DNA Gatherers Hit Snag: Tribes Don't Trust Them

December 10, 2006 New York Times

DNA Gatherers Hit Snag: Tribes Don't Trust Them


SOUTH NAKNEK, Alaska " 1

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.

"What if it turns out you're really Siberian and then, oops, your
health care is gone?". said Dr. David Barrett, a co-chairman of the
Alaska Area Institutional Review Board, which is sponsored by the
Indian Health Service, a federal agency. "Did anyone explain that to

Such situations have not come up, and officials with the Genographic
Project discount them as unlikely. Spencer Wells, the population
geneticist who directs the project, says it is paternalistic to imply
that indigenous groups need to be kept from the knowledge that genetics
might offer.

"I don't think humans at their core are ostriches" Dr. Wells said.
"Everyone has an interest in where they came from, and indigenous
people have more of an interest in their ancestry because it is so
important to them".

But indigenous leaders point to centuries of broken promises to explain
why they believe their fears are not far-fetched. Scientific evidence
that American Indians or other aboriginal groups came from elsewhere,
they say, could undermine their moral basis for sovereignty and chip
away at their collective legal claims.

"It's a benefit to science, probably" said Dr. Mic LaRoque, the Alaska
board's other co-chairman and a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa
Tribe of North Dakota. "But I'm not convinced it's a benefit to the

The pursuit of indigenous DNA is driven by a desire to shed light on
questions for which the archeological evidence is scant. How did
descendants of the hunter-gatherers who first left humanity's
birthplace in east Africa some 65,000 years ago come to inhabit every
corner of the Earth? What routes did they take? Who got where, and when?

As early humans split off in different directions, distinct mutations
accumulated in the DNA of each population. Like bread crumbs, these
genetic markers, passed on intact for millennia, can reveal the trail
of the original pioneers. All non-Africans share a mutation that arose
in the ancestors of the first people to leave the continent, for
instance. But the descendants of those who headed north and lingered in
the Middle East carry a different marker from those who went southeast
toward Asia.

Most of the world's six billion people, however, are too far removed
from wherever their ancestors originally put down roots to be useful to
population geneticists. The Genographic Project is focusing on DNA from
people still living in their ancestral homelands because they provide
the crucial geographic link between genetic markers found today and
routes traveled long ago.

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.

The council members of the Native Village of Georgetown, for instance,
thought the project could bolster a sense of cultural pride.

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".

Others said the test would finally force an acknowledgment that they
were here first, undermining those who see the government as having
"given". them their land.

Still others were interested in the mechanics of migration: "Were the
lands all combined? Did they get here by boat?". For many nonindigenous
Americans who feel disconnected from their roots, the project has also
struck a chord: nearly 150,000 have scraped cells from their cheek and
sent them to the society with $100 to learn what scientists know so far
about how and where their individual forebears lived beyond the mists
of prehistory.

By giving the broader public a way to participate, though it is likely
to generate little scientific payoff, the project has created an
unusual set of stakeholders with a personal interest in its success.
More details, the project explains in the ancestral sketches it gives
individuals, will come only with more indigenous DNA.

"I think you have to be sensitive to these cultures" said Jesse R.
Sweeney, 32, a bankruptcy lawyer in Detroit who hopes the
millennia-size gaps in his own ancestors' story will eventually be
filled in. "But hopefully they will change their mind and contribute to
the research".

Mr. Sweeney's DNA places his maternal ancestors in the Middle East
about 50,000 year ago. After that, they may have gone north. Or maybe
south: "This is where the genetic clues get murky and your DNA trail
goes cold" read the conclusion to his test results on the project's
Web site. "By working together with indigenous peoples around the
globe, we are learning more about these ancient migrations".

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".

Unlike the earlier Human Genome Diversity Project, condemned by some
groups as "biocolonialism". because scientists may have profited from
genetic data that could have been used to develop drugs, the
Genographic Project promises to patent nothing and to avoid collecting
medical information. The project has designated half the proceeds from
the sale of kits to the public for programs designed to preserve
traditional cultures and language.

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.

On the ground, every region has its challenges. To make scientific
progress, the project's geneticists are finding they must first
navigate an unfamiliar tangle of political, religious and personal

Pierre Zalloua, the project director in the Middle East, faces
suspicion that he is an emissary of an opposing camp trying to prove
their lineages are not important. Himla Soodyall, the project's South
African director, finds herself trying to explain to people who worship
their ancestors what more her research could add. In Australia, some
aboriginal groups have refused to cooperate.

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. And at the request of the Alaska
review board, he has sent back the 50 or so samples that he collected
in Alaska to be stored in a specimen bank under its care until he can
satisfy their concerns.

American Indians, Dr. Schurr says, hold the answer to one of the more
notable gaps in the prehistoric migration map. Although most scientists
accept that the first Americans came across the Bering Strait land
bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska some 20,000 years ago, there
is no proof of precisely where those travelers came from, and the route
they took south once they arrived.

Comparing the DNA of large numbers of American Indians might reveal
whether their ancestors were from a single founding population, and
when they reached the Americas. And knowing the routes and timing of
migrations within the Americas would provide a foundation for studying
how people came to be so different so quickly.

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?".

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.

When Dr. Schurr was finally invited to a handful of villages in Alaska,
he eagerly accepted. But by the time he reached South Naknek, a tiny
native village on the Alaska Peninsula, to report his analysis of the
DNA he had taken on an earlier mission, the Alaska review board had
complained to his university supervisors.

The consent form all volunteers must sign, the Alaska board said,
should contain greater detail about the risks, including the fact that
the DNA would be stored in a database linked to tribal information.

Dr. Schurr's latest attempt at a revised form is to be reviewed this
month by the board in Alaska and the by University of Pennsylvania
board supervising the project.

In the meantime, his early results have surprised some of the Alaskans
who gave him their DNA. In South Naknek, Lorianne Rawson, 42, found out
her DNA contradicted what she had always believed. She was not
descended from the Aleuts, her test results suggested, but from their
one-time enemies, the Yup'ik Eskimos.

The link to the Yup'iks, Ms. Rawson said, only made her more curious.
"We want them to do more research" she added, offering Dr. Schurr more
relatives to be tested.

But she will have to wait.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company