In 1996, a Washington college student trying to sneak into a hydroplane race on the Columbia River — and drinking a Busch Light — stumbled upon one of the most ancient, most complete skeletons ever discovered. Last month, genomics experts announced in Nature that the 8,500-year-old skeleton — known among scientists as the Kennewick man — is most closely related to today’s Native Americans.
To the local tribes in Washington State, the new addition to the family tree came as no surprise. Since the remains were discovered, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have claimed that the Kennewick Man, whom they call the Ancient One, is their ancestor. The Ancient One’s skeleton, they argue, should be returned to them for reburial, in accordance with the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Other scientists disagreed. Some speculated that there aren’t sufficiently local genetic samples to link the Ancient One to living tribes. In 2004, a judge ruled that the Ancient One failed NAGPRA’s cultural affiliation requirement: A “shared group identity” must be traced from skeleton to present-day members of the tribe though geography, kinship, language, folklore, and more.
It’s hard to prove one’s cultural affiliation with a 9,000-year-old skeleton. But proving one’s genetic affiliation has its own complications. New research methods appear to provide the evidence necessary to validate Native-Americans’ ancestry. But by using science to legitimize their claims, Native Americans risk ceding control of their tribal identity to research institutions and their interests.
And indigenous people have good reasons not to trust them. Mainstream science’s treatment of Native-Americans’ DNA is troubled and sometimes exploitative. It clashes with indigenous conceptions of identity and it echoes science's long history of using the remains of people of color to prop up the notion that race is biological, reinforcing its oppressive function.
As a result, the longstanding tension between scientists and indigenous people came to a new and subtle head in the fight for the Kennewick Man. The Colville Tribe’s jurisdiction may be challenged by scientists, or NAGPRA regulators will rule in the tribe’s favor. In any case: The power of white people and white entities to delineate and police Native-American identity will continue unabated.
I’ve seen this fight play out from multiple vantage points. The remains of my great-great-great-great grandfather, Chief Little Crow, who died in 1863, were on display in the Minnesota State capitol and later stored in a state archive. My great-grandfather and his uncle petitioned the archive for a decade before the remains were released to my family for reburial in 1971. As an academic, I work with scientists who take various positions on the rights of indigenous peoples to remains — including those who would have kept my ancestors’ bones in a museum. I’ve learned that there are two ways to elevate the rights and perspectives of indigenous people in global scientific conversations. The first is to train scientists to do ethical and democratic research collaboratively with Native Americans. The second is to train scientists who are themselves indigenous.
Modern scientists were not quick to identify the Ancient One’s Native-American roots. The forensic scientist who first examined the remains assumed they belonged to a Euro-American settler. Carbon dating analysis revealed the remains were much older, but a group of scientists protested. They believed the skull was different from contemporary Native Americans, perhaps more closely resembling those of Polynesians or Ainu (indigenous people in what is now Japan).
The Ancient One’s genome was finally sequenced by a lab led by ancient DNA expert Eske Willerslev. Last year, Willerslev’s team published the first full sequence of an ancient Native-American genome, based on the 12,000-year-old remains of a toddler unearthed on the property of Montana’s Anzick family in 1968. By comparing the genomes of Anzick child and Kennewick Man, the team showed that both descended from the same ancestral population.
When they compared the ancient genomes with those of contemporary Native Americans, the lab found that Kennewick Man is more closely affiliated with contemporary tribes in the Pacific Northwest, including the Colville, while the Anzick child is more closely related with present-day indigenous populations in Central and South America. This line of research isn’t limited to North America. Earlier this week, Willerslev’s lab and another released dueling papers trying to explain the Australian ancestry found among indigenous people in Brazil.
Willerslev’s lab got favorable press for approaching tribes to ask for their participation in the Kennewick man study, though only the Colville tribe agreed. For indigenous people, these requests present a conundrum. If more tribes agreed, more local DNA samples would be available for comparison, and the Kennewick Man’s relationship to specific North-American tribes could be clarified. But many are hesitant to participate after centuries of mistreatment of indigenous populations at the hands of Western science.
European and American natural scientists have been violating Native-Americans’ graves for hundreds of years. In centuries past, scientists paid grave robbers to boil down stolen bodies to bone and send the bones to American universities for examination and sometimes for public display. Indigenous peoples around the world continue to battle with universities and museums to retrieve their remains.
Subtler exploitation persists. Since the mid-1990s, organizations such as the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB) have deemed genomic research a form of colonization. Scientists exploit indigenous DNA for the intellectual and economic benefit of research institutions and, potentially, pharmaceutical companies — not the individuals under study.
In one of the most famous cases, members of the Havasupai tribe allowed Arizona State University scientists to collect blood samples in the hopes of finding a cure for diabetes. The disease had devastated the tribe, forcing many members to leave their remote Grand Canyon reservation.
University scientists then attempted to use the same samples in schizophrenia research — without the tribe’s permission. They later used the samples in studies on human migrations and genetic isolation, or inbreeding. Instead of improving the health of tribe members and their descendants, these later studies contradicted the tribe’s origin narratives and stood to damage its reputation. (The school eventually paid out a $700,000 settlement to the tribe.)
Why should Native Americans help prove theories of human migration that serve to undermine their already beleaguered claim to their homelands? Indigenous peoples have their own accounts of their histories and peoplehood. Scientific language portrays them as just another set of immigrants, no different from the people who arrived as a result of the Native-American genocide that started in 1492.
The biological sciences have been wary of the term “race” ever since horrors were committed in Nazi death camps under the pretense of racial science. Today, scientists talk instead about “population” and “ancestry.” Genomics, in particular, frequently reveals how genetically similar people of different races are. But science shares with the law — and with white people in general — the power to define and ultimately police race. Genomics shapes popular thought and will inform U.S. policy that confers legitimacy on Native-American claims to remains, cultural property, land, and tribal status.
It already reinforces Western culture’s emphasis on lineal biological descent — meaning sons and grandsons — when it comes to questions of family, heritage, and identity. Genetic mothers and fathers — mitochondrial DNA inherited from our biological mothers, Y-chromosomes inherited from biological fathers by sons, and autosomal DNA inherited from both — are tied to particular geographies and populations. These populations are grouped under racial labels, such as “Native American,” “African,” “Asian,” or “European DNA.”
As a result, genomics ignores the more expansive indigenous definition of belonging. For Native Americans, culture and biology are often entangled, but we also emphasize political status as a tribal citizen. Political belonging, nonhuman relatives, and land are also key to our identities.
For example, my tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, uses two rules to establish citizenship eligibility. One must be able to trace their lineage to at least one ancestor on our first tribal census taken in 1940, and one must have enough Native-American ancestors from any U.S. tribe to meet a “¼ blood quantum” rule. Then there are ways of belonging that are not captured by tribal citizenship. We have kin who do not meet membership requirements but who live as family within our communities. Tribal belonging is a political category, and it is also an extended set of biological and cultural relations simultaneously. Each tribe works out its own rules according to its own laws and cultural norms.
Willerslev’s lab produced results consistent with tribal viewpoints. The problem is what happens when scientific and tribal accounts don’t line up. Why should scientists — mostly white folks in lab coats — get the final word on who is in our families, and how our histories are told?
Inherent to whiteness is the power to define race categories and to regulate racial practices. White U.S. lawmakers, after all, codified slavery, anti-miscegenation, segregation, land tenure rights and even race itself, through the one-drop rule and others. The shifting goal post for whiteness ensured that the maximum number of black people could be enslaved for the economic benefit of white people. White people, meanwhile, grew as a category to incorporate previously ethnic groups like Irish and Italian.
Native Americans have had our tribal identities enforced by white people as well. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, federal lawmakers decided which Indians had become white and assimilated enough to be designated as private landowners. Unsurprisingly, these categorizations were then used to shrink the number of Indians and collectively held tribal land bases. That freed up a lot of “excess” land for white settlers to claim. At the same time, white governmental agents had strong ideas about who was sufficiently Indian to constitute a tribal member. The first tribal registers — delineating who is and is not Native American — were developed for the sake of white people’s land management.
Not that formal tribal registers have stopped the plague of whites who “play Indian” in order to speak with moral authority, practice traditional ceremonies, and to take advantage of scholarships and job opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Anthropologist Circe Sturm has documented hundreds of such cases in her book Becoming Indian. Last month, a prominent Native-American studies academic, Andrea Smith of the University of California, Riverside, was publicly outed in The Daily Beast and Inside Higher Education for allegedly falsely claiming Cherokee identity.
I personally cannot move through an average day in Texas without hearing from car rental agents, medical office workers, department of motor vehicle staff, bank tellers — anyone who asks me how to spell my last name (which is apparently too literal and surprising for them to know how to spell) — stories of Cherokee, Choctaw, or Blackfoot great-grandmothers — whose names they never mention — with long black hair, olive skin, and high cheekbones.
Not all scientists are white, but they potentially access that privilege when they don the symbolic white coat. Despite its anti-racist aspirations, genomics has the potential to compound white people’s power to police nonwhite identity. It’s part of an enduring Eurocentric monopoly on what counts as knowledge and history. Science and its sustaining ideology — that Western civilization and truth exist in opposition to non-Western backwardness and superstition — is another manifestation of white privilege.
But science has become more self-aware. Researchers worry they will be criticized by indigenous people and ethicists, damaging their professional reputation. The climate became so fraught that in 2002 the Navajo Nation passed a genetic research moratorium on their lands. As a result, reports about Willerslev’s lab tend to sound like science has begun to make benevolent, politically correct concessions on behalf of superstitious indigenous people.
I don’t see it that way. I see science finally beginning to be held accountable to the humans — living and dead — it uses. Science is becoming more ethical and more democratic, thanks to the ongoing and dedicated efforts of Native Americans and others who are critical of certain practices. Ethically questionable genetic samples taken in earlier decades — unwittingly, during medical procedures or without explicit patient consent — have become difficult to use.
Because of Native-American pushback, researchers in Canada, Alaska, and elsewhere have developed collaborative research methods. They sign research agreements that outline questions, sampling methods, rules for sample and data ownership, and options for contextualizing sensitive information. Collaboration can be time consuming, but it makes the research more ethical and more democratic. As private corporations figure out how to monetize human DNA, these practices stand to benefit more than just indigenous people.
Getting more indigenous people (and people of color, women, and first-generation university students) into the lab — as scientists, not objects of study — has and will continue to help. Native-American scientists have invented culturally sensitive laboratory protocols, including prayers or ceremonies for human bodies donated to science. Others search for ways to do research without killing lab animals or destroying bone when extracting DNA. They ask research questions that non-Native scientists might not think to ask. One traced human populational relations in the Americas through the movement of strains of corn. In such studies, human and non-human actors come together for a broader telling of history — one that may be important for thinking about the harsh effects humans have on the planet.
It's not just about diversity. It's about the range of ideas and histories—less Eurocentric, less sexist, less hierarchical—that will shape research questions, methods and institutions.