The genesis of this article came about when I read “Jarawa Hunter-Gatherers Say They Don’t Want to Be a Part of Our World”, which addresses the problems facing a remote tribe that lives on an island off the coast of India. (Thank you Galina for posting this on Facebook and getting me started down the rabbit hole!) I am only talking about the Jarawa tribe, here. But make no mistake; this is happening everywhere. Similar stories can be found going on right now, in many, if not all, indigenous and tribal societies still fighting for survival today.
The Jarawa left Africa 70,000 years ago and came to India, setting in the Andaman Islands. And they have been living in the same area for that entire time. While India has been aware of them since 1974 by some accounts, they were only “truly” discovered in 1996, when a young man from the tribe was exploring outside their land, broke his leg, and was taken to a hospital. He returned home, and after reporting all the things he had seen, a few years later, in 1998, some of the others began to come out of the jungle, curious. Unfortunately, they couldn’t have known what this would do to their society. They are a happy and trusting people, and they were unprepared for the might of globalization turning it’s eye to them.
“We live really quietly in the forest, and we are happy,” a Jarawa man says in We Are Humanity, a 90 minute French documentary that shines a light on the plight that the Jarawa are facing. . “Here, there is everything we need. The trees are full of fruits, and the flowers are magnificent … We can find everything we need in the jungle.”
This tiny, remote tribe of only 400 people is actually treated like animals in a zoo. Tourists board trucks as many as eight times a day to drive down the Andaman Trunk Road, which cuts across the Jarawa’s ancestral land, hoping to “spot” a member of the tribe. When they do, they not only take pictures, but throw food to them. After huge public outcry, the Indian government promised to close the road. But no progress has been made and it’s now two years past the time when that was to be completed. The road is also used by the military twice a day, and they don’t have a real reason to close it; the Jarawa are peaceful and do not fight back. It’s an accepted fact by the administrators in nearby towns on Andaman Island that nothing is going to happen, and it’ll be stuck in “official delay purgatory” forever.
And now, young girls from the Jarawa tribe are facing sexual abuse from outsiders. A man from the tribe came forward to talk about this issue a few days after 8 girls from their tribe were reportedly kidnapped. The “human safari” also has the side-effect of coercing girls from the tribe to dance half-naked in exchange for food, as described in this heartbreaking snippet:
“Dance,” the policeman instructed. The girls in front of him, naked from the waist up, obeyed. A tourist’s camera panned round to another young woman, also naked and awkwardly holding a bag of grain in front of her. “Dance for me,” the policeman commanded.
The young woman giggled, looked shy and hopped from foot to foot. The camera swung back to the others who clapped, swayed and jumped. This kind of video is the trophy tourists dream of when they set off into the jungles of the Andaman Islands “on safari”. The beauty of the forest functions merely as a backdrop. The goal of the trip is to seek out the Jarawa, a reclusive tribe only recently contacted …
The role of the police is to protect tribespeople from unwelcome and intrusive outsiders. But on this occasion the officer had accepted a £200 bribe to get the girls to perform. “I gave you food,” he reminded them at the start of the video.
All of this is not even mentioning that they have had several outbreaks of measles since contact with the outside world became more frequent. Like many tribal societies the world over, they have no experience with measles and no immunity to it. As such, the disease itself holds the possibility of wiping out the entire tribe. All our heming and hawing and back and forth arguments may come down to the whim of a few germs they they were ill-equipped to handle.
Perhaps worse of all, factions within the Indian government want not only to force contact onto this tribe, who repeatedly say that they just want to be left alone, but are suggesting that they should be “civilized” for “their own good”. Modern society has its values so fucked up and ass-backwards, there are actually people online asking if it is HUMANE to ALLOW the Jarawa to live the tribal lifestyle that they have REPEATEDLY stated that they prefer to live!
The Indian government is attempting to force the Jarawa to assimilate into mainstream society, dictating details down to the style of clothing they think they should wear. In an effort to “wean” Jarawa children from the tribe, members of parliament are suggesting sending them to government schools. Many government officials see themselves as helping a “backwards” culture “stuck in a primitive stage of development1.
Just reading that paragraph made me sick to my stomach. Have we as a species learned nothing in the last hundred years from the way my own government treated the Native Americans here? Are there actually people who consider what our people did to the indigenous people in the USA an success because they are “mainsteamed” (the words of the Indian government, not me)? An Indian lawyer arguing in favor of forcing them into “civilized” mainstream society (mostly so that they can take their ancestral lands and turn their beaches into resorts, re: for profit, not really to help them, again mirroring what happened in my own country in the Old West) went so far as to say “I am civilized, they are not.” I wonder how she would have felt if a British lawyer had said that about her? Does nobody learn from the past?
There were originally 10 tribes on this island, now there are only four left. 6 or so years ago, the last member of the Bo tribe died. I can’t imagine how that person must have felt before dying, knowing they were the last of their culture and there was no younger generation to carry on their traditions and way of life. My heart aches for them. The only good I can see in that situation is that he or she is with their ancestors now. May they be blessed and live in whatever bliss they believe in. One of the other tribes from the island has less than 50 living members left, and it seems inevitable that they will go the way of the Bo tribe eventually. Let’s do everything we can to keep that from happening to the Jarawa!
As Polytheists I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to stand up for our tribal brothers and sisters, to fight for these precious, dwindling cultures the world over. When I hear about one of these dying tribes coming under threat, I vow to spread the word about it. I may not always be able to donate money to Survival International and other indigenous advocacy groups, but my biggest gift and skill is my writing and I am happy to use it to spread the word. The link I am including below to Survival International has a list of things you can do to help the Jarawa, including writing to the Indian government and letting them know that the world is watching how they handle this. Write to your congressmen and senators. Donate to Survival International if you can afford it. Pray to your Gods and spirits. Work magic if you are so inclined. Please, just spread this message. Don’t let the Indian government sweep this planned cultural genocide under the rug. Stand up for traditional tribal societies everywhere.
I’m including a link to Survival International’s page about the Jarawa tribe.
Here is a petition to the Indian Government to close the truck road and adopt a policy of leaving the Jawara alone
Here is a petition from Survival International regarding all uncontacted tribes in general
Indigenous Cultures: Jarawa
Indian Mirror: Jarawa
Aljazeera: Time Ticking for India’s Jarawa Tribe