Nearly 20 years after Kennewick, a look at DNA and tribes

Rose Eveleth has a long story in The Atlantic about the landscape of DNA ancestry for American Indians: “Genetic Testing and Tribal Identity”. This is not a one-dimensional subject in which people are either for or against more research. Some topics of study are widely accepted across the U.S., while some groups resist any attempt to study ancestry using DNA. Eveleth quotes a number of anthropological geneticists who are really exceptional in their ability to work with tribal groups to find common ground.

There are many passages worth quoting in the story, and I would recommend it for use in courses. I’ll just quote one:

These are questions that anyone who gives their genetic material to scientists has to think about. And 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. “I might trust this guy, but 100 years from now who is going to get the information? What are people going to do with that information? How can they twist it? Because that’s one thing that seems to happen a lot,” says Nick Tipon, the vice-chairman of the Sacred Sites Committee of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, an organization that represents people of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo descent.

That’s a valid concern, especially considering the number of old samples that rest in laboratory freezers, gathered under consent guidelines that wouldn’t be approved today.

There is no simple story to be written here. Some Native American peoples are very enthusiastic about DNA research, and some American Indian individuals are anthropologists working with DNA. Many tribal groups have advisory councils or other governance bodies devoted to archaeological and anthropological inquiries, sometimes facilitating the research efforts of anthropologists and other times advocating against research. And in too many cases, ancient human remains have become part of political games that further erode trust in the process of scientific discovery.

Eveleth did a great job finding anthropologists and geneticists who work in this area, and their perspectives should be shared. For example, Dennis O’Rourke speaks eloquently about his process of research and the long-term relationships he has built with tribal groups.

Dennis O’Rourke is a researcher at the University of Utah. His work focuses on ancient DNA and migration. In other words, it is exactly the kind of research that many indigenous people object to. But O’Rourke works collaboratively with tribes who are interested in what he’s doing. He told me that he brings up the possible issues with ancestral DNA at the very beginning when he starts working with tribes. He calls it a “cultural risk,” the fact that what he finds in his work about where the tribe came from might be at odds with their history. 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.”

In archaeology, it is not always possible to avoid problems. The Kennewick skeleton was unearthed in 1996, became embroiled in a political and legal morass for nearly 10 years, and remains a focus of contention. Skeletal materials must be assessed when they are found, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) sets out conditions in which materials will fall under the jurisdiction of tribal groups, based on a principle of cultural affiliation. That isn’t always clear or possible, and activists for tribal sovereignty in this and other cases have made broad claims for The skeleton was ultimately studied briefly by a group of anthropologists, the results published only last year. And just this month the Seattle Times used Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain some of the findings of DNA tests on the skeleton: “First DNA tests say Kennewick Man was Native American”. We will have to wait for the publication of the results by Eske Willerslev’s group to see how they compare to the results from other early specimens.

One think missing from Eveleth’s account is how much we have learned in the last few years from this kind of research. The DNA results from the Clovis-era Anzick skeleton last year really helped to establish the basic parameters of the early migration of people into the Americas. It is a fascinating field of study that adds perspective to the ability of humans to colonize and adapt to new environments. Studies of DNA and ancient skeletons tie the story of Paleoindians into the shared ancestry of peoples of the Old World. They have uncovered unexpected connections between Europe, Siberia and the first inhabitants of the Americas and are helping to rebuild the history of lost populations.

What has made such research possible is the willingness of tribes and geneticists to work together. Those relationships have existed for many years, but they have not grabbed the headlines like Kennewick and other instances of antagonism. Now that ancient DNA techniques are advancing, the results speak for themselves.