to convert the natives?
Witness accounts from the Spanish conquest such as those of Bartolomé de las Casas describe how devastating the violence against Indians was, such as during the invasion of Peru: “…I affirm that with my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose, hands, and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it, and this they did in so many places that it would take a long time to recount.”
Similarly, here is an eyewitness account by Captain Nicholas Hodt of an 1861 massacre of Navajo (Diné) in present-day Arizona: “The Navahos, squaws and children ran in all directions and were shot and bayoneted. I succeeded in forming about 20 men … I then marched out to the east side of the post; there I saw a soldier murdering two little children and a woman. I hallooed immediately to the soldier to stop. He looked up, but did not obey my order…”
The arc of history of this protracted genocide, from massacres like “Wounded Knee” against the Sioux in 1890, or more recently, the effects of development in the Brazilian Amazon during the 1960s, is long and collectively never forgotten by descendants of the victims. In every case, aboriginal peoples are subsequently plagued by a sense of loss of their identities, homelands, ways of life, cultures, resulting often in alcoholism, domestic violence, drug abuse, and suicide.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, Hitler partially based his ideas of the concentration camp and extermination of European Jews on Native American reservations and our racial policies in the United States.
Americans systematically conquered original peoples and justified the ensuing genocide with the idea of “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by journalist John O’Sullivan, meaning the divine right to settle the continental United States from “sea to shining sea.” The Natives were just part of the natural landscape and in the way.
Genocide continues happening now in Brazil with the persecution of the Guarani-Kaiowá on ranch lands in Mato Grosso do Sul. Even more worrying is that newly-elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promises to persecute Brazilian Amerindians for their lands.
Like the Sentinelese-Jarawa who voluntarily choose to be isolated, the Mashco-Piro people of Western Peru live by choice without contact. As anthropologist Glenn Shepard, of the Museu Emilio Goeldi of Brazil, explains: “…Isolated Amazonian groups have not remained stuck in the Stone Age since time immemorial. Rather, they have resorted to ‘voluntary isolation’ in modern times in order to survive.”
“Civilization” is an ambivalent outcome at best for indigenous peoples. At this late date, it is likely that we can learn much more from them than the reverse. After all, their lifeways would sustain for unknown millennia, whereas climate chaos, nuclear annihilation, resource depletion and contamination — products of conquering empires — are supplanting genocide with societal suicide.
Time to listen instead of preach, time to slow down, consume much less and respect all peoples and our planet.