Havasupai DNA consent case becomes a one-act play

1 minute read

The Scientist has a review of a one-act play, “Informed Consent”, by playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer: Review: Sacred Stories, Genetic Privacy Collide.

Jillian (Tina Benko), the play’s hard-nosed protagonist, is a genetic anthropologist whose zeal for the scientific process approaches— perhaps even surpasses—religious fervor. Her passion, and her stubborn unwillingness to truly respect alternative points of view, bring her into conflict with virtually every other major character, most notably Arella (Delanna Studi), a Native American woman who represents an indigenous tribe that resides in the Grand Canyon.
After generations of depredations at the hands of so-called pioneers and the U.S. government, Arella’s once-proud tribe is reduced to eating nutrient-poor, government-issue food, and suffers from a high rate of diabetes. Jillian is assigned to investigate the genetic anthropology of Arella’s people—a touchy proposition, as drawing blood goes against the tribe’s deeply held ancient beliefs. And when Jillian’s zeal for knowledge leads her on a furtive quest to study the ancestry of the tribe—which has its own ideas about its origins—the line from touchy to explosive is crossed.

The play is loosely based on the real-life story of anthropologists at Arizona State University and the Havasupai trive, described in a series of articles by Amy Harmon in 2010. I provided some links to this story at the time (Havasupai DNA case links). The climax of that story was a chance encounter in which a Havasupai undergraduate student attended a doctoral defense using her DNA in a way that seemed clearly outside the purposes for which it had supposedly been sampled many years earlier. It’s easy to see why that would be really appealing to a dramatist, but she mentions in the linked review an unease about whether it was really “her story to tell”.