Indigenous peoples oppose National Geographic & IBM research project

TITLE: Indigenous Peoples Oppose National Geographic & IBM Genetic Research Project that Seeks Indigenous Peoples DNA AUTHOR: Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism

Press Release
DATE: 13 April 2005

The IPCB, an Indigenous organization that addresses issues of biopiracy began its work in 1993 to oppose the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), a project so fraught with ethical and scientific problems it failed to get endorsement from the National Science Foundation, or UNESCO. Debra Harry, who is Northern Paiute and serves as IPCB’s Executive Director, noting this new project’s similarities with the HGDP, said, “This is a recurrent nightmare. It’s essentially the same project we defeated years ago. Some of the actors are different, but also some are the same. With the founder of the HGDP serving on this new project’s advisory committee, I can’t help but think this is simply a new reiteration of the HGDP.”

The HGDP faced international opposition by Indigenous peoples who considered the project an unconscionable attempt by genetic researchers to pirate their DNA for their own means. That experience has led to strong advocacy by Indigenous peoples to insure human rights standards are entrenched in research. Cherryl Smith, a Maori bioethicist from Aotearoa (New Zealand) said, “Indigenous groups around the world are much more aware of biopiracy, and our own human and collective rights in research. In the past ten years, we have developed extensive networks of Indigenous peoples who are knowledgeable and active in defense of their rights.”

Le’a Kanehe, a Native Hawaiian who serves as the IPCB’s Legal Analyst, gives the example of the Havasupai Tribe, who filed a lawsuit in 2004 against Arizona State University for the taking and misuse of their genetic samples. “Indigenous peoples are holding scientists accountable for use of their genetic material without prior informed consent, which is the accepted legal standard.” The tribe authorized diabetes research, but later discovered their samples were used for schizophrenia, inbreeding and migration theories.

The Genographic Project press release claims that an international advisory board will oversee the selection of Indigenous populations for testing as well as adhering to strict sampling and research protocols. The HGDP was unable to secure federal or UN support for failure to meet ethical concerns and standards. The Genographic Project has striking similarities to the HGDP. Dr. Jonathan Marks, genetic anthropologist and board member of the IPCB, said, “The HGDP was terminated because of intractable bioethical issues. Has IBM and National Geographic been able to remedy those issues? I don’t think so.” Harry is similarly concerned that the Genographic Project is an attempt to escape public and legal scrutiny by going private.

Kanehe says that “It’s interesting how in the past racist scientists, such as those in the eugenics movement, did studies asserting that we are biologically inferior to them; and now, they are saying their research will show that we’re all related to each other and share common origins. Both ventures are based on racist science and produce invalid, yet damaging conclusions about Indigenous cultures.”

IPCB Chairperson Judy Gobert (Blackfoot), said, “These kinds of projects have to stretch to claim any tangible benefits to Indigenous peoples. Somehow, the Genographic Project has led its Indigenous participants to believe its work will insure their people’s cultural preservation. There is a huge disconnect between genetic research and cultural preservation.” Smith says, “If they really want to help promote Indigenous peoples cultures there are more productive ways and methods for doing so.”

Noting the project’s goal to map the migratory history of humankind through DNA, Marla Big Boy, a Lakota attorney on IPCB’s board, says, “Our creation stories and languages carry information about our genealogy and ancestors. We don’t need genetic testing to tell us where we come from.” Big Boy notes with concern that the project proposes to do studies on ancient DNA. “We will not stand by while our ancestors are desecrated in the name of scientific discovery.”

The IPCB is calling on all Indigenous peoples, and our friends and colleagues to join in an international boycott of IBM, Gateway Computers (the source of the Waitt family fortune), and National Geographic until it’s demand that this project be abandoned are met. Harry said, “We are prepared to stop projects that treat us as scientific curiosities. We must act to protect our most vulnerable communities from this unwanted intrusion. We resisted the HGDP, and we will defeat this proposal as well.”

For more information contact:
Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonism

3 thoughts on “Indigenous peoples oppose National Geographic & IBM research project

  1. Chris Kidd

    Are you silly this is no silly unethical experiment to demean civilizations! Chill out. You know for many years now it has been an obsession for an on going obsession for man to find out our real origins and not some made up creation to find out our origins and that is all this is and it is obvious.

  2. Nullifidian

    As a budding scientist, I’m a bit on the fence about this. On the one hand, any scientist studying any person should make it clear to that person how this scientific research is going to be used, or at least to get permission for multiple uses. On the other hand, where does opposition to scientific investigation of human origins that is based on a literal understanding of a creation myth end? Would it be legitimate for evolution to be removed from biology classes that might be taken by indigenous students because such education would potentially conflict with their beliefs?

    Western culture, through its dominant religion, also has a creation myth that can and has been literally interpreted. Is it appropriate for them to try to halt scientific research based on their beliefs in Biblical inerrancy? If we say “no” to this, but “yes” when it comes to indigenous people, upon what basis do we make such a decision? If it’s the history of oppression of indigenous people, then we’re basically transforming them into mere victims of white Eurocentric culture, not regarding them as a people in their own right. An egalitarian person, it seems to me, must either be equally indifferent to everyone’s creation myths or it must be equally accommodating of everyone’s creation myths. I must say that neither one is a comfortable position for me.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      I think those questions are right on target, and students in my different classes have raised precisely these issues. It is extremely difficult to oppose Western creationism, and then bring in another load of mythology through the back door. There are two problems as far as I can see:

      (a) that some indigenous groups, here in Canada for example, oppose any notion that challenges or negates their origins here in North America, that places them on the world map of human drifting. The reasons some have offered, I think, are really banal, but that is due to some banal provocations by the likes of Adam Kuper as well — they, indigenous peoples, are all migrants, and therefore not really indigenous. I do not see that statement as being of any consequence whatsoever to the fact that those who were here first suffered violence and dispossession, and later won treaty rights that are being routinely ignored and violated. Treaties are law…this is not a biology lesson, which is how Kuper treats it. He is mismatching discourses altogether. As a reaction, some fall into a trap and insist that, no, we were always here, our sacred oral histories say so, which is a literalist and perhaps Western way of reading those creation stories to begin with.

      (b) on a different level some have instead insisted that the idea behind indigenous cosmology is not to negate or deny science, but rather to give special meaning in indigenous terms to the appropriate relations between people and place, and to becoming a person.

      Now in the case of the research project in the post above, I share some of the hostile suspicion. These are not neutral agencies that answer to all people around the world, without particular agendas of their own. They are commercial entities engaged in global genetic surveillance, with consequences that could be very harmful. It is really up to them to defend themselves, and the critics are right to hold them to account.

      However, I also know some Tainos for whom DNA testing is absolutely vital as a means of establishing the fact of Taino survival, that is, that they were not all wiped out. Rejecting such research would put a cherished method for establishing their own presence at risk. Personally, I never cared for the argument, just as I never cared for describing persons as “wannabes” or “fake Indians,” etc.

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