Saturday, July 11, 2015

My Letter to Kim TallBear on the Kennewick Paper

[blog note:  The New York Times article referenced in this letter included only a few phrases of the original half hour interview by Carl Zimmer that Kim Tallbear gave when she spoke with him.   In her original comments, she spoke more broadly to the complexities and ethical issues involved regarding the Kennewick