Technology today is incredible.
It is possible to travel and see the many natural and manmade wonders of the world. We can learn about things with the mere touch of a button. This opportunity wasn’t available to humans at all prior to about 20 years ago when the internet became more widely available.
With these technological advances and access to the 24/7 news cycle, it’s just like the song says…It’s a small world after all. Or that is our experience anyway.
Maybe it’s understandable when it’s an insect in a remote jungle or bacteria buried under layers of ice in the arctic. But what if it’s humans? How about dozens of uncontacted tribes of people at various locations across the planet?
That is the topic of this article. Groups of people that are sharing our planet, but very much isolated from industrialized society. Who are they? Where are they? So many questions…
Let’s investigate uncontacted tribes.
(Note: Much of the information is taken from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Survival International Charitable Trust, and Cultural Survival. These and other sources cited in the Resources section are excellent and should be referred to for more complete information.)
What is an uncontacted tribe?
Have you heard about lost or undiscovered tribes? That is a myth.
There really aren’t any people that are completely unheard-of to the industrialized world. There are groups of people that choose to isolate themselves from others. It is believed that there are approximately 100 uncontacted tribes in the world.
Just like we know about them, they know about us -to some extent. They fear the outside world and have chosen to avoid contact.
Why the extreme fear? Recall from your history lessons the many stories of explorers coming upon “new” territories and claiming it and its resources for their country. Perhaps you recall the tragedy of explorers coming in and decimating the existing population with illnesses? Or people being enslaved to serve the new immigrants? Or home and land being taken away to serve the new settlers? All of these are good reasons to be afraid.
These “lost” tribes have either had contact similar to those experiences or their ancestors have and the stories have survived through oral histories carrying warning of contact.
The correct terminology for these groups are uncontacted tribes or indigenous peoples of voluntary isolation. That is because they currently have no peaceful contact with anyone in the mainstream or dominant society. The only contact has been violent.
These peoples are not to be regarded as “backwards”, “stone age” or “primitive”. They are not. They are capable, wise, robust, and versatile. They have culture, language, and tradition. I imagine we are quite odd indeed from their perspective. Frankly, we all feel like that at times.
If you have ever watched any kind of survival show on television you know it isn’t easy to survive in the wilderness without industrialized conveniences. In a few cases, these groups have survived for up to tens of thousands of years in isolation.
Over that time, they have obviously learned and adapted to their environment. The intimate relationship with their land and territories is undeniable. Their environment provides all the resources they need for food, shelter, clothing, medicine, religion, weapons, and anything else you can think it. It sustains them and without it they would perish. Herein lies their biggest vulnerability.
What is the correct term and how does it impact identity?
Concerning these groups there is a lot of terminology bandied about. To straighten them out, here are term definitions courtesy of Survival International:
A people is a distinct identifiable society.
Indigenous peoples are the descendants of those who were there before others who now constitute the mainstream and dominant society. They are defined partly by descent, partly by the particular features that indicate their distinctiveness from those who arrived later, such as their language and ways of life, and partly by their own view of themselves.
The term indigenous can be controversial in Australia where the preferred term is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If there is a local preference, that term should be used whenever possible. However, when trying to classify many groups of people it is difficult to come to a consensus that doesn’t offend a particular group. Generally, indigenous is accepted.
A tribe is a distinct people, dependent on their land for their livelihood, largely self-sufficient, and not integrated into the national society.
Indigenous peoples across the world often have similar problems such as lack of political representation and exclusion from decision making that directly impacts them as a group. These are just a couple of instances of discrimination encountered.
It is a deeply insensitive and impossible task to define another person in your own terms, no less groups of people. For this reason, the United Nations correctly believed it is best for each group to be able to define themselves.
But how can legislation and measures be taken to address the needs of these groups? Imagine how much harder it is to try to protect and manage concerns around groups that want no part of the process or the people trying to protect them.
The United Nations has worked around this problem by setting up criteria that shall be met to be classified as indigenous and tribal peoples. The criteria is as follows:
- Tribal peoples whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations.
- Peoples who are regarded as indigenous and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.
- The Convention also states that self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply.
Where are the uncontacted tribes located?
There are approximately 100 uncontacted tribes located in 8 countries/regions of the world.
- North Sentinel Island (of India’s Andaman Islands)
- West Papua
Why are these tribes threatened?
To put it simply, money.
The one thing that these tribes want is their land. Actually make that two things, they want their land and to be left alone.
Their land includes the resources native to it. The resources contain the material, cultural and spiritual means paramount to their survival.
These peoples have lived sustainably on their land for generations. Not only do they not need us, we are a danger to them.
Even well-intentioned people cause harm. Missionaries, tourists, and even officials from protective organizations are a potential danger. Not only do we violate them with our cameras and waste, we bring in viruses and bacteria to which they have no resistance.
As for the not-so-well-intentioned, there are several ways these parties are a threat…
- If they get too close, they can scare away the animals that are a source of food.
- If they take the resources, that leaves the tribes without the necessary supplies for life.
- If they encroach on their land, it drives the tribe to more and more isolated locations. Locations likely not as well-suited for their livelihood.
- If they need labor or unconfronted access to the land, threatening parties have been known to massacre or enslave the local tribes.
- Also, just as with the well-intentioned parties, waste and viruses/bacteria can be introduced to the area.
This causes a dilemma. How can we protect them if we can’t even get close to them without endangering them? How can we protect their land if we don’t know where they are? That is why they are in such a vulnerable state.
Why don’t we just assimilate these groups into industrialized society?
First off, why should they assimilate to us? They have a right to be there. Just as it is their right to communicate, if they want. It is their choice to assimilate or not.
Why shouldn’t the dominant society assimilate to them? It goes both ways.
Historically, assimilation doesn’t often turn out well for tribespeople. They often end up in the lower levels of society in roles such as beggars and prostitutes. That definitely doesn’t sound better than thriving freely in nature as your culture has done forever.
Assimilation can have other disastrous effects on the people such as: poverty, alcoholism, unemployment or utter dependence on tourism. The tourism exploits their culture and it is the tour operators that usually end up with a bulk of the money.
Not only the people suffer when they are taken from their homeland. Their culture itself suffers irreparable damage.
● Loss of language. These tribes rely heavily on oral communication. All their knowledge has been passed down through their language. As anyone who has studied a second language knows, there are instances where there is no perfect translation for certain concepts. This would all be lost. (See Related: How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs: 10 tips for the beginner)
● Loss of clanship. When you are taken from the home of your culture and people this can result in a loss of identity and sense of belonging.
● Loss of traditional knowledge. There is a wealth of knowledge that builds over the generations that contributes to every aspect the culture. Without the context of the environment, that knowledge can slip away.
● Loss of diversity. Every different culture has something of value to teach the world. With the extinction of each culture, it is the extinction of that knowledge.
Who has influence regarding the livelihood of uncontacted tribes?
Because of the coupled relationship of these tribes with their land, anything that threatens their land/resources threatens their livelihood. Unfortunately, their land or the people themselves are valuable resources for many to capitalize on.
Parties threatening the lands and resources of uncontacted tribes:
- Other natural resource industries
- Narcotics traffickers
- Marxist guerrillas
Parties able to make or influence legislation:
- United Nations
- Governments of country/region of habitation (host countries)
- Organizations supporting the cause of indigenous and tribal peoples
What exactly can be done to help these tribes that don’t want any contact with outsiders? The Economic and Social Council at the United Nations has a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). They hope to address issues concerning these tribes through the following mandate:
- To discuss indigenous issues within ECOSOC’s mandate, including economic and social development, culture, environment, education, health and human rights, and make recommendations to the UN system;
- To raise awareness about indigenous issues;
- To integrate and coordinate activities on indigenous issues in the UN system; and,
- To produce materials on indigenous issues.
There are organizations that monitor their location. It is done from as safe a distance as possible. Oftentimes, this is done by plane which must be quite a sight to those without technology in their lives.
How can you help?
One of the roadblocks to enabling their rights is their lack of participation in the process. Participation is closely linked to the principle of the free, prior and informed consent of the communities or groups concerned. Because uncontacted tribes are unwilling/unable to speak on their own behalf, others must do it for them.
That is how you can help. You can support the organizations protecting the interests of these groups. I have found several groups for you to look into. Please note I only did cursory research and you should fully investigate any organization in which you wish to invest your time or money.
1. The United Nations
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is dedicated to the cause. The goal is to protect the basic human rights and principles of:
• Gender equality
• Collective rights (recognition of their histories, languages, identities, lands, territories and resources)
• The right to development
Because of limited contact with these groups, the focus is on recognizing and protecting their lands and resources. This will allow them to live and develop their cultures as they choose without outside influence.
To learn about volunteer opportunities at the United Nations, visit the U.N. Volunteer Site.
2. Survival International
They seek to “…give them a platform to speak to the world. We investigate atrocities and present evidence to the United Nations and other international forums. We support legal representation. We fund medical and self-help projects. We educate, research, campaign, lobby and protest.”
Your efforts can make a difference. You can help in the following ways.
• Writing to the host government.
• Write to your government to urge support of these initiatives or the local host country embassy.
• Donate time or money to the support campaigns.
• Visit the Survival International page.
3. Cultural Survival
They advocate for “Indigenous Peoples’ rights and supports Indigenous communities’ self-determination, cultures and political resilience.”
To learn more about opportunities to help visit the Cultural Survival page.
4. First Peoples Worldwide
They seek to “…focus on funding local development projects in Indigenous communities all over the world while creating bridges between our communities and corporations, governments, academics, NGOs and investors in their regions.”
To learn about joining a project, volunteering, or donating visit the First Peoples Worldwide site.
(See Related: Have some time? Volunteer online)
Do you ever feel isolated?
It sheds a different light on the feeling of isolation. Talk about being off-the-grid!
It is interesting to think about what life would be like in these tribes. Who is to say which life is better? Who is happier? Who is more generous and compassionate? Which life is more authentic?
(See Related: 25 life lessons I have learned from my years on Earth)
The sense of community must be extremely tight. The culture must be rich without being diluted by outside influence. Just so interesting to think about.
Have you ever given any thought to these people or their protection? If you want to participate or help their cause, please use the resources provided to do that. It is amazing what a difference a single person can make.
Let me know your thoughts and feelings in the comments.
“Cultural Survival.” Cultural Survival. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015. <http://www.culturalsurvival.org/>.
“FUNAI.” QUEM SOMOS. National Indian Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015. <http://www.funai.gov.br/index.php/quem-somos>.
Guidelines on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues from United Nations
Resource Kit on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues from United Nations
“Survival International – The Movement for Tribal Peoples.” Survival International – The Movement for Tribal Peoples. Survival International Charitable Trust, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015. <http://www.survivalinternational.org/>.
“The Challenges We Face.” The Challenges We Face. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015. <http://www.firstpeoples.org/who-are-indigenous-peoples/the-challenges-we-face>.
The Lost Tribes of the Amazon from Smithsonian Magazine
Wallace, Scott. The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes. New York: Crown, 2011. Print.