Why Native Americans Are Concerned About Potential Exploitation of Their DNA

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.This image shows a Native woman from the Plains region carrying a baby on her back.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
This image shows a Native woman from the Plains region carrying a baby on her back.


Arvind Suresh, Indian Country Today


Until the advent of genetic genealogy, knowing your ancestry meant combing through old records, decoding the meaning of family heirlooms and listening to your parents and grandparents tell you about the “good old days.” For anthropologists and archaeologists interested in going back even further in time, the only reliable means of understanding human history were trying to interpret ruins or remnants of skeletons or other information uncovered at the site of remains.

DNA testing has changed all that, allowing us to delve far deeper into our past than before and with a much higher degree of accuracy. Although there are many issues stirred by DNA testing, none is more provocative than interpreting our family and tribal ancestries.

Nowhere is this more apparent than among the Native American tribes in the United States. I recently wroteabout a large-scale genetic analysis among the American population by personal genetics and genealogy company 23andMe, using its extensive database to begin to decipher the ancestral origins of various ethnic groups in the United States.

Though the study involved more than 160,000 people, less than less than one percent of those who participated self-identified as Native American. Rose Eveleth, a journalist writing for The Atlanticsuggests that this lack of participation may have a lot to do with how Native tribes perceive genetic testing:

But when it comes to Native Americans, the question of genetic testing, and particularly genetic testing to determine ancestral origins, is controversial. […] Researchers and ethicists are still figuring how to balance scientific goals with the need to respect individual and cultural privacy. And for Native Americans, the question of how to do that, like nearly everything, is bound up in a long history of racism and colonialism.

[…] 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.

Eveleth references the widely publicized case where the Havasupai Tribe living near the Grand Canyon sued an Arizona State University scientist for using genetic samples collected from the tribe to conduct research outside of the purpose of the original study. The crux of the issue was the consent form, which covered a broad range of uses for the samples—a fact that the tribes claimed was not explained to them appropriately.

Although the tribe won the case, reclaimed the samples and settled with the university for $700,000, the issue captured the front pageof the New York Timesand put “every tribe in the US on notice regarding genetics research” as Native American tribal research ethics expert Ron Whitener quotedin an article titled “After Havasupai Litigation, Native Americans Wary of Genetic Research” published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A.

Around the same time that the genetics of the Havasupai were being studied, another high profile issue bought Native American tribes in conflict with researchers. The Kennewick Man, an approximately 9,000-year-old skeleton was discovered by accident in 1994 in Kennewick, Washington. The Umatilla Tribe, who were indigenous to the region, sought to reclaim the remains under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to bury it in accordance with traditions. Anthropology researchers who wanted to study the skeleton however, argued there wasn’t enough evidence to convincingly show that the remains were Native American and therefore should not be returned. This resulted in a widely publicized eight-year-long legal dispute between scientists and the government that ended in 2004 with the court ruling in favor of the archaeologists, a decision that the tribes were expectedly unhappy with.

Now, the issue has come under the spotlight once again with the Seattle Times reportinglast month that preliminary DNA analyses indicated that the Kennewick Man was indeed of Native American ancestry.

RELATED: The Long Legal and Moral Battle Over Kennewick Man

This piece originally appeared on February 2 at the Genetic Literacy Project. Read the rest of the article here.


Read more at http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/02/03/why-native-americans-are-concerned-about-potential-exploitation-their-dna-158993

Jamestown S’Klallam Gathering Steelhead DNA for Database

By: Northwest Indian Fisheries Commissions


The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe wants to know which age class of steelhead is surviving best within the Dungeness River watershed.

While checking smolt traps and conducting spawning ground surveys this spring, the tribe took tail and scale samples from 500 juvenile steelhead in five creeks between Sequim and Port Angeles: Seibert, McDonald, Matriotti, Bell and Jimmycomelately.

“We’re already counting the adults and juveniles every spring and fall, so why not take DNA samples and develop an age database for steelhead?” said natural resources technician Chris Burns.


Steelhead scales are taken to be analyzed for DNA. More pictures of the study can be found by clicking the photo.

