Tell Me a Story: Genomics vs. Indigenous Origin Narratives

Tell Me a Story: Genomics vs. Indigenous Origin Narratives

Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 26, Number 4, Religion & Genetics (Aug-Oct 2013)
pages 11-13

Kim TallBear, Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of Texas, Austin

On April 13, 2005 the Indigenous Peoples’ Council on Biocolonialism issued a press release opposing the Genographic Project, which aimed to sample 100,000 indigenous and other traditional peoples to “trace the migratory history of the human species” and “map how the Earth was populated.” IPCB critiques Genographic, and the Human Genome Diversity Project before it, as the contemporary continuation of colonial, extractive research. The analysis is also a fundamental historical examination of Western science. IPCB foregrounds the intellectual and institutional authority that science, a powerful tool of colonizing states, has to appropriate indigenous bodies – both dead and living – material cultural artifacts, and indigenous cultural narratives in the service of academic knowledge production.

Critics point out that such knowledge rarely serves indigenous peoples’ interests and can actively harm them. In the 19th and early 20th centuries massacre sites and graves were plundered for body parts to be used in scientific investigations that inform today’s anthropological and biological research on Native Americans. Throughout the 20th century, indigenous peoples around the world witnessed the too common practice of “helicopter research” – quick sampling without return of results or benefit to subjects. Indigenous DNA samples and data taken in earlier decades when ethics standards were lax continue to be used and cited in contemporary investigations, bringing those injustices into the 21st century. And new, more ethical research still takes time from other pressing projects and needs. Informed community review and collaboration with researchers will increase community benefit, but informed participation has costs. It takes resources to build capacity to sit at the table as equals instead of as vulnerable subjects – as simply the raw materials for science…

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