December 10, 2006

Indigenous populations don't trust Genographic Project

DNA Gatherers Hit a Snag: The Tribes Don’t Trust Them (NY Times)

SOUTH NAKNEK, Alaska — The National Geographic Society’s multimillion-dollar research project to collect DNA from indigenous groups around the world in the hopes of reconstructing humanity’s ancient migrations has come to a standstill on its home turf in North America.
From the article:
Geographic origin stories told by DNA can clash with long-held beliefs, threatening a world view some indigenous leaders see as vital to preserving their culture.
Related to the above read also Genetic vs. Mythical Origins. More from the article:
They argue that genetic ancestry information could also jeopardize land rights and other benefits that are based on the notion that their people have lived in a place since the beginning of time.
Does anyone's land rights really depend on living in a place since the beginning of time? If that was the criterion for possessing land rights, then 99.9% of the Earth's surface wouldn't belong to its current possessors. More:
In its first 18 months, the project’s scientists have had considerable success, persuading more than 18,000 people in off-the-grid places like the east African island of Pemba and the Tibesti Mountains of Chad to donate their DNA. When the North American team arrived in southwestern Alaska, they found volunteers offering cheek swabs and family histories for all sorts of reasons.
Glenn Fredericks, president of the Georgetown tribe, was eager for proof of an ancient unity between his people and American Indians elsewhere that might create greater political power. “They practice the same stuff, the lower-48 natives, as we do,” Mr. Fredericks said. “Did we exchange people? It would be good to know.”
The first large effort to collect indigenous DNA since federal financing was withdrawn from a similar proposal amid indigenous opposition in the mid-1990s, the Genographic Project has drawn quiet applause from many geneticists for resurrecting scientific ambitions that have grown more pressing. As indigenous groups intermarry and disperse at an ever-accelerating pace, many scientists believe the chance to capture human history is fast disappearing.

“Everyone else had given up,” said Mark Stoneking, a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “If they get even a fraction of what they are trying for, it will be very useful.”

I was wondering why the Genographic project has been slow to publish their research. If they had to contend with stuff like this, it all makes sense:
In May, project officials held a stormy meeting in New York with the indigenous rights group Cultural Survival while protestors carried signs reading “National Geographic Sucks Indigenous Blood.” Shortly after, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recommended suspending the project.
It is sad that stupid politics is keeping scientists from learning about humanity's past.
But among the 10 geneticists the society has given the task of collecting 10,000 samples each by the spring of 2010, Theodore G. Schurr, the project’s North American director, is in last place. Fewer than 100 vials of DNA occupy a small plastic box in his laboratory’s large freezer at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an assistant professor of anthropology.
The reasons offered by Native American tribes are:
But almost every federally recognized tribe in North America has declined or ignored Dr. Schurr’s invitation to take part. “What the scientists are trying to prove is that we’re the same as the Pilgrims except we came over several thousand years before,” said Maurice Foxx, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag. “Why should we give them that openly?”
Someone should explain to them that scientists don't need to prove that. It has already been firmly established, indeed long before human genetics came into the picture. The point of research like that carried out by the Genographic Project is to determine how and when migrations into the Americas (and elsewhere) happened, not if they did.

Should scientists "respect" superstition for fear of offending indigenous tribes' feelings?
Some American Indians trace their suspicions to the experience of the Havasupai Tribe, whose members gave DNA for a diabetes study that University of Arizona researchers later used to link the tribe’s ancestors to Asia. To tribe members raised to believe the Grand Canyon is humanity’s birthplace, the suggestion that their own DNA says otherwise was deeply disturbing.

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