Steelhead scales are taken to be analyzed for DNA.

Analyzing the scales will tell biologists how long a steelhead has been in fresh water before out-migrating and how long it spent at sea. The DNA also will show whether the steelhead migrated back out to sea after spawning in fresh water.

Steelhead returns are harder to forecast because of their complex life history. Juvenile steelhead leave fresh water between the first and fourth years of life, but return from salt water in one to five years. Steelhead also are repeat spawners, returning to salt water before coming back to fresh water to spawn again during their lifespan, which can be as long as seven to nine years.

The genetics information would be shared with the state to help develop a larger database.

“By zoning in on steelhead ages, it will help the tribe with fisheries management, resulting in more accurate returns and harvest management decisions,” Burns said.

Puget Sound steelhead were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 2007.  The primary causes of the decline of the steelhead population include degraded habitat, fish-blocking culverts and unfavorable ocean conditions.

24,000-Year-Old Body Is Kin to Both Europeans and American Indians

Niobe ThompsonA view of Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia near where the young boy buried at Mal’ta was discovered.
Niobe Thompson
A view of Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia near where the young boy buried at Mal’ta was discovered.

By Nicholas Wade, The New York Times

The genome of a young boy buried at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia some 24,000 years ago has turned out to hold two surprises for anthropologists.The first is that the boy’s DNA matches that of Western Europeans, showing that during the last Ice Age people from Europe had reached farther east across Eurasia than previously supposed. Though none of the Mal’ta boy’s skin or hair survive, his genes suggest he would have had brown hair, brown eyes and freckled skin.

The second surprise is that his DNA also matches a large proportion — some 25 percent — of the DNA of living Native Americans. The first people to arrive in the Americas have long been assumed to have descended from Siberian populations related to East Asians. It now seems that they may be a mixture between the Western Europeans who had reached Siberia and an East Asian population.

The Mal’ta boy was aged 3 to 4 and was buried under a stone slab wearing an ivory diadem, a bead necklace and a bird-shaped pendant. Elsewhere at the same site some 30 Venus figurines were found of the kind produced by the Upper Paleolithic cultures of Europe. The remains were excavated by Russian archaeologists over a 20-year period ending in 1958 and stored in museums in St. Petersburg.

There they lay for some 50 years until they were examined by a team led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen. Dr. Willerslev, an expert in analyzing ancient DNA, was seeking to understand the peopling of the Americas by searching for possible source populations in Siberia. He extracted DNA from bone taken from the child’s upper arm, hoping to find ancestry in the East Asian peoples from whom Native Americans are known to be descended.

But the first results were disappointing. The boy’s mitochondrial DNA belonged to the lineage known as U, which is commonly found among the modern humans who first entered Europe some 44,000 years ago. The lineages found among Native Americans are those designated A, B, C, D and X, so the U lineage pointed to contamination of the bone by the archaeologists or museum curators who had handled it, a common problem with ancient DNA projects. “The study was put on low speed for about a year because I thought it was all contamination,” Dr. Willerslev said.

His team proceeded anyway to analyze the nuclear genome, which contains the major part of human inheritance. They were amazed when the nuclear genome also turned out to have partly European ancestry. Examining the genome from a second Siberian grave site, that of an adult who died some 17,000 years ago, they found the same markers of European origin. Together, the two genomes indicate that descendants of the modern humans who entered Europe had spread much farther east across Eurasia than had previously been assumed and occupied Siberia during an extremely cold period starting 20,000 years ago that is known as the Last Glacial Maximum.

The other surprise from the Mal’ta boy’s genome was that it matched to both Europeans and Native Americans but not to East Asians. Dr. Willerslev’s interpretation was that the ancestors of Native Americans had already separated from the East Asian population when they interbred with the people of the Mal’ta culture, and that this admixed population then crossed over the Beringian land bridge that then lay between Siberia and Alaska to become a founding population of Native Americans.

