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“My name is John!” shouted John Allen Chau from his kayak in November 2018 as he paddled toward strangers on the beach of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. “I love you and Jesus loves you!” In response, the people on the remote Indian island strung arrows in their bows. The twenty-six-year-old American missionary and self-styled explorer had elected himself saviour of the souls of the Sentinelese, an Indigenous tribe that aggressively resists contact with the outside world. Save for sporadic visits from an anthropologist with India’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs in the 1960s to ’90s, and two Indian fishermen who were killed in 2006 for venturing too close, the Sentinelese have rarely interacted with outsiders over the past century, making them immunologically vulnerable. Unfazed by the genocidal threat his germs posed and fresh out of missionary boot camp, Chau made repeated attempts to land—ignoring arrows and Indian law—in an effort to bring the Gospel to the Sentinelese. He didn’t survive. That he’s since been celebrated online as a martyr by Christian fundamentalists is sad but not surprising. More alarming is that Chau has been recognized, in profaner circles, for his spirit of adventure.
The New York Times ran with a headline straight out of Hollywood: “Isolated Tribe Kills American With Bow and Arrow on Remote Indian Island.” The article opens with “John Allen Chau seemed to know that what he was about to do was extremely dangerous,” emphasizing the risk and daring of the American’s undertaking. Only the fourth paragraph mentions a Bible, finally revealing the nature of Chau’s illegal mission: converting an Indigenous tribe, against its wishes, to Christianity.
Media coverage of Chau’s acts was disturbing because it didn’t come off as coverage of a crime—at least, not of his crime. Other major news outlets similarly valorized Chau’s legally and morally corrupt foray, highlighting his conviction as if tone-deaf temerity were a quality to admire. Laudatory remarks also came from within the adventure community. “Religious motivations of his trip aside,” Ken Ilgunas, author of This Land Is Our Land and Trespassing Across America, posted publicly on Facebook with a link to the Times article, “this guy seemed like a true adventurer at heart, and I feel a sense of kinship with anyone who dreams of going where they’re not allowed.””
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