Unreached People Group – The Sentinelese

| December 6, 2018 | 0 Comments

CC-SA 3.0 by Wikipedia User:Uwe Dedering

Recent news releases have focused attention on a small people group living on a 24-square-mile island in the Indian Ocean: the Sentinelese. The people of North Sentinel Island have a loooong history of ferocious encounters with anyone who approaches their island. Marco Polo wrote in the 12th century already that the people on the island were a “most violent and cruel generation.” At that time, he indicated that they were cannibals, but there is no evidence that they are still so today.

The recent news reports are about a 26-year-old US citizen named John Allen Chau, who approached the island with a goal of evangelizing them, with the result being that he was shot with arrows and assumed killed, although his body has not been recovered yet.

The Sentinelese are an untouched civilization that does not use fire and, of course, any modern conveniences. They survive by hunting/gathering on their small island, as well as using boats to fish and gather seafood. Since no one from the outside is permitted to live among them, no one really knows how many of them live on the heavily-forested island. Estimates from the government of India (who own the island and the rest of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago) range from just 15 to possibly 500 people. A helicopter sent to check out the island in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that the region experienced was shot at by bows and arrows, so the Indian government knows that some of the tribe survived the catastrophe.

No one knows what their language is really like, although Chau noted in his notebook that it is a high-pitched language with lots of ba, pa, la, and as.

The Indian government has a law that no one is allowed within three nautical miles of North Sentinel Island. This is to keep people from contacting the tribe. Part of this reasoning is to keep the tribe from contacting diseases (such as the common flu) that may decimate it, since they likely do not have any immunity to such diseases. As well, some people feel that their culture needs to be protected and that they should not be evangelized by any other religion. That, added to the fact that most encounters with the tribe end up with arrows flying, has made it so that no one knows much about the Sentinelese, hardly a word of their language. It is illegal to upload videos of the Sentinelese to the internet.

In the 1800s, an administrator of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands went on the island and captured six of them. The older couple became sick very shortly afterward and died. The younger ones were eventually taken back to the island and released, loaded with gifts. This was an attempt to get the Sentinelese to see others as friendly. However, nothing long-term positive came out of this.

Since then, various people have shipwrecked on or near the island, and a confrontation or a threat of one has always arisen. In 2006, two Indian fishermen who were fishing illegally near the island were killed when their boat drifted ashore during the nighttime, while they were asleep.

John Allen Chau hired some local fishermen to take him (illegally) to about half a mile offshore North Sentinel Island. On his first attempt to make a friendly contact, he paddled alone to the island in a kayak. Chau sang worship songs to them and tried to talk to them in English, but the islanders became angry. A young boy shot at him with an arrow, but the arrow hit Chau’s waterproof Bible and only wounded him. Chau returned to the fishing boat.

The next day, he again attempted to make a friendly contact. The islanders broke up his kayak, and Chau swam back to the fishing boat. On the third day, Chau told the men on the fishing boat that he had no plans to return back to the fishing boat, and that it should leave. The men on the fishing boat later saw the islanders dragging Chau’s body and apparently burying it on the beach. While not 100% certain, it is assumed that Chau died. His family says that they forgive whoever may have killed him, and are not pressuring the government for the return of the body.

In his last note to his family, left with the fishermen, Chau wrote:

You guys might think I'm crazy in all this but I think it's worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed -- rather please live your lives in obedience to whatever He has called you to and I will see you again when you pass through the veil.

Earlier, he had written in his notebook:

God, I don’t want to die. … Why does this beautiful place have to have so much death here? I hope this isn’t one of my last notes, but if it is ‘to God be the Glory.’

The fishermen returned to port and reported his death to Chau’s friends. Seven men have since been arrested for helping Chau evade the patrols and taking him inside the three-mile boundary limit around the island. Two of the fishermen, however, have helped authorities locate the area where Chau’s body is assumed to be buried. Authorities are assessing the situation and trying to come up with a plan to recover the body, but without agitating the island’s inhabitants. No plans have been made to arrest anyone for the killing.

In a very interesting note of historical and scientific interest, the 2004 tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean lifted up the entire area of North Sentinel Island by several feet. This caused some of the reefs that were previously under water to become permanently exposed. The following photo, taken by NASA in 2009, shows how the exposed reefs have essentially expanded the island’s size by about half a mile on all sides.

NASA - Public Domain

Assessment

The death of Chau raises questions about how Christians should relate to governments that place restrictions on evangelism of remote, uncontacted tribes. To those of us who live in modern societies, the idea of people in other parts of the world who have very little, if any, contact with other people seems almost unbelievable. However, some activists for uncontacted people say that up to 100 small tribes are still “uncontacted.” The black areas on the following map show the locations where these people groups are thought to live.

CC-SA 4.0 by Wikipedia User:Fährtenleser

All Nations, an international Christian missions training and sending organization in Kansas City, Missouri, reports that Chau joined their organization in 2017.
Ben Sullivan (a Bible Translator with a completely different organization, All Nations Bible Translation in State College, PA) met Chau at a linguistics institute in Canada about a year and a half ago. Sullivan writes, "I cautioned him, not to dissuade in any way, but that he walk quietly and humbly before God in answering this call. It was sad to hear of the presumed outcome of his visit to Sentinel Island, but to me it was no surprise. I fully expected that he would follow through no matter what obstacles were in his way, or succumb in the process. Giving up wasn’t an option for John. I will always admire him and remember him for his singular dedication to God and getting His message of salvation through Jesus Christ to the Sentinelese people."

Discussion

Since many people who don't have the courage of Chau are being quite critical of him, we think it may be helpful to raise some good questions.

  • Laying aside the questions of whether Chau wisely approached the Sentinelese, would I be willing to give my life for a small group of people who have never heard the Good News of the Kingdom of God?
  • Should a Christian disobey a government’s rule to avoid contact with a people group, if the law is based upon the fear of spreading disease to people who are likely not immunized against common diseases? How should Christians view the insensitivity of Europeans who brought diseases to America and other continents, and wiped out large numbers of the native populations?
  • Not only did he break the law himself – and there are many times that Christians including the Apostles have done this – but he implicated other people in his lawbreaking. Is that justifiable?
  • Is the goal of preserving a culture a good goal, when thinking of limiting contact with uncontacted people groups? Or, as some people feel, is it rather cruel to keep a small people group isolated from the benefits of modern medicines, better tools, and higher quality foods?
  • Is keeping outsiders away from an uncontacted tribe similar to keeping a group of monkeys or other animals in a pen, so that others can marvel at them?
  • If someone is called of God to a specific task, should he assume that all subsequent choices he makes in fulfilling that call are also from God? Does God always or usually use other Christians to help a person fulfill the call in His timing? Consider [Saint] Patrick, who felt called as a young man to evangelize in Ireland, but waited and prepared for this work for about 30 years until his church blessed him to go.
  • Can methods other than the “brave missionary with a Bible under his arm" technique be used in approaching unreached people groups? For example, could drones be used to drop gifts or pictographs for a while, before making contact? What would happen if a team of dedicated, accountable, and praying Christians would seek the will of God in finding the most effective way of approaching a people group that are hostile to outsiders?

These questions are to stimulate our thoughts; not provide absolute answers. While Chau’s death may look like a failure, one positive thing it has accomplished is to draw people’s attention to this little people group. Previously unknown, many people around the world will likely be praying for the Sentinelese now. Will you join them in prayer?

~Mike Atnip and Ernest Eby

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