Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
No one really knows how many uncontacted tribes remain. What’s certain is that post-contact, and for all of the reasons we understand only too well, the exposed societies almost always collapse into sickness, inveterate poverty, or utter annihilation. This is the principle reasoning of those who argue against pursuing contact with the very few human beings who remain outside of the collective box. And if — and we know that it does — exposing an uncontacted peoples to satisfy our own curiosity means that we kill them all with microbes, or the survivors end up as child prostitutes and indentured labor in some malarial Brazilian mining camp, then shame on us.
Because we know better.
But its also possible that making contact, establishing relations, and enacting rigorous protections to preserve and defend vanishing peoples is as worthwhile as establishing conservation fisheries. I’m not equating people with fish, mind you, but I am supporting the concept as it applies to preserving an endangered species. The Brazilian government, and in particular FUNAI, has made some efforts at this, but one can’t help but believe that the overwhelming interests of the Brazilian Gross National Product will win out.
And then we all lose.
So what to do? We are told that most of the remaining pre-contact human societies are likely to live deep in the densest jungles of South America, in the Peruvian-Brazilian hinterlands, though the Sentinelese islanders of the Indian Ocean offer an exceedingly rare exception, and contact with some peoples of the New Guinea highlands are comparatively recent.
The world is largely laid bare. The question is, do we have room, morally, spiritually, or practically, to allow these people to live in an alternate universe from the one the rest of us have created and insist on? And if we do, what are we willing to do to protect them?
The Sentinelese of the Indian Ocean region are thought to have inhabited their island for 50–60,000 years, and though they have been contacted (which is a general term, indicating various levels of nonexistent to sporadic interaction) the Indian government has at least recognized failures made elsewhere in the Andaman island chain–where indigenous peoples with continuous contact now live in utter dependency–and rendered further outside efforts at contact with the Sentinelese illegal. The fact that the Sentinelese are extremely isolated on their island, and aggressive with outsiders, has only helped them survive, but it is also likely that the law lacks teeth.
We can never know, beyond reasonable doubt, who the first european to make contact–in their own territory–with the Plains Indians was, of course, but Elizabeth Fenn, in her excellent book Encounters at the Heart of the World, makes an interesting case for a frenchman named Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce Lahontan, who left a travelogue of his travels from the tip of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, across modern Wisconsin and Iowa, through Nebraska into the present day Dakotas in 1688–89.
One of the parallel developments Fenn documents is the importance of the calumet in Plains Indian societies. The calumet, or peace pipe, which archaeologists now believe originated with Caddoan speaking peoples, or ancestors to the semi-nomadic Pawnee tribe–was making its way up the Missouri River and establishing itself as an essential element of native life, in personal, intra, and inter-tribal ceremonies and relationships. From the lower Missouri river habitations up into the present day Dakotas, where the Mandan and Hidatsa peoples were living in various evolutions of the earthen lodge, the frenchman, with his cadre of Fox guides, continued until he outpaced the political reach of the calumet where he suddenly found the peoples unwelcoming. That’s a nice historical touch that Fenn worked out, and has an interesting ring of truth about it.
Lahontan describes numerous encounters with native peoples which were likely firsts, 100 years before Lewis and Clark, and describes meeting captives of these peoples–the early Mandan and Hidatsa tribes–who told them that before captivity they had lived in plank houses, wore conical hats and cape-like blankets, and built large oceangoing canoes that carried many people. The only people like that we are aware of in North America were the native inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. The discovery, in archaeological digs of Mandan and Hidatsa sites along the Missouri, has also revealed a marine mollusk called Dentalium. This mollusk originates in the PNW, folks, and these revelations, combined with Lahontan’s ignored, or rejected, narrative are tantalizing as it concerns their revelations of life before contact.
Close your eyes, for just a second. Take a deep breath. Imagine, if you will, paddling up the mighty Missouri River in August. It’s swampy hot, you are tired and your mind is full of straw and you are starving on the most remote frontier in the world. Turning a bend on that river you look up to see, suddenly, out of nowhere, a flourishing village of Mandan Indians, magnificent in their health and wealth, gathered on the banks and suddenly singing, chasing your canoes up-river, and welcoming you.
For many years that’s the way it is described to us as happening.
George Catlin, a former lawyer who spent his later years desperately trying to sell the priceless collection of paintings he made of native peoples to the US government, made five trips up the Missouri in the 1830s. Starting in St. Louis, he eventually contacted 50 different tribes and created over 500 paintings depicting the lives of native cultures still relatively unscathed by contact. This is not to gloss over epidemics of disease, which had laid waste to large numbers of people prior to Catlin’s travels–but that is a bottomless pit of argument and a waste of time for my purposes.
What is clear is that Catlin made contact, ingratiated himself, and left us a record that we simply would not have otherwise. He gave us a peephole into a history now bulldozed, damned up, erased, and forced forever into the realm of imagination.
The fact of uncontacted tribes exists, almost in the surreal, in our present life. So does climate change and any number of other ills of disputed origin. But I come down strictly, permanently, and with great fervor, on the side of those who would attack an airplane or a helicopter with long bows, who would resist, to death, the destruction of their way of life in the face of odds they cannot possibly appreciate. And that is not a wholesale condemnation of our own way of life — I’m all for painkillers, dental care, and Elvis Presley — it is merely one man’s pathetic embrace of the notion that there is more to all of this than the singular path we have travelled on, and a stringent belief that we can — and probably should insist on — allow alternatives to the rocket fueled world of progressive extinction, without crushing the last free tribes mindlessly into memory.