The beachcomber bent down to pick up a nondescript piece of driftwood and broke into a broad smile when she found a bent, rusty nail embedded in the board. Iron. Somebody in that strange and alien world across the sea, the people who miraculously fly through the air, had been careless enough to discard a piece of iron. Didn’t they know that iron made the best arrowheads?
In November, 2018, a self-appointed American missionary, John Allen Chau, paddled his kayak toward a remote island in the Indian Ocean with a simple message to the Sentinelese tribe—perhaps the most primitive and isolated people on Earth. When he approached shore, he shouted, “My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you.”
A warrior shot and killed him with an iron-tipped arrowhead.
Let’s travel back 400-500 years to the time when Europeans colonized the Western Hemisphere, displacing local inhabitants who had been living there for centuries. In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger documents that during this conquest, thousands of frontiersmen and even some women abandoned their settlements and joined the Native American tribes. In addition, many of the European women who were captured during warfare eventually married their captors, and later were so content that they refused to return to “civilization” when the opportunity arose.
In a speech in 1677, Harvard professor, Increase Mather lamented, “People are ready to run wild in the woods again and to be as Heathenish as ever if you do not prevent it.” In 1782, French émigré, Hector de Crevecoeur, wrote, “We have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European… There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted among us.”
Thus, the modern Sentinelese warriors who shot John Allen Chau had the same mindset as the aboriginal Native Americans; they were opportunistic enough to scavenge, trade, or steal that bent nail (or repeating rifle), from foreign civilizations, but not convinced enough of the advantages of an industrialized lifestyle to plow fields, work in factories, or submit to uncompromising political and religious hierarchies.
Time travel once more to 1953, when I bought my first pair of skis. They were made of wood, but I knew the cool kids had metal-edged boards, so I bought an “edge replacement kit”, and screwed steel strips onto the bottoms of the skis (without countersinking the screws) to form raised rails that allowed me to tuck and run, but discouraged anything that resembled turning. Over the past 65 years, I have continuously searched for that metaphorical piece of bent iron on the beach; eager to scavenge, trade, or buy the newest and best sports technology as it has rolled out of the minds and factories of our industrial juggernaut. But at the same time, the creed of any lifer ski bum, surfer, climber, mountain biker, or whatnot, is to constantly turn the wheels of time backward to find that classless and egalitarian Stone Age tribe where the work week was 15 hours long and there were no formal laws: “to run wild in the woods again and to be as Heathenish as ever.”
We boasted in the 60s, “You can work all your life at a mind-numbing job, retire, and go to the beach… Or you can go to the beach.” But focusing on work alone is too narrow sighted. Some jobs are stimulating, not mind-numbing; and we all eat, we all use toilet paper. As I look at it now, from the perspective of my early 70s, my fondest outdoor moments have all involved a human, tribal closeness. When you cuddle for warmth with your partner while tied into a wall on an unplanned bivy, or stand on a snowy ridge with a few friends in the frigid January air, stripping off your skins before dropping that committing line, you are awakening the human closeness and interdependence that gave our hominid ancestors the razor edge to survive on the savannah for millions of years. Too often we underestimate or ignore the importance of that reliance on one another, buried deeply in our DNA.
It’s curious to me that those Sentinelese tribespeople understood 21st century society well enough, without ever visiting its cities, to know that there was existential danger behind those strangers from a different age. That somehow, through some sort of intuition, the archer who shot John Allen Chau saw time moving forward too quickly, drawing the islanders out of the Stone Age. And the tribe wasn’t ready for that journey.
I will never condone murder, for any reason. There are always solutions to our problems without blasting some misguided dude with a rusty nail. But at the same time, I can’t buy the whole packaged lifestyle that modern society is selling and I constantly apologize to my grandchildren for the mess we have bequeathed them. It’s a delicate balance to be sure, but there’s a lot to learn from those who shoot arrows at time.