Identity Politics in the Name of Science: The Battle over American Indian Blood and Bones Continues

As we learned in my previous post, Reich et al. (2012, 4) claim to have conducted the “most comprehensive survey of genetic diversity in Native Americans so far.” I noticed that their study admitted a few ironies and misapprehensions, but this one is of a special kind, as it pertains not to their interpretations of the origins of American Indians but to their involuntary involvement in American Indian identity politics.

As it turns out, the “most comprehensive survey” lacks DNA samples from American Indian populations in the U.S. The reason for this bizarre lacuna is the reluctance of American Indian communities to participate in genetic research and donate their samples. The New York Times wrote about it back in 2006. This is what it had to say about the reason behind the resistance of tribal councils to support academic genetic ancestry research:

“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. 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.”

American Indians are afraid that the Bering Strait theory, which describes them as a late and marginal offshoot from an Asian population, undermines their patrimony and may present them to the government authorities as a kind of “illegal immigrants” in North America. Their special status in the U.S., including the tax status tied to casino profits, is contingent on the presumption that they are culturally unique sociopolitical entities who are the First Nations in this land. Geneticists want to have it both ways: once their new tool to model population origins, namely mtDNA, was sequenced, they adopted the Bering Strait theory from archaeologists but, unlike archaeologists who can scour for projectile points anywhere in the vast expanses of the U.S., they routinely need reservation-bound American Indians, who presumably are genetically pure, to actually supply them with DNA. American Indian DNA will then be used to prove that American Indians are the recent (by humanity’s standards) immigrants in the New World. So, you got yourself another lucrative deal, Tonto! First, we needed your land to build an American Dream for everyone; now, we need your blood to advance the science of proving that you didn’t really own that land in the first place.

Whether we agree with this logic or not, this is roughly what American Indian communities think and they have a right to think what their best interests dictate.

Now, identity politics is one of the favorite topics of discussion in the science blogosphere. The others being creationism vs. science and race in America. The moment the paper came out, Dienekes began complaining:

“Of course, if you look at the map of the sampled populations, you’ll notice one big hole: the USA. Petty identity politics contra science? Data on Native groups outside the US have been studied for years, and I doubt that the sky will fall over the heads of the new Canadian and South American groups that participated in this particular study. Hopefully, one day the big hole will be filled, although I’m not holding my breath of that happening anytime soon.”

Living Anthropologically defended American Indian communities against Dienekes’s complaint but the defense was misguided or imprecise:

“Genocide. Treaty abrogation. Children sent to boarding school to be stripped of language and identity. Contemporary inequalities. The fact that every time I assign “Battle of the Bones” and screen Bones of Contention, some students openly snicker or rant about Native Americans holding back science.”

American Indians were never subjected to genocide by the American government. I remember this was clearly explained to me by Richard White. Their form of oppression was severe but different from the fate of Jews in Germany. I’m not going to delve into this issue here. But when it comes to the refusal to donate DNA samples, it’s all about a history of broken treaties, contentious land claims and the special status of American Indian tribes in the U.S. No need to invoke boarding schools or “inequalities.”

Dienekes read the misguided answer by Living Anthropologically and exploded with his signature rant entitled “Petty identity politics indeed, or holding a grudge is no excuse for anti-science.” People responded with 50 comments. Razib, of course, couldn’t sit still either: he set aside his household chores and fired out a post “Native Americans are not special snowflakes.” That one attracted 58 comments.

Dienekes’s point is that many ethnic groups were treated badly by some superpower but only North American Indians choose to play the dirty politics against scientists affiliated, in their eyes, with one such superpower. He patronizes American Indians as incapable of growing beyond past grievances to join all other nations in the noble task of rendering humble service to Science.

You’ll find plenty of groups with historical or even contemporary sources of conflict setting aside their differences in the interest of science.”

Razib echoed (and note the use of the word “behavior” signaling a non-reflexive, irrational or custom-bound activity):

“Let’s be honest here and admit that politics is the primary force driving this particular behavior.”

About a year ago, he lashed out at me for trying to present American Indian resistance to participating in genetic research as perfectly rational and even enlightened. Just like anthropologists do with all other expressions of native cultures. Razib called anthropology a “voodoo science” that he “always opposes.” There was nothing particularly scientific in that assessment of anthropology.

What caught my eye in the 108 comments on Dienekes’s and Razib’s blogs is the following response by Dienekes to a woman named shenandoah who defended American Indian resistance to genetic research without, apparently, being a 100% American Indian:

“You can believe whatever you want, but if you are >=94% non-NA, then I have to question why you call yourself one in such strong terms.”

Dienekes and Razib passionately defend science against American Indian “identity politics.” But how much of a scientist is Dienekes, or Razib? Both of them are amateur genome bloggers or wannabe scientists. They employ scientific terms, use some scientific methods, work with raw data, correspond with academic scientists, but they are amateurs. Just like shenandoah may be wearing a beaded bracelet and attending a pow-wow. If we translate this into the language of blood quanta, Dienekes is maybe 1/16 scientist and judging by his open celebration of Orthodox Christian holidays on his site, he’s probably at least 1/4 a religious believer. Razib maybe as much as 3/4 right-wing public intellectual. Then whence such a passionate defense of science?

