Nov. 27 (UPI) — An anthropologist who made contact several times with an isolated island tribe accused of killing an American missionary last week suggested the Indian government take gifts to ease the effort of retrieving the man’s body from North Sentinel Island.
John Allen Chau, 27, ignored Indian law and multiple warnings that the Sentinelese tribe resists outsiders when he paid fishermen to take him to the island in an attempt to convert the islanders to Christianity. The fisherman told Indian authorities the tribespeople shot Chau with arrows as he reached the shore and that they buried his body on the beach.
North Sentinel Island is part of the Andaman islands hundreds of miles off the coast of India, which prohibits visitors out of fear that outsiders will expose the isolated islanders to diseases they cannot fend off.
Though the island is now off-limits, Chau’s visit isn’t the first time outsiders have had run-ins with the Sentinelese.
India’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs embarked on several trips to the island in the 1980s and 1990s in order to learn about the tribe and give the islanders gifts of food and tools. T.N. Pandit, was involved in those trips and described the tribespeople as mostly “peace-loving.”
“During our interactions they threatened us but it never reached a point where they went on to kill or wound. Whenever they got agitated we stepped back,” he told the BBC.
“I feel very sad for the death of this young man who came all the way from America. But he made a mistake. He had enough chance to save himself. But he persisted and paid with his life.”
Pandit told the Indian Express that it’s inaccurate for people to consider the Sentinelese as aggressive.
“We are the aggressors here. We are the ones trying to enter their territory. What has happened is very unfortunate but I believe the tribesmen were trying to protect themselves. From what I have read, the tribesmen shot arrows at him the first time he reached out. He should have been cautious and patient,” he said.
Attempts by the Indian government to recover Chau’s body have so far been unsuccessful.
“We have mapped the area with the help of these fishermen,” Dependra Pathak, a top police official in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said. “We have not spotted the body yet but we roughly know the area where he is believed to be buried.”
On Saturday, a recovery group turned its boat away from the island after tribespeople armed with bows and arrows gathered on the beach. Pandit gave some advice to those leading the effort.
“If a small party goes in the afternoon or evening, when the tribesmen are known to not venture out on the shore, carries coconuts and iron as gifts, and stops the boat beyond the shooting range of arrows, it is possible that they will allow us to take the body. The help of local fisherman should also be sought,” he said.
Pandit said an estimated 80 to 90 tribespeople live on the island and though their language sounded similar to that spoken on other nearby islands, his crew was unable to communicate with those they came into contact with. It took multiple gift-giving trips to North Sentinel Island before the islanders approached the anthropologists in waist-deep water.
“We jumped out of the boat and stood in neck-deep water, distributing coconuts and other gifts. But we were not allowed to step onto their island,” Pandit said.
A group of 28 sailors had a less amiable interaction with the Sentinelese in 1981 when their Panamanian-registered ship wrecked on a coral reef off the island during a monsoon. UPI reported then the Taiwanese captain of the boat frantically sent messages to shipping offices in Hong Kong pleading for officials to airdrop weapons for his crew to fend off “wild island people carrying spears and arrows.”
The Indian navy chalked up the captain’s fears to panic.
“The captain probably lost his nerve when he saw the natives on the beach,” Vice Adm. L. Rambas told UPI at the time.
“It is perfectly normal for the Sentinelese to walk around with bows and arrows. It is part of their dress.”
None of the sailors were injured during their time near the island, and they were rescued two weeks later by helicopter.