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Native American DNA

Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science

2013
Author:

Kim TallBear

Native American DNA

How identifying Native Americans is vastly more complicated than matching DNA

Because today’s DNA testing seems so compelling and powerful, increasing numbers of Native Americans have begun to believe their own metaphors: “in our blood” is giving way to “in our DNA.” In Native American DNA, Kim TallBear shows how Native American claims to land, resources, and sovereignty that have taken generations to ratify may be seriously—and permanently—undermined.

Native American DNA is a book of far wider scope than its title, establishing the author as a leading authority on the topic. The politics of tribal DNA is but the starting point of a complex analysis that encompasses the whole framework in which DNA is appropriated in the study of human populations. Molecular geneticists, science studies researchers, legal scholars—and of course Native Americans—will find their horizons considerably broadened and newly engaged.

Troy Duster, New York University

Who is a Native American? And who gets to decide? From genealogists searching online for their ancestors to fortune hunters hoping for a slice of casino profits from wealthy tribes, the answers to these seemingly straightforward questions have profound ramifications. The rise of DNA testing has further complicated the issues and raised the stakes.

In Native American DNA, Kim TallBear shows how DNA testing is a powerful—and problematic—scientific process that is useful in determining close biological relatives. But tribal membership is a legal category that has developed in dependence on certain social understandings and historical contexts, a set of concepts that entangles genetic information in a web of family relations, reservation histories, tribal rules, and government regulations. At a larger level, TallBear asserts, the “markers” that are identified and applied to specific groups such as Native American tribes bear the imprints of the cultural, racial, ethnic, national, and even tribal misinterpretations of the humans who study them.

TallBear notes that ideas about racial science, which informed white definitions of tribes in the nineteenth century, are unfortunately being revived in twenty-first-century laboratories. Because today’s science seems so compelling, increasing numbers of Native Americans have begun to believe their own metaphors: “in our blood” is giving way to “in our DNA.” This rhetorical drift, she argues, has significant consequences, and ultimately she shows how Native American claims to land, resources, and sovereignty that have taken generations to ratify may be seriously—and permanently—undermined.

Native American DNA

Kim TallBear is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Native American DNA

Native American DNA is a book of far wider scope than its title, establishing the author as a leading authority on the topic. The politics of tribal DNA is but the starting point of a complex analysis that encompasses the whole framework in which DNA is appropriated in the study of human populations. Molecular geneticists, science studies researchers, legal scholars—and of course Native Americans—will find their horizons considerably broadened and newly engaged.

Troy Duster, New York University

Native American DNA is a gracefully written, powerfully argued, and urgently needed examination of indigenous identity and politics after the genomic turn. This is pathbreaking work.

Alondra Nelson, Columbia University

Native American DNA

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: An Indigenous, Feminist Approach to DNA Politics

1. Racial Science, Blood, and DNA

2. The DNA Dot-com: Selling Ancestry

3. Genetic Genealogy Online

4. The Genographic Project: The Business of Research and Representation

Conclusion: Indigenous and Genetic Governance and Knowledge


Notes
Index