Or, let’s take the full-blooded anarchist Luis Aldamiz who likes to assume a “science stance” like he did responding to another American Indian reader in Dienekes’s blog, who commented that the Bering Strait theory is “problematic” for American Indians:

“Humankind has one single origin and is not in America (actually in Africa and there’s LOTS of evidence supporting it.”

An actual Western scientist like me would say: no, much of that evidence is no good, but it would be impossible to convince Aldamiz that he is not a scientist and hence can’t pass a judgment as to what science possesses in terms of proof of human origins.

Clearly, science is just as likely to become a part of “identity politics” as race or ethnicity, and “scientist” is just as likely to become an aspirational badge for wannabes as “Native American grandmother.” Actually, Dienekes recently censored two of my comments addressed at Native New Yorker and at Reich’s paper. Most likely because they didn’t represent his party line and he didn’t feel like yielding his webspace to heterodox conversations about the Bering Strait theory and the out-of-America hypothesis. But I think out-of-America advances science, and Dienekes censors it. Just like American Indian communities prefer not to support scientific research whose outcome is not in their best interest. So, whose petty politics, Dienekes?

The sharp distinction between science and politics assumed by wannabe scientists such as Dienekes, Razib and Aldamiz is self-serving and untenable. How much of a scientific study is Reich et al.’s (2012) paper if it proposes that Eskimo-Aleuts absorbed the pre-existing “First American” component when they came from Northeast Asia to the New World and then passed it back to the Chukchis in Northeast Asia without entertaining a more natural possibility that Eskimo-Aleuts and Chukchis actually descended from the same “First Americans” and hence the migration across the Bering Strait went in the opposite direction from what academic scientists keep claiming? How is it not “petty politics” to ask for resources from subjects to help support your agenda but never entertain the alternatives that the subjects themselves support?

This was exactly the thrust of Vine Deloria’s argument put forth in “Red Earth, White Lies: Native Americans and the Myth of Scientific Fact.” The aforementioned commenter Native New Yorker listed it as one of the books to be read by anyone interested in understanding the American Indian perspective on the Bering Strait theory. Needless to say, nobody took him seriously. And I was probably one of the very few visitors to Dienekes’s blog who read this book and actually knew Deloria in person. Often dismissed as naive, “creationist” and misguided in its representation of American archaeology, Deloria’s book in reality is none of that. It’s an application of the spirit of his hugely popular counterculture classic “Custer Died for Your Sins” to the science of the origins of American Indians written from the point of view of a “real” American Indian person. The scandalous Ward Churchill took Deloria’s critique even further and wrote a polemical article entitled “About that Bering Strait Bridge…Let’s Turn Those Footprints Around” in which he used and nearly plagiarized Alvah Hicks’s out-of-America I. Just like Ward Churchill is a likely self-invented “American Indian” who rejects blood quantum foundations for ethnic and racial ascription, Alvah Hicks is a self-taught anthropologist who believes in evolution, scientific method but he happen to reject the conventional Bering Strait theory. Ward Churchill hijacked Hicks’s benign and maybe naive Western science and trivialized Deloria’s indigenous critique of the Bering Strait theory to pursue his idiosyncratic and aggressive identity politics that have nothing to do with either science or with the relationship between American Indian communities and the state. Science blogging on the web suffers from precisely this kind of Churchillian manipulation when one wrong emotion turns a rational scientific discourse into a petty political imitation of itself. On the other hand, the refusal of American Indian communities to donate DNA samples is a pragmatic reaction to the existing political situation in the U.S. It’s different from the political situation in, say, South America, hence indigenous response to sample collection is different.

To expand on Michael Asch’s argument presented in “Lévi-Strauss and the Political: The Elementary Structures of Kinship and the Resolution of Relations between Indigenous People and Settler States,” there needs to be a fair exchange taking place between scientists and Native communities in advance of and as a pre-requisite for actually doing a “positivist science” of population origins. Before we take Darwin’s search for “the hidden bond of connexion” from the animal kingdom to modern human populations, we, as scientists, need to establish a social connection between the parties playing the diverse roles in the research process, a connection that entails transparency, reciprocity and mutual understanding. This is anthropology, too. I will reiterate what I wrote earlier:

“If scientists drop the peopling of the Americas talk they’ll see an inflow of precious stones, genes and bones from indigenous people. And everything will end amicably.”

Update: July 20, 2012

One important facet of the controversy is the fact that, in many academic papers and genome blogger studies dealing with worldwide patterns of genetic variation, American Indian samples are utterly missing. I addressed this issue in the blog post “Are American Indian Populations Subject to Sampling Bias in Human Origins Research?” And the reason for these omissions is not the resistance of American Indians from the U.S. to participate in scientific research because South American and Central American Indian samples are excluded from these studies, too. It’s geneticists’ and genome bloggers’ pre-existing belief in the recency of American Indian populations that makes them think that American Indian samples are inconsequential regarding the key issues of Old World human origins and earliest dispersals that they are trying to solve. This is questionable considering that American Indians show world-highest frequencies of some “Neandertal” alleles as well as Denisovan alleles at higher frequencies than East Asians. This means that, if one uses Dienekes’s and Razib’s framework, Western geneticists display, in practice, the same “anti-science” behavior as American Indian tribes; they just express it differently.