Friday, July 13, 2012

Early (and I mean early) Immigration and Genetic Testing: Why Isn't Everyone On Board?

The big news in the anthropological world of the past few days has been the stone tool and genetic evidence coming out of the University of Oregon’s field school at Paisley Caves. It’s exciting stuff. It has, however, again brought up the long-running contentious relationship between anthropologists (i.e. Western Science) and Native American communities--in this case, particularly those in the US, as only two tribal groups agreed to having genetic samples used in the study.

This is a conflict that I’ve thought quite a bit about because my experience is so typical of this problematic relationship. I’m a European descended (white) man who received college training in the study of and now partly derives his living from the teaching of the Native American past. Like any problem that hasn’t been “solved,” it’s complicated and resolutions, if they even exist, are not going to be clear cut.

My take is that scientists do not engage in a transparent, completely objective, apolitical activity that works only for the accumulation of the collective knowledge for our species. They may strive toward those goals, but what scientists do is a human endeavor and like any such project, it is infused with power relations. In the case of Native Americans and anthropology, it’s been shaped by the many times exploitive, post-colonial relationship of the descendants of Europeans studying the ancestors of Native Americans.

To give the reader a sense of the continued distrust many in Native American communities feel toward anthropology, take this excerpt from a recent essay by Brian Broadrose (a Native American doctoral student in anthropology), who offered his assessment of a New York bioarchaeology conference:

I was there for the simple reason that I know the legacy of anthropology; I know that when the guns were put away, having served their objective in subjugating American Indian peoples, in came the scientists with their trowels and notepads who oversaw the outright theft of Native properties, goods and ancestral bodies from their graves.

While I disagree many points and the polemics of of the essay, the tone clearly demonstrates the resentment that some continue to feel toward the discipline.

Saying all of this doesn’t mean I think science is bad. Quite the contrary, I think it offers an invaluable window on the world, which can lead to all kinds of tangible benefits, including increased cultural tolerance and understanding. I firmly believe that practitioners of any discipline and that are also supporters of human equality should be reflexive and aware of any actions that may contribute to persistent structures of inequality. And while sometimes tough, it can be done.

As usual with this blog, part of this post also has its origins over at Living Anthropologically. In his most recent critique of New York Times science reporter, Nicholas Wade, Jason Antrosio initiated a minor blog dust up with his defense of the lack of US Native American participation in the genetic study. Other bloggers have chalked that lack of participation up to “petty politics” on the part of Native American groups, though Antrosio notes that those “petty politics” have a base in “genocide. Treaty abrogation. Children sent to boarding school to be stripped of language and identity. Contemporary inequalities.” Things that just don’t seem that petty.

In a condescendingly titled response, Native Americans Are Not Special Snowflakes, Razib Kahn notes “Let’s be honest here and admit that politics is the primary force driving this particular behavior” (lack of participation). I have no doubt that he’s correct that contemporary politics s are involved as they do with any human group. Power shapes most human behavior and that doesn’t diminish the right of the majority of Native American groups from participating in genetic studies. Additionally, even if today’s power plays are a factor, that does not negate the weight of history. Further, most of the political struggles Native American groups find themselves in today have cascaded down through that history.

In another response to Living Anthropologically, Dienekes notes the idea that historical oppression should have any role in contemporary participation in science is:

In my opinion that is a lot of hooey to justify the unjustifiable. I won't argue about the veracity or details of this version of history, but surely native Americans from the US were not especially mistreated compared to other people colonized by Europeans?

In essence, other peoples were treated horribly during the past 500 years, but they participate in genetic studies. Why don’t Native Americans “get over it” also? If they did, we’d have many more samples for further refinement of genetic histories.

I don't know and couldn't answer in this post the reasons behind most US Native groups not participating. My simple response, however, is that we have to simply respect the decisions of various peoples, even those who don’t do what we want them to do.


  1. Hi!

    Great to see you blogging again, although I know you've had lots of other projects going on. Thank you for this, as it makes a lot of sense.

    I'm pondering a longer response, but this is not at all my field. However, it seems a stronger claim could be made. Namely, can you think of another contemporary people group that would be more materially affected--economically, politically, legally--by claims of genetic admixture? The climate for Native Americans seems especially, perhaps even uniquely tense in that respect. The fact of the matter is that most of the groups that "particpated" in this study (and those aren't just scare quotes, we really don't know how much informed consent groups outside the U.S. were given) are unlikely to be very affected by what some Harvard study says. The situation for many Native Americans seems to be quite different.

    Thank you again--grateful for thoughts!


  2. Jason,

    Thanks for the comment. The primary reason I haven't been active on this site for a couple of months is simple the onset of new, lazy habits. I'm assuming it's this way for most, but definitely for me blogging is all about habit.

    This isn't my field either, but you make a great point about the real implications for Native Americans' lives. It would be difficult to pull off, but a fascinating story to follow and sort out.

    My own experience has centered more around the interaction of archaeologists and Native American groups. I went to undergrad and grad school in the Southwest, where you've got both a spectacular archaeological record and many engaged Native folks that are very interested in those sites and what goes on at them. In the projects I worked on, we usually had good working relationships with the relevant tribal groups--so from my experience, both camps aren't always at odds (which is the way I feel it's portrayed when people are described as delicate "special snowflakes").

    On a slightly related note, by the time I made my way through to graduate work, NAGPRA had been around for a few years and most archaeologists had come to at least make their peace with it. Despite the many dire warnings that NAGPRA would end archaeology, it didn't, and in fact, my first research assistantship was working on a major repatriation of grave items that had been recovered in the 1930s and 1960s. Because of the urgency created by the repatriation, a fairly major push was organized to record data before the items were returned. The ironic thing that really struck me was that much of the very basic data we recorded had never been recorded before. In some cases, 60 years of artifacts on museum shelves without basic metrics being recorded. If that's the kind of archaeology that was ending, good riddance. So, unexpectedly, a law that was to signal the death of archaeology's quest for knowledge was responsible for the creation of binders and binders full of new data from which new questions could be asked and answered.

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