The Allure of the 'Disappearing' Tribe

From pagan tribes in Pakistan to Inuits in Greenland, traditional tribes aren't disappearing, just transitioning.

A hazy image depicts a nearly naked man amid a vast swathe of rainforest, spear held aloft and pointed at both the helicopter and photographer hovering above him – a man defending his territory and people from outside influence.

This very scene made front-page news some years ago in the UK. It instantly highlighted the loss of ancestral homelands some tribal communities face as a result of ever-expanding palm-oil plantations in Sumatra and Borneo, for example, or logging in Brazil.

The challenges they face are real and serious, and the campaigning done by human-rights organizations, such as Survival International, is crucial.

However, bad news has a way of dominating the headlines, so we're of the opinion that all indigenous communities and their culture are in decline – and that's not true.

The Māori make up 18 percent of New Zealand's population; 38.9 percent of Guatemala's population are Amerindian; and the Sami spread across Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia are thriving.

But the potential threat of loss is a harrowing story that garners clicks and the allure of propagating the 'disappearing tribe' narrative is strong. It's frustrating to see journalists (both print and television) who go on assignment with a set story in mind and then seek out quotes, experiences or interviews to fit their predetermined angle.

Why do we do it? Sentimentality.

Jonny with Saifullah Jan
Jonny Bealby with Saifullah Jan, the chief spokesperson for the Kalash Jonny Bealby

During my travels through India, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early nineties, I spent some time living with the Kalash, a pagan tribe that inhabits three narrow valleys in the Hindu Kush mountain range of northern Pakistan. I became firm friends with Saifullah Jan, the chief spokesperson for the Kalash, lived with his family and we're still in touch to this day. Indeed, starting my travel company, Wild Frontiers, was his idea. He told me he thought it would be good for both my international tourists, and his community to meet each other, share stories and through such meetings, he believed the Kalash would not only earn some much-needed cash but also realize their culture was special and worth maintaining.

Back then I remember talking to a very serious aid worker in the American Club in Peshawar who told me quite categorically the Kalash, surrounded as they are on all sides by conservative Islam, had no chance of survival and would be gone in 10 years. That was 25 years ago. When I caught up with Saifullah recently, I asked what his response was to those who claim Kalash culture is dying.

"It's not true," he exclaimed. "The Kalash culture and community is as strong today as it was when you first came. We still have our festivals and shrines to your gods: Sagi Gol, Mahandeo and Jatch. We still have a shaman, bow shakers, and Qazis (Guardians of the Legends) – people who are holding the culture, the religion. And what's more our younger people are becoming more and more proud of their culture – they know they are different and they like it. Many are learning the old ways from their fathers," he added. "There are now over 4,000 Kalasha. Back in the 1970s they were maybe 2,500. We are many more now."

Will Millard, a friend, expedition leader and TV presenter who spent a year living with the Korawai of West Papua, agrees. "Perhaps tribal communities aren't in decline, but just in transition," he told me.

Will Millard
Will Millard with member of the Korawai tribe of West Papua Jonny Bealby

"As a human society, we are in a constant state of flux. We accuse them [indigenous communities] of losing their culture because they're wearing clothes, or using a gun instead of arrows, but a T-shirt doesn't make them any less of a Korawai man. Culture lives below the surface," added Millard.

Evaluating the 'authenticity' of another culture is not our place.

"Just because a Welshman doesn't always carry leeks, doesn't make him less Welsh – and yet we impose these silly rules on tribal communities," Millard half-joked.

While I realize this is not always the case, many traditional communities' lives are changing for acceptable reasons. We cannot keep them in a goldfish bowl for our own sentimental longing for a time past. They cannot remain static forever, and wanting to protect notions of innocence and primitivism is backward and blinkered. The Kalash live in a harsh environment; the desire for decent shoes and gloves is natural.

And we should be careful of romanticizing tribal people; whether through stylized portrait photography portraying them as art, or via tours engineered to play up aspects of their culture that they would've otherwise abandoned for a more efficient way.

"Interestingly, during My Year with the Tribe," Millard told me, "the community had latched onto the stereotypes the West had propagated and started engaging in a performance art of sorts, by 'selling' their culture back to the film crew."

Rather than disappearing, they are diversifying: from the ochre-daubed Himba in Namibia exploring homestays to the Greenlandic Inuit offering foraging tours.

Pakistan Kalash
Girl dances at the Kalash spring festival of Joshi Jonny Bealby

They are finding ways to balance their values and culture in sustainable ways – and those changes shouldn't be measured by our stereotypes of success or expectations of how much change is acceptable.

Indeed, perhaps the root of our fixation with 'disappearing' tribes comes from our own sense of lost identity as Western culture begins to feel increasingly homogenized.

So let's resist the temptation to only tell one side of the story. Many tribal communities undoubtedly face huge challenges, but where there is a tale of success let's not be shy to share it.

In 1996, UK travel writer Jonny Bealby set out across India and the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. His experiences led to him founding the award-winning travel company, Wild Frontiers.