Wired.com, which usually knows better, has a photo gallery on its site that “takes you on a tour” of “the last uncontacted people.”  What drove them to publish the images are “the release … last week of a tribe in southwest Brazil.” And because publishing images of people who didn’t necessarily permit their bodies and images to be used is for our collective good. The writer notes that most of these “uncontacted tribes” (he slips between “tribes” and “people” a lot) live in the Amazon, but also India and Peru, and “are often described as living fossils of Stone Age life, flash-frozen in time.” The post contains this disclaimer: “… Such descriptions are unfair: We don’t really know how people lived in the Stone Age, and there’s no reason to think that uncontacted cultures have not continued to evolve in their own unique ways.” It also contains “an Editor’s Note” accompanying a photo of “the tribe in southwest Brazil”: the machete in the photograph was likely obtained through trade with Indians who have made contact.” I also got my bread knife from some people who made contact with the local Walmart – who made contact with some people making knives in China.

Nevertheless, none of these disclaimers and hand-wringing acknowledgements stop them from putting up the gallery. They clearly knew what they are doing. The long comments thread suggests that the anticipated pageview numbers drove this kind of nonsense.

Often, our desires for Prelapsarian locations are maintained via the otherwise well-meaning discourses surrounding land conservation and “rights-protection” meant to maintain the Primitive as primitives: that is, peoples without the ability to negotiate their place in modernity. We connect ourselves – through these mythologies that employ a very “National Geographic” image bank of the “Primitive” and their undisturbed and isolated landscapes – with the powerful desire to return, at least symbolically and temporarily, to Edenic locations, wherein magical ways of life that promise to erase the malaises of post-industrial societies still exist. We situate them as prelapsarian people who enjoy a primordial existence, undamaged by the ventures and desires of modernity – highlighting, at the same time, that they need our protection, as much as we need them.

But such constructions of pristine and primordial landscapes are intended to enclose the indigenous within static, “museumed” identities. These images of “Primitives,” living in harmony with nature and each other persist in the “western” imaginary, but idealistic dreams about “preserving” the indigenous as people who are able to survive in undamaged, “pristine” environments are not based on their modern realities. Although indigenous peoples, like many formerly colonised peoples, are continually engaged in a process of building and refashioning identity, modernity’s desire has typically been to encapsulate, enclose, and “past-ify” the indigenous. In reality, indigeneity has more to do with its encounter with modernity, than with timeless, bounded identities. Indigenous peoples have always altered their environments, including extinguishing species – their small ecological footprints have been in part the product of low populations.

The blurry picture above is apparently of a Sentinelese, a member of “four [groups who] inhabit India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the eastern Bay of Bengal. They’re believed to be direct-line descendants of early migrations from Africa. After the tsunami in 2004, the Indian government sent a helicopter overhead, looking to see how those tribes had fared. On North Sentinel Island, a man ran onto the beach, and fired an arrow at the helicopter.” While the Indian government allows limited visits (with a special permit) by Indian nationals to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, North Sentinel Island is notoriously isolated, because of surrounding sea currents. The adavasi (the respectful manner of addressing the indigenous of South East Asia) prefer not to have visitors, but sometimes greet the passing boat by throwing gifts of coconut.

Though the Indian government has a strict prohibitions on attempting contact with the adavasi of the islands, with bans on photographing them, stopping vehicles while transiting through their land or offering them rides under the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, 1956, new warnings had to be issued to tourism operators in 2008, because they plainly ignore these laws. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of griping by western scientists who bemoan the strictness of the laws banning I-want-to-study-your-body-rituals-for-the-sake-of-expanding-knowledge people: the studies of the Andaman islanders by Indian scientists, they say, are not very good. That’s probably true, becuase up until recently, Indian scientists behaved as though a post in these islands was like a stint at a gulag.  The Sentinelese  have happily avoided much of this mess: they exist in a curious location, beyond international agreements of modern nationhood: they have never conceded sovereignty,  nor ever made any treaties with any invader.–Neelika Jayawardane, Sean Jacobs

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.