Native Americans fear potential exploitation of their DNA

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Until the advent of genetic genealogy, knowing your ancestry meant combing through old records, decoding the meaning of family heirlooms and listening to your parents and grandparents tell you about the ‘good old days.’ For anthropologists and archaeologists interested in going back even further in time, the only reliable means of understanding human history were trying to interpret ruins or remnants of skeletons or other information uncovered at the site of remains.

DNA testing has changed all that, allowing us to delve far deeper into our past than before and with a much higher degree of accuracy. Although there are many issues stirred by DNA testing, none is more provocative than interpreting our family and tribal ancestries.

Nowhere is this more apparent than among the Native American tribes in the US. I previously wrote about a large-scale genetic analysis among the American population by personal genetics and genealogy company 23andMe, using its extensive database to begin to decipher the ancestral origins of various ethnic groups in the United States.

Though the study involved more than 160,000 people, less than one percent of those who participated self-identified as Native American. Rose Eveleth, a journalist writing for The Atlantic suggests that this lack of participation may have a lot to do with how native tribes perceive genetic testing,

But when it comes to Native Americans, the question of genetic testing, and particularly genetic testing to determine ancestral origins, is controversial. […] Researchers and ethicists are still figuring how how to balance scientific goals with the need to respect individual and cultural privacy. And for Native Americans, the question of how to do that, like nearly everything, is bound up in a long history of racism and colonialism.

[…] for Native Americans, who have witnessed their artifacts, remains, and land taken away, shared, and discussed among academics for centuries, concerns about genetic appropriation carry ominous reminders about the past.

Eveleth references the widely publicized case where the Havasupai tribe living near the Grand Canyon sued an Arizona State University scientist for using genetic samples collected from the tribe to conduct research outside of the purpose of the original study. The crux of the issue was the consent form which covered a broad range of uses for the samples—a fact that the tribes claimed were not explained to them appropriately.

Although the tribe won the case, reclaimed the samples, and settled with the university for $700,000, the issue captured the front page of the New York Times. The story put “every tribe in the US on notice regarding genetics research” as Native American tribal research ethics expert Ron Whitener quoted in an article titled “After Havasupai Litigation, Native Americans Wary of Genetic Research” published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A.

The Kennewick Man

The Kennewick Man

Around the same time that the genetics of the Havasupai were being studied, another high-profile issue brought Native American tribes into conflict with researchers. The ‘Kennewick Man,’ an approximately 9000-year-old skeleton was discovered by accident in 1994 in Kennewick, Washington. The Umatilla tribe, which were indigenous to the region, sought to reclaim the remains under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to bury it under traditions. Anthropology researchers who wanted to study the skeleton, however, argued there wasn’t enough evidence to convincingly show that the remains were Native American and therefore should not be returned. This resulted in a widely publicized eight-year-long legal dispute between scientists and the government that ended in 2004 with the court ruling for the archeologists, a decision that the tribes were expectedly unhappy with.

The issue came under the spotlight once again with the Seattle Times reporting on January 17, 2015, that preliminary DNA analyses indicated that the Kennewick Man was indeed of Native American ancestry. Apart from settling the academic debate, this finding could reignite the social and political controversy that surrounded the affair as the tribes engage in renewed efforts to retrieve the skeletal remains and prevent further research on it.

While it is understandable that tribes are concerned about how their personal DNA (and that of their ancestors) is used, it is a stretch to think that this information might be used to “develop biological weapons or justify genocide” as Eveleth suggests. Nevertheless, genetic testing for public health or anthropological purposes is a tricky and thorny path to tread, particularly among Native Americans as she points out in her article:

So to many tribal people, having a scientist come in from the outside looking to tell them where they’re “really” from is not only uninteresting, but threatening. “We know who we are as a people, as an indigenous people, why would we be so interested in where scientists think our genetic ancestors came from?” asks Kim Tallbear, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, the author of Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe.

[…]So what should a geneticist do, if she’s interested in exploring a question that might involve gathering Native American DNA? It depends. Tallbear says that long before any research questions are formulated and samples are taken, the researcher should actually have a relationship with the tribe. “I think people who want to do genetic research on Native American topics really shouldn’t be doing it unless they’ve got a really considerable history of contact with native communities.”

