A man who grew up in Vancouver was killed by an isolated Indian Ocean island tribe known to shoot at outsiders with bows and arrows, Indian police said Wednesday.
The man has been identified as John Allen Chau, 26.
Police officer Vijay Singh said seven fishermen have been arrested for facilitating Chau’s visit to North Sentinel Island, where the killing occurred. Visits to the island are heavily restricted by the government.
The Sentinelese people live on the small forested island and are known to resist all contact with outsiders, often attacking anyone who comes near.
A news brief published in The Columbian in 2009 says Chau, a Salmon Creek resident, attended Vancouver Christian High School.
The Associated Press reported that Chau had described himself as being from Alabama. But it appears he spent his formative years in Clark County. Public records show he was registered to vote in Vancouver. In a blog post, he said Table Mountain, one of his favorite hometown adventures, was 45 minutes from his home.
According to the nearly decade-old Columbian news brief, Chau had received the Royal Rangers Gold Medal of Achievement at Mountain View Christian Center in Ridgefield, the Assemblies of God equivalent to the Eagle Scout award.
“(M)edalists do a Christian service project as part of the process. Chau, a junior at Vancouver Christian, designed the (website) for Chi Alpha, the Assemblies of God outreach program at Washington State University Vancouver,” the brief says.
Chau also participated in local photography contests, according to archived articles.
North Sentinel is in the Andaman Islands, a group of islands at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
Indian media reports said Chau was on an adventure trip to the islands, and his body had been spotted by the fishermen. Singh said police were in the process of recovering the body.
Chau may have been trying to convert the islanders to Christianity, according to the New York Times. Right before he left in his kayak, Chau gave the fishermen a long note. In it, police officials said, he had written that Jesus had bestowed him with the strength to go to the most forbidden places on Earth.
Chau organized his visit to the island through a friend who hired seven fishermen for $325 to take him there on a boat, which also towed his kayak, said Dependera Pathak, director-general of police on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
He went ashore in his kayak on Nov. 15 and sent the boat with the fishermen out to sea to avoid detection, Pathak said. He interacted with some of the tribespeople, giving them gifts he had prepared, such as a football and fish. But the tribespeople became angry and shot an arrow at him, which apparently hit a book he was carrying, Pathak said.
Chau’s kayak became damaged, so he swam to the fishermen’s boat, which was waiting at a prearranged location. There he spent the night and wrote out his experiences on pages of paper which he gave to the fishermen, Pathak said. He set out again to meet the tribespeople on Nov. 16.
But on the morning of the following day, the waiting fishermen saw from a distance his body being dragged by tribesmen. They left for Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where they informed Chau’s friend, who notified his family, Pathak said.
He said the family got in touch with Indian police and U.S. consular officials.
“It was a case of misdirected adventure,” he said.
Police arrested the seven fishermen and charged them with endangering the life of the American by taking him to a prohibited area.
Kathleen Hosie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state, said it was aware of reports concerning an American in the islands.
“When a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities as they carry out their search efforts,” Hosie said. She said she could not comment further due to privacy considerations.
Survival International, an organization that works for the rights of tribal people, said the killing of the American should prompt Indian authorities to properly protect the lands of the Sentinelese and other Andaman tribes.
“The British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survives. So the Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable,” Stephen Corry, the group’s director, said in a statement.
Shiv Viswanathan, a social scientist and a professor at Jindal Global Law School, said North Sentinel Island was a protected area and not open to tourists. “The exact population of the tribe is not known, but it is declining. The government has to protect them,” Viswanathan said.
Poachers are known to fish illegally in the waters around the island, catching turtles and diving for lobsters and sea cucumbers. Tribespeople killed two Indian fishermen in 2006 when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore.
In an interview with travel blog The Outbound Collective from several years ago, Chau said he worked for AmeriCorps and that he was “an explorer at heart.” The Indian police said he had visited the Andamans at least three times.
When asked what was the top of his must-do list, Mr. Chau had wrote: “Going back to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India is on the top — there’s so much to see and do there!”
Recovering the Body
Indian authorities were struggling Thursday to figure out how to recover the body of an American killed after wading ashore on an isolated island cut off from the modern world.
John Allen Chau was killed last week by North Sentinel islanders who apparently shot him with arrows and then buried his body on the beach, police say.
But even officials don’t travel to North Sentinel, where people live as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, and where outsiders are seen with suspicion and attacked.
“It’s a difficult proposition,” said Dependera Pathak, director-general of police on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where North Sentinel is located. “We have to see what is possible, taking utmost care of the sensitivity of the group and the legal requirements.”
Police are consulting anthropologists, tribal welfare experts and scholars to figure out a way to recover the body, he said.
While visits to the island are heavily restricted, Chau paid fishermen last week to take him near North Sentinel, using a kayak to paddle to shore and bringing gifts including a football and fish.
It was “a foolish adventure,” said P.C. Joshi, an anthropology professor at Delhi University who has studied the islands. “He invited that aggression.”
Joshi noted that the visit not only risked Chau’s life, but also the lives of islanders who have little resistance to many diseases.
“They are not immune to anything. A simple thing like flu can kill them,” he said.
Chau is believed shot and killed by arrows, but the cause of death can’t be confirmed until his body is recovered, Indian authorities said.