“We estimate that 14 to 38 percent of Native American ancestry may originate through gene flow from this ancient population,” he and colleagues wrote in an article published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

A European contribution to Native American ancestry could explain two longstanding puzzles about the people’s origins. One is that many ancient Native American skulls, including that of the well-known Kennewick man, look very different from those of the present day population. Another is that one of the five mitochondrial DNA lineages found in Native Americans, the lineage known as X, also occurs in Europeans. One explanation is that Europeans managed to cross the Atlantic in small boats some 20,000 years ago and joined the Native Americans from Siberia.

Dr. Willerslev thinks it more likely that European bearers of the X lineage had migrated across Siberia with the ancestors of the Mal’ta culture and joined them in their trek across the Beringian land bridge.

DNA study ties B.C. First Nations groups to ancient ancestors

By Scott Sutherland | Geekquinox – Thu, 4 Jul, 2013

Thanks to a team of researchers from Canada, the U.S. and China, First Nations groups living along the coast of British Columbia now have proof that they are the direct descendants of people who lived in the area up to 5,500 years ago or longer.

Anthropologist Ripan S. Malhi linked ancient and present-day First Nations groups in British Columbia
Anthropologist Ripan S. Malhi linked ancient and present-day First Nations groups in British Columbia

This research, led by University of Illinois anthropology professor Ripan S. Malhi, examined the mitochondrial DNA of people living in the area now and from Native American remains going back thousands of years.

[ Related: Carving of Roman god unearthed in ancient garbage dump ]

Mitochondrial DNA is different from the DNA that resides in the nuclei of our cells. Firstly, it’s far more abundant, so even though DNA decays over time, having more of it gives scientists a better chance at being able to piece together more of the information. Also, mitochondrial DNA is solely passed from mother to child in humans, and since it doesn’t ‘recombine‘ — meaning it doesn’t exchange genetic information with other DNA — it remains roughly the same throughout the generations. Thus, the scientists were still able to compare the DNA from remains to people living in the region now, and find matches between them.

According to the study, matching mitochondrial DNA sequences (also called ‘mitochondrial genome’ or ‘mitogenome’) were found in three participants — the remains of a young woman who lived 5,500 years ago on the Lucy Islands, the remains of another woman who lived on Dodge Island around 2,500 years ago, and a woman currently living in the area. This DNA evidence shows that the living woman is the direct descendant of either these other two women, or of their mothers.

Another mitogenome from Dodge Island remains, from 5,000 years ago, were found to match three other living participants from the area.

“Having a DNA link showing direct maternal ancestry dating back at least 5,000 years is huge as far as helping the Metlakatla prove that this territory was theirs over the millennia,” said Barbara Petzelt, an author and participant in the study, according to a University of Illinois news release. TheMetlakatla are just one of the First Nations groups in the area, that are part of the TsimshianHaidaand Nisga’a people.

Studies done in the past have looked at a small number of mitochondrial DNA sequences (apparently less than 2%), but this is only the second study that looked at all mitogenomic sequences (the first was of an Inuit man who lived in Greenland between 3,400 to 4,500 years ago).

As Malhi points out, the introduction of European DNA — from European men producing children with Native American women — complicates DNA studies of the Native American population, but examining the mitochondrial DNA makes it much easier to see the purely Native American lineages.

“This is the beginning of the golden era for ancient DNA research because we can do so much now that we couldn’t do a few years ago because of advances in sequencing technologies,” Malhi said in the statement. “We’re just starting to get an idea of the mitogenomic diversity in the Americas, in the living individuals as well as the ancient individuals.”

[ More Geekquinox: New crime scene technology can find hidden fingerprints ]

One aspect of the study that helped with the DNA evidence was the rich oral history kept by these B.C. First Nation tribes, which trace family lineages back through the mother. So these histories could be directly compared to the results from the mitochondrial DNA.

“It’s very exciting to be able to have scientific proof that corroborates what our ancestors have been telling us for generations,” said Joycelynn Mitchell, a Metakatla co-author and participant in the study. “It’s very amazing how fast technology is moving to be able to prove this kind of link with our past.”

(Photo courtesy: L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois)

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