Razib Khan, an evolutionary genetics researcher at the University of California, Davis, takes issue with how Kim Tallbear, an anthropology researcher at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of the book “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science,” discusses the topic in the Seattle Times article (emphasis Khan’s).

Let’s not beat around the bush here, Native Americans and the government and culture of the United States have a fraught relationship. That is true. But today genetics has pretty much zero relevance to the various political debates and arguments. Issues like tribal membership are determined by the cut & thrust of politics, not genomics.[…] And contrary to the implication that Tallbear makes, most scientists who work on Native American genomics don’t do so because of a deep interest in overturning the religious traditions of Native Americans, but because they are interested in the human story, of which Native Americans are an essential part. Rather than ethnic particularism the motives of scientists on the whole are those of universalist humanism.

So one can understand why political activists might balk at the inquiries of geneticists, as universalist humanism often causes problems for those engaged in the great game of ethnic particularism. But what about the academics who lend their voice in support of the latter?

In his analysis, Khan is frustrated—not at how the public is debating the issue but specifically at academics, who give in completely to personal biases and refuse to accept unequivocal genetic evidence. He compares Kim Tallbear with sociologist and intelligent design apologist Steve Fuller, ending with this furious volley (emphasis Khan’s):

Here is an indisputable fact: science is not religion, and the two are very different enterprises. If you don’t accede to this distinction, you have just lost all touch with the empirical world […] The flight from empiricism is exactly what has occurred to many scholars within science studies, probably because that’s where the career incentives are.

Most academics who are skeptical of the “objective” “truth” “claims” of “science” also agree with this fact when they have to put their choices where they mouth is. If they’re diagnosed with “cancer” they won’t put chemotherapy in quotations or demand the services of a tribal shaman. It’s going to be the best science for them and their family. That’s not just a theory, that’s a fact.

While Khan is right, many tribes are quite reluctant to consent to have their DNA or that of their ancestors used for research and antagonizing the tribes through public personal and legal battles might only serve to alienate them further. In her Atlantic essay, Eveleth outlines the cautious approach taken by anthropologist Dennis O’Rourke at the University of Utah and how the native tribes contend with their mixed feelings about research:

… O’Rourke works collaboratively with tribes who are interested in what he’s doing. […] Some tribes, he says, worry about it, while others don’t. “It’s important to be very clear about what my interest in the research questions are,” he said, “so if they’re not of interest to the communities they can make that judgment very early and I don’t waste their time in trying to pursue things that aren’t acceptable.”

[Nick Tipon, vice-chairman of the Sacred Sites Committee of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria] says that most tribes are struggling to balance what good might come with what harm they might be doing to tradition and their ancestors. “If someone could come to us and say ‘yes, if we destroy this ancestor of yours, maybe we’d find a cure to cancer,’ would we still have the same feeling? We’re still struggling with that. Our traditional cultural feeling is you’re buried, that’s where you rest in peace, but all societies change. We talk about it. We wonder where the right answers are.”

This is one of the forks on the road where science and society could part ways at the cost of both—to travel together will require a commitment to strong science and common sense.

Arvind Suresh is a science communicator and writer. He formerly was the Science Media Liaison at the Genetic Expert News Service. Follow him @suresh_arvind.

  • ant

    I highly doubt that there’ll be any full blooded (completely unadmixed with european or african ancestry) native americans who will agree to do the testing because of these politics (except for the tiny handful of Pima who gave samples to the Human Genome Diversity Project).

    You could probably offer to give Native Americans free tests in order to understand diseases common among Native Americans, and the vast majority would turn it down because of these politics.

    Probably the best hope is to try to ask more of the Indigenous peoples of Central and South America, like the Human Genome Diversity Project has done with a few members of the Surui, Colombian, Karitiana, and Maya.

    Dr. Carlos Bustamante of Stanford was able to get some Indigenous Mexican samples, and those samples were used for the actress Jessica Alba to specify her Indigenous Ancestry.

    But even if one was able to obtain more Indigenous samples, (central and south American Indigenous or even United States Native American) it appears highly unlikely that anything would be done with them. They most likely won’t be added to the companies like 23andme or Ancestry.com, probably because the companies will feel that there is no point in trying to break down Native American studies (however, they’ll break their necks to try to have as much studies done on European genetics as possible to satisfy their mostly European-descended customers). So it looks like the actress Jessica Alba will be the only one who will be able to see a breakdown of her Indigenous ancestry.

    • Shanna LeClair

      So lie to the people to get them to agree to the test?? lol..yeah guess that would fit with non-Indians or WHITE race

    • Offer them all booze in exchange for testing and you’ll have them all tested before long… heh

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Interesting article. I saw a web site claiming Cortes married an Aztec woman. Although my last name is Danish. My great grandmother’s maiden name was Cortes. Would love to find out if my grandfather was correct and if I have Aztec cousins, however distant. I understand that my nosy curiosity is not logical. And because of my interest in history, I partially understand the caution of Native Americans. I have little or no sympathy for the activists. But if I was native I would be leery of Dna testing as I would wonder how the gov’t might use the results to violate even more treaties.

  • AndRebecca

    So, are all Americans supposed to submit to genetic testing? The last time I went to a university clinic, they wanted to know where my ancestors came from in Europe and I had to point to and area on a map, after I refused to say what my ethnic background is. They didn’t have to tell me why they even wanted to know. I think it is none of their business, and an invasion of privacy.

  • Adam

    Khan doesn’t grasp why many Native people are skeptical of DNA testing and “origin science.” It’s not because we’re afraid to know of our own beginnings, it’s fear of how the science will be used to erase or destroy us (informed by the same happening in the past).

    Science may not be religion, but both have a tendency to induce myopic zeal.

  • Steven St John

    Even using a term like “Native American DNA” betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what genes are. It is incoherent the notion that someone, by virtue of being a member of some grouping, feels they have ownership rights over the cellular material of a dead body, merely because that person, when alive, was a member of that person’s cultural group.

    • Shanna LeClair

      Apparently you are speaking from complete ignorance to “OUR” way of life. “The incoherent the notion that someone, by virtue of being a member of some grouping, feels they have ownership rights over the cellular material of a dead body, merely because that person, when alive, was a member of that person’s cultural group.” Proper burial rights are always given in every tribal ceremony. If you do not understand than you should not speak about what you do not understand. I am 100% American Indian btw. White people have decimated Our lands and burial grounds for years and other things that have caused our people to never trust a non-Indian. It makes me wonder why it is that everyone I come across that do not know Native anything always has a Great-Great-grandma somewhere that was Indian, I find that very funny. That is a very common joke among my people today. So unfortunately I doubt you will never fully understand Our spirituality or us as a people.

      • Normandie Kent

        True! These white people think they have all the answers about Natives.. Clueless pricks!

    • Normandie Kent

      They do and they should. The white invaders sure as hell don’t have any legal or moral rights to them. Why should they when they had no part in the ancient history of the native American ancestor. Don’t worry youll get over it.

  • Some day, the interaction of the genes of local soil microbes and mitochondria with genes will make all this gene obsession business moot. Unless the gene “Scientists” decide that only their own theories deserve funding and otherwise stifle all other inquiry. Not that could ever happen being how pure and objective Scientists whose career depends on industry and government grants are. To even suggest such a thing is as preposterous as proposing that different genotypes respond better to different types of cancer therapies. Oh wait…

  • Stuart M.

    Hmm, we were recently treated to the fiasco of a White woman who was masquerading as an African-American. She apparently had the appearance and accent down and had made it all the way to a top position in a local NAACP. When the SHTF, she was forced to resign but still had many defenders who basically claimed, “You are what you feel…” The issue for Native-Americans might be that many reservations have come into a windfall of money thanks to casinos built or natural resources found on the reservations. A right to this money might indeed come into question if it can be determined that some Natives are more native than others.

    • Normandie Kent

      Being more native than the. Next native is hardly their concern, its when white people think they have some right to those resources because their grandma told them they are descendants of a Cherokee princess with zero proof and think real natives owe them something for that.They are frauds!

  • Shanna LeClair

    The first thing I would say, is that the American Indian way of life is sacred; The white man studies it. The White’s history is written in books; The Indian is written in their hearts. The White’s need laws by which to live; the Indian’s did not. The Whites have criminals; The Indian’s did not. The White’s leaders lie to their people; For the Indian’s it would have been unthinkable. The Indian children were raised to become themselves, to become distinct individuals; The White children are raised to be the same. Silence was one of the Indian’s greatest virtues; The White’s, incessant noise. The Indian children are taught, from birth, generosity; The White children, accumulation and greed. The White’s value success; The Indian’s value respect and honor. The White’s do things for profit; The Indian’s way of life is to be helpful.

    Now tell me when and where to find the honor and respect this type of non-Indian man ever showed our people?

    • John Lane

      Actually the Indians did have laws and civilization. It’s the Europeans who were lawless.

    • You are so full of shit and don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve spent a lot of time on the reserve. Most of your criticisms of whites should be reserved for JEWS. Most of the stuff you say about natives like them having no laws is just wrong. You don’t even use your native name here and are probably mixed. I am glad most natives do not have the attitudes you have, megwetch.

  • libertarianmajority

    “Indisputable” is a religious term, not a scientific one. “Indisputable” has to do with authoritative dogma, not free inquiry. It’s very telling that “scientific” proponents use such a term as “indisputable” to describe their “facts” when they can’t discern the difference between “evidence” and (particularly their own) INTERPRETATION of that evidence. The West Indians can interpret any scientific evidence any way they see it, just as Westerners do, except the Western interpretations are said to be “authoritative”, at governmental (“legal”) gunpoint, that is. Western interpretations of that evidence are NOT “evidence” in themselves, as Western “scientists” like to pontificate that they are. West Indian interpretations are just as valid, no matter how much at variance with those of Westerners (such as Europeans, whites, Americans, or others, of any color who’ve assimilated to the white culture) the indigenous interpretations might be.

    • Normandie Kent

      Thank you! Someone finally with some some smarts.

  • Jaime Andres Pretell

    Many so called Natives in the US are afraid just how non Native they really are.

    • Normandie Kent

      And so many so called white Americans can only hope and pray that they have any smidgen of Native DNA at all, because every none Native American are not happy with the land and resources they stole, they feel they should have their indigenous identities too. I doubt they are worried about not being Native enough, their just sick of jumping thru hoops for whitey, stupid blood sucking Vampires.

      • John Lane

        It was mixed race Native Americans (largely of European stock) who helped the Europeans steal the land though. So like the OP said theyre afraid of how non Native they really are.

        • Normandie Kent

          Hey bone head! Being Native is not just DNA but culture, you know that thing you and your People don’t have! What Natives stole land? Yeah that’s what I thought!

        • Normandie Kent

          Last time I checked the Native didn’t go to Europe to smut and contaminate your blood. But the Eurotrash did contaminate the Native, he’ll! The even commingled with their slaves and the last time I checked they are still black, one drop rule right?! I can say the same thing for the Natives, one drop and the culture makes you indian.

          • I am a National Socialist and oppose racemixing. I would gladly form an alliance with purebred Native Americans to kill off all the mongrels and all the race traitors, as well as to kill off all the niggers and chinks and arabs and other trash that came over, until there’s only Native Americans and purebred non-degenerate whites left. Then we’ll form separate nations, enforce apartheid, and one day when we have the strength we’ll retake Europe which by then will be nothing but nigger-arab-chink-jew mongrels, exterminate all the trash there, and repopulate it with pure whites again.

  • Realist

    Ignorance and anti-science.

    • Normandie Kent

      Ignorant mindless science worshipping dumbass!

  • Warren Lauzon

    Just judging from my own personal experience, many of these “Native Americans oppose xx” headlines are nearly always about a few vocal activists, some of whom are not even part of the tribe (or any tribe). But few – if any – reporters or journalists actually go out and ask the actual tribe members how they feel – at best they interview a couple of activists.

  • Sherry

    I would like to know my native american heritage simply because my Dad was so very proud of it and I am also. I don’t want to take away anything from anyone. It would just be a blessing to confirm and know where I came from.