Indian Police Have Tense Standoff With Tribe That Killed American Missionary As They Seek To Retrieve His Body

A remote island in the Indian Ocean.
Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / Shutterstock

Police in India were locked in a tense, long-distance standoff with members of the remote tribe that killed an American missionary as they tried to devise a way to get his body back off the island.

John Allen Chau had documented his trip to North Sentinel Island in the hope of converting the notoriously isolated tribe to Christianity. The Sentinelese people have resisted all contact with the modern world, living in a pre-Neolithic society and attacking outsiders who try to approach the island. As Channel News Asia reported, Indian officials are now studying just how they can approach the tribe without causing any more disturbance so they can retrieve the American missionary’s body.

Chau was reportedly killed by arrow-wielding members of the tribe after he reached the island last week in the hope of converting the Sentinelese people to Christianity. Fishermen who he had paid to ferry him there said they saw Chau shot with arrows and dragged across the sand, where he was buried.

As the report noted, Indian police took a boat to the island on Saturday and had a tense standoff with members of the tribe, who have been known to kill outsiders who end up on the island and even point arrows at helicopters flying overhead.

“Using binoculars, officers – in a police boat about 400 meters from the shore – saw the men armed with bows and arrows, the weapons reportedly used by the isolated tribe to kill Chau as he shouted Christian phrases at them.”

“They stared at us and we were looking at them,” said one of the officials leading the effort to recover Chau’s body.

Officials have been working with other experts who have studied the tribe to learn more about the way they behave toward outsiders and how they show aggression.

Some have criticized the effort to retrieve Chau’s body, saying it puts the tribe in even greater risk. Because they have had no contact with the outside world, the roughly 40 to 150 members of the tribe have no resistance to a number of modern diseases, including measles. The Indian government had outlawed any contact with the tribe for that reason. The BBC reported that the efforts to recover Chau’s body have now been put on hold.

Though Indian officials have said John Allen Chau’s death would be considered a homicide, they said there are no plans to charge the Sentinelese people.