As some of you know, one of my areas of expertise is first contact in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and in the course of my fieldwork I was lucky enough to speak with a few of the people who remembered the first couple of Australian patrols into the area where I worked in Papua New Guinea. So although I am critical of exoticised stories of ‘first contact’ I do think in certain situations using the term ‘uncontacted’ or ‘first contact’ is appropriate.
But not all situations, and especially not the case of “lost tribe that wasn’t” which our own Jay Sosa “mentioned on SM”:/2008/06/29/around-the-web-19/ recently. This topic was also covered on my colleague “Jamon Halvaksz’s blog”:http://politicsofnature.wordpress.com/2008/06/24/not-so-lost-tribes/. A member of Survival International then left a comment on Jamon’s blog defending the article (see this “press release”:http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes and their own “blog entry”:http://www.survival-international.org/blog/2008/06/23/lost-uncontacted-tribe-knew-exactly-where-they-were/) and directing readers to their “page on uncontacted tribes”:http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes.
So what do anthropologists who specialize in first contact say? Are there ‘uncontacted tribes’? The short answer is ‘no’, and while I appreciate SI’s work on behalf of ‘tribal’ people, I find it disappointing to find that they still use this sort of language. Any one who reads the material on their web page will see that by ‘uncontacted’ they actually man ‘frequently in contact with, and victimized by, outsiders’. Let’s take a look at the evidence from SI’s website.
The opening line of the SI “Campaign for Uncontacted Tribes” reads
Over one hundred tribes around the world choose to reject contact with outsiders. They are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet.
Many of them are living on the run, fleeing invasions of their land by colonists, loggers, oil crews and cattle ranchers. They have often seen their friends and families die at the hands of outsiders, in unreported massacres or epidemics.
This is their story.
Clearly, people fleeing and living on the run who have seen their family die at the hands of outsiders are not ‘uncontacted’. There are then eight links listed in the “learn more” page. These include:
“Why do they hide”:http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes/whydotheyhide – on this page the term ‘uncontacted’ appears in scare quotes and we are told that “Many tribal people who are today ‘uncontacted’ are in fact the survivors (or survivors’ descendants) of past atrocities.”
“The Most Isolated Tribe In The World”:http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes/mostisolated – from the Andaman islands which was apparently contacted in 1879 by British colonial officers.
“Just For Fun”:http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes/justforfun – Another story from the Andamans, which describes visits to the Andamans in the 70s and 80s, followed by a picture with the caption stating that “The British first made contact with some Andamanese tribes in the 19th Century.”
“Before Contact – On The Run”:http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes/ontherun – which begins by describing “The constant incursions of outsiders” into Ayoreo territory.
“Making Contact”:http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes/makingcontact – which is about a first contact made with a group of 24 people (a subset of some larger, previously contacted group, apparently) made over ten years ago.
“Threats”:http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/uncontactedtribes/threats which focuses on the very real threats these people face, but in which we also learn that the ‘uncontacted’ Jarawa ‘tribe’ of Andaman islanders
saw their land split in two when the islands administration built a highway through their territory. It is now the principal road through the islands. There is not only a constant stream of settlers travelling in buses and taxis, but the road acts as a conduit for tourists, and for poachers targeting the Jarawa’s reserve (which, unlike the rest of the islands, is still covered in rainforest). Jarawa children are often seen begging by the side of the road, and there is some evidence of the sexual exploitation of Jarawa women.
So in fact none of the people listed on the ‘uncontacted tribes’ are, according to SI’s own material, actually uncontacted in any straightforward sense of the term. The problem they face is exactly the fact that they are in contact with a world that is giving them the shortest end of the stick possible.
I think SI’s attempts to bring these problems to the attention of the public is admirable, but couching these problems in the language ‘uncontacted’ and ‘first contact’ does not do justice to their situation: decades of direct contact, centuries of influence, and millennia of attenuated interconnection with their fellow human beings.
Perhaps the people at SI are just romantic, or perhaps they just know ‘uncontacted’ is more attention-grabbing than ‘uncontacted except for that highway the tourists use’, or perhaps they are just using the word in a particular way. Whatever the case, using the term ‘uncontacted’ hurts more than than it helps, despite its short term efficacy. It is inaccurate, it draws power from stereotypes that should be overturned rather than used, and it makes us forget that the ‘uncontacted tribes’ we meet have a history, and that ‘tribal’ groups of this sort are often the results of frontier situations rather than preexisting them.
In sum, SI seems to use the word ‘uncontacted’ to mean “at this moment there is no peaceful contact with these tribes,” which seems to really mean “groups with long histories of contact and even longer histories of indirect influence, who currently have violent contact with the outside world. (And who counts as ‘the ouside world’ by the way?) This is fine as well as it goes. But for those of us who use the word ‘uncontacted’ as the opposite of ‘contacted’ — that is to say, who think it means ‘never having been contacted’ these groups are very much ‘contacted’. The inegalitarian nature of this contact is the raison d’etre of SI’s existence — if they were really so ‘uncontacted’ then they wouldn’t be under threat and there’d be no website about them.
So, in sum: support people who are subject to injustice and, if you like, consider doing that by “donating”:http://www.survival-international.org/donate to SI or “getting active”:http://www.survival-international.org/actnow with them. But the next time the topic comes up in conversation and someone tells you that there are ‘uncontacted tribes’ out there totally isolated from the rest of the world, make sure they get their facts straight.