Across the world there are very few people who can say with certainty that their family has lived in the same place for thousands of years.
On the remote Andaman Islands, 750 miles off India’s eastern coast, the tribes collectively known as the Great Andamanese can do just that. Thought to have been part of the first successful human migrations out of Africa, they have lived on the islands for up to 65,000 years. As a result, like many tribal peoples, they know their territories intimately; their homelands are the backbone of their very existence. Over the course of millennia, these rainforested islands have sculpted their unique identities, languages and views of the world.
The very last member of one of the Great Andamanese tribes died recently. Boa Senior’s people had suffered hugely in her lifetime; the population of her tribe known as ‘Bo’ had been decimated during the 20th Century as a result of conflicts with British settlers and diseases brought in by colonizers. For the past few decades, many of the tribes have been largely dependent on the Indian government for food, shelter and clothing; depression is common, abuse of alcohol is rife.
The death of Boa Senior represents the death of one of the oldest human cultures on earth. As she was also the last person to speak her ancient language, she has taken with her to the grave the extraordinary knowledge, wisdom, memories and ideas embedded in her people’s words.
Tragically, the global oppression of tribal peoples has been relentless for hundreds of years. Since Christopher Columbus swept through Brazil in the 15th Century, killing many of the continent’s Indians, tribal peoples have been persecuted by powerful forces – governments, colonizers, armies and governments – determined to profit from their lands. Such loss and destruction of lands is often at the very heart of the problems tribal people face. And as many still have such profound practical, and spiritual connections to their lands, separation from them is catastrophic.
The organization Survival International was established in 1969 to defend the lands and protect the lives of tribal peoples such as Boa Senior. For 40 years the organization has striven to show the world that tribal peoples are not backward; that they are evolving, modern, complex societies like any other and that they need to be accorded the same human rights – that they have every right to live on their own lands in the way they see fit. Survival works with tribal peoples across the globe – from the Yanomami of Brazil to the Penan of Sarawak, from the Nenet reindeer herders of Siberia to the Bushman of Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Survival has also recently published ‘We are One’, an anthology of prose, poetry and photographs about tribal peoples. We Are One celebrates the lives, homelands and values of tribal peoples and explores the relevance of their beliefs and wisdom to the present time. It shows how their philosophies often place human values above those of economics, and tend to value balance with nature as a prerequisite for the future of the planet. Contributors include Richard Gere, Jane Goodall, Peter Matthiessen, Steve McCurry and Sebastiao Salgado. The book is available at
Survival has now opened a US office in order to reach the many US individuals interested in and supportive of tribal peoples and the many contemporary issues that they face. Situated in the David Brower Center, Berkeley, California, it is well placed to reach the many US supporters. Run by Tess Thackara, the office will focus on initiatives to encourage support for tribal peoples and their movement towards self-determination. To learn more about Survival’s work, visit http://www.survivalinternational.org/