John Allen Chau, 26, an avid outdoorsman from southwestern Washington state, was killed Saturday after visiting North Sentinel Island. Its protected inhabitants are among the last in the world to have resisted contact with the rest of humanity.
Friends of the evangelical adventurer said he was determined bring Christianity to the Sentinelese tribe — which is known for attacking anyone who approaches — and sailed there with the help of local fishermen.
The case has angered conservation groups who said visits endangered the tribe's safety.
"Words cannot express the sadness we have experienced about this report," his family said late Wednesday in a statement posted on his Instagram account. "He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people."
They added: "We forgive those reportedly responsible for his death. We also ask for the release of those friends he had in the Andaman Islands. He ventured out on his own free will and his local contacts need not be persecuted for his own actions."
Local police are still figuring out how to locate and recover the American's body without further disturbing the tribe.
"The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone, and their wishes should be respected."
Chau attended Vancouver Christian High School and graduated from Oral Roberts University, a Christian college in Oklahoma, in 2014, with a degree in health and exercise science. While there, he worked with the university's missions and outreach department.
"I have never known a more courageous, selfless, compassionate man and friend," said Bobby Parks, the department's former director. "John lived and gave his life to share the love of Jesus with everyone."
Chau was involved with Parks' nonprofit, More Than a Game, a soccer program for disadvantaged children, including refugees.
Chau traveled to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq in 2014 to work with young Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Parks said. He also worked with Burmese refugee children in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for several years.
Casey Prince, 39, of Cape Town, South Africa, met Chau five years ago when they traveled with members of his university's soccer team.
He told the Associated Press that Chau was easy to like, kind, joyful and driven by twin passions: a love of the outdoors and fervent Christianity.
"He was an explorer at heart," Prince said. "He loved creation and being out in it, I think having probably found and connected with God that way, and deeply so."
He said Chau accepted the dangers that came with his travels. "If he was taking a risk, he was very aware of it," Prince said.
Dependra Pathak, director general of police on India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said Chau arrived in the archipelago Oct. 16. It was not his first time in the islands, having visited in 2015 and 2016.
Chau organized his visit to North Sentinel through a friend who hired seven fishermen for $325 to take him there on a boat, which also towed his kayak, Pathak said.
The island was completely off-limits until earlier this year, but visits are still heavily restricted and required permissions that Pathak said had not been sought.
The American went ashore in his kayak on Nov. 15 and sent the boat with the fishermen out to sea to avoid detection, Pathak said in a news release. He interacted with some of the tribespeople, offering gifts such as a football and fish. But the tribespeople became angry and shot an arrow at him, hitting a book he was carrying.
Chau swam back to the fishermen's boat and for the night and set out again to meet the tribespeople on Nov. 16.
On Nov. 17, the waiting fishermen watched from a distance as the tribesmen dragged Chau's body.
Pathak said the seven fishermen were charged with endangering the life of the American by taking him to a prohibited area on his "misplaced adventure."
He was apparently killed by arrows but the cause of death can't be confirmed until his body is recovered, Pathak said.
Police surveyed the island by air Tuesday, and a team of police and forest department officials used a coast guard boat to travel there Wednesday and another trip was planned Thursday, he said.
Survival International, a global advocacy non-profit for tribespeople, described the Sentinelese as an "uncontacted" community of between 50 and 200 people who "vigorously reject all contact with outsiders."
"This tragedy should never have been allowed to happen. Indian authorities should have been enforcing the protection of the Sentinelese and their island for the safety of both the tribe, and outsiders," said Survival International director Stephen Corry. "The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone, and their wishes should be respected."