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Q:

Dear 100 Hour Board,

If an ethnic group dwindles in numbers, should a government take measures to prevent its extinction? We do it for endangered species, would we do it with peoples?

Say, for example, the Australian aboriginals were going extinct, and in X amount of years there would be virtually no aboriginals left in the world. Would the Australian government take measures to preserve this ethnic group? Should they?

-Thinking Emoji

A:

Dear You,

First of all, different ethnicities is not the same thing as different species, so let's get that straight. While losing an entire culture is obviously devastating, it's not the same thing as losing a different species, because all humans actually belong to the same species regardless of their ethnicity (I'll file that last clause away in sentences I never thought I would have to say). 

As to whether the government (of any country) should "take measures to preserve" minority ethnic groups, that depends on what we're talking about. Should governments give autonomy, respect, and support to indigenous peoples as they (the indigenous people) decide how to maintain their culture in today's world? Heck yeah.

Should the government do everything possible to make up for past wrongs to indigenous people (for example, through reparations, like Aboriginal people in many parts of Australia receive)? Absolutely, although I am wary of governments using reparations, or whatever one token thing they do, just so they can say, "Great, we've solved all their problems! This group is now totally fine and our past wrongs don't affect them anymore." Again, the government should actually be doing everything possible to make up for past wrongs, not just doing one thing and then calling it good.

Should the government come up with its own plan for how to "prevent the extinction" of an ethnic group? No. That's very Big Brother-y, and could lead to so many awful policies. For example: "In order to preserve Australia's native Aboriginal people, they now can only marry other Aboriginal people, and each couple must have at least 2 children to maintain the replacement rate." What a nightmarish, segregationist policy to "save" a group that was doing fine before white people messed them up in the first place. I'm not saying that exact scenario would happen if the government (again, of any country) was given the power to regulate how an indigenous or minority group should maintain their population, but it could easily devolve into that. And that's not a power that any government should have. 

Throughout history several governments and individuals have set up programs meant to "save" indigenous groups, and they've been almost universally awful. There was the idea that Christian colonizers to the Americas and Africa had to "save the souls" of native peoples by forcing them to convert to Christianity. Those policies were used to justify genocide. There were the boarding schools set up in the US, Canada, and Australia with the express purpose to "kill the Indian and save the man," where Native American children were sent to schools where they were forced to assimilate to white culture. At these schools the children were often abused and exposed to deadly diseases, and decades later the survivors still show a far worse quality of life than their peers who were never ripped away from their families. There were the people who tried to save a member of the Jarawa tribe with modern medicine, and ended up decimating his tribe with measles. There was the missionary last year who tried to "save" the Sentinelese by converting them to Christianity, and instead potentially exposed them all to diseases that may kill the entire tribe. There are the countless times governments have tried to "save" uncontacted tribes with civilization (as if the civilization the indigenous people have developed doesn't count), and instead have wiped away their culture, given them diseases to which they have no immunity, made them dependent on the government, and led to the extinction of the tribe. History has shown that it just doesn't work out well when a government or group imposes its own ideas on a smaller group "for their own good."

If you want a real-life example of an indigenous group that may die out, and the government having to decide what to do about it, check out the case of the Sentinelese. They're often described as the most isolated group of people on the planet, largely through their own doing--they shoot arrows at planes that pass too close overhead, and have killed people who come to their island. This isn't really unprovoked, though. Members of their tribe have been kidnapped in the past, and it's entirely likely that they've had to deal with epidemics after past contact with outsiders. Plus, neighboring tribes in the Andaman Islands have had more contact with the outside world, which has ended with the extinction of some of them, dependence on the Indian government for others, the introduction of drugs and alcohol, and sexual abuse of native women. If the Sentinelese have seen what's happened to their neighbors following contact, it's no wonder they resist it so heavily. Located on one of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, they technically fall under Indian jurisprudence, and Indian officials have estimated their population to be anywhere between 15 and 500 (although most realistic estimations place them at about 80-100 members). Although they still have a high enough population to maintain genetic viability, they could easily all die of disease or in a natural disaster like a typhoon. Anthropologist T.N. Pandit is one of the few people in the world who has had contact with the Sentinelese people, and regularly visited their island between 1967 and 1997, when the Indian government ceased all visits to the island. So what does Pandit, probably the world expert on the Sentinelese, think the government should do to help them? Is he sad that the government stopped his visits to the island? Does he think we should do something to ensure the Sentinelese people don't die out? In his words, "The government’s responsibility should be to keep a watch over them in the sense no unauthorised people reach them and exploit them. Otherwise, just leave them alone" (emphasis mine) (additional sources here and here). That's largely the approach the Indian government has taken with them, and today their only involvement with North Sentinel Island is patrolling the waters around it to make sure that people stay away from it.

For the record, leaving them alone unless the tribe itself initiates contact is also the policy the Brazilian government has adopted with regards to tribes in the Amazon. Brazil has a government agency called FUNAI dedicated to protecting the lands used by indigenous people and helping them maintain their independence, isolation, and autonomy if that's what they desire. There's even one man known simply as "the last of his tribe," because it's thought that his entire tribe was killed decades ago, and to this day he lives completely alone in the Amazon rainforest. FUNAI monitors him occasionally to make sure he's still alive and to protect the land area he roams from cattle ranchers and loggers, but that's all they do. They don't talk with him (it's possible that nobody but him even knows his language), and they don't try to enact any policies to have him interact with other tribes that may be similar to the one he lost, they just protect his right to live without outside interference as much as possible.

As this post by Survival International says, "[indigenous tribes] themselves are best placed to decide what is in their own interests." If an indigenous group were facing extinction and asked for the government to do something specific to help them not die off, yeah, the government should do it. But it's not the government's place to tell indigenous groups what to do, even if we think it's for a good cause, because doing so only leads to more heartache for the indigenous people.

-Alta