Hanging On, Just
By Marie Kasavatana Dohrs 24 November 2014
Deep in the jungles of North Sentinel Island, off the coast of the largest Andaman Island, live an indigenous people known as the Sentinalese. The outside world knows very little about them—no one even knows what they call themselves. They are fiercely private, hostile toward visitors, and have been known to mock gifts and even attack and kill intruders with their arrows and spears.
And not without reason. This particular tribe is something of a “control group” for the few remaining groups of “Negrito” people across Asia—historically referred to as such because they resemble small Africans—because the Sentinelese have successfully survived in isolation, having never been contaminated or taken advantage of by outsiders.
Many of the other “Negritos” have not been so lucky, as they grow more and more marginalized on the outskirts of modern society.
“The Wind in the Bamboo: A Journey in Search of Asia’s ‘Negrito’ Indigenous Peoples” is Edith Mirante’s third book, following 1993’s “Burmese Looking Glass” and “Down the Rat Hole,” published in 2005.
Like the first two, this book is a meandering story of adventure, as she takes us on her 2007-08 journey through Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Andaman Islands to seek out and learn about these ancient and mysterious people.
While this journey is perhaps less dangerous and thrilling than her previous accounts of treks into closed-off Myanmar—no warlords or cyclones or Thai jail stints here—Mirante leads the reader along with insight and humor and the same down-for-anything attitude as ever.
As she quietly befriends the different “Negrito” peoples, Mirante affords us a sensitive and educated perspective into the lives of the indigenous people, in contrast to the tourists who peer in on them from outside the fishbowl.
The “Negritos”—a vaguely derogative term that Mirante rejects, and on principle uses only in quotes throughout the book—have been a source of anthropological fascination for centuries.
Scientists and researchers have measured and tested their skulls and bones, their blood, the proportions of their bodies, and, more recently, their DNA, in order to determine how these diminutive, dark-skinned, curly-haired people came to be in Asia and how they have survived, hidden in the forests of countries inhabited by people with drastically lighter skin and straighter hair.
Mirante offers us periodic insight into this intrusive and objectifying research history, but she’s not interested in delving further into the ancient roots of the “Negritos” or why they exist, but rather how they live and survive today.
Her findings are complex and fascinating but wholly unsurprising, as we learn in this dense, thoroughly researched, and beautifully written book, illustrated with historical paintings and photographs interspersed with photos taken by Mirante herself.
The plight of indigenous people the world over is a tale as old as colonialism, and the “Negritos” are no exception as they resist and concede to attempts to civilize, settle, convert, educate, assimilate, scam, and push them off land that is rightfully theirs.
Misunderstood and different, they are often a source of ridicule in mainstream culture, viewed as primitive, ugly, dirty and lazy; “honored” in horrifying displays of blackface and tribal appropriation while their human rights are largely ignored.
As Mirante gets to know the “Negritos,” she discovers many strange and intriguing similarities among the different groups separated by seas and time, suggesting that the tribes are not so far removed from one another after all—they are nomadic peoples who build lean-to houses, gather roots and fruits and hunt monkeys and lizards with blowpipes, do not farm but have an acquired taste for rice, display a penchant for one-shoulder sarongs and the color red, practice fluidity in gender roles, and believe in spirits of nature and that thunder erupts from the earth.
At each stop, Mirante passes around photos of “Negritos” in other parts of Asia, and they grasp this validation of their existence in the world with excitement and wistful recognition.
Mirante’s experience with the “Negritos” is not an anthropologist’s account of living among the “savages” like those published over the centuries by many of her predecessors, but rather something a bit more melancholy; instead, we see peaceful old-world exotica being swallowed in the din of commercialism.
As the outside world creeps in, the “Negritos” slowly lose their culture and land; grow dependent on rice, plastic goods, and the tourism industry; and acquire cell phones, ID cards, and college diplomas. These nomads are increasingly held captive in the conventions of modern society, and Mirante takes us through the appropriate emotions of sympathy, outrage, and plaintive longing for the “Negritos” to simply be left alone.
Like Mirante’s first two books, “The Wind in the Bamboo” is titled after a classic children’s tale of adventure. This time, however, it’s not a Lewis Carroll novel, but Kenneth Grahame’s story of friendship on the leafy river’s edge, “The Wind in the Willows.”
It’s not difficult to see why: The “Negritos” are akin to the elusive Badger, who lives deep in the Wild Wood and would prefer to be left in seclusion; while modern society is not unlike the boisterous and destructive Toad. Badger recognizes that Toad must be protected from himself and tries to reason with him, but the warning falls on deaf ears. In the end, Toad realizes the error of his selfish and impulsive actions, and finds ways to make amends for his wrongdoings.
As we leave the “Negritos,” Mirante leaves us wondering if we, too, will be able to make amends before it is too late—or if the opportunity has already passed.
This article first appeared in the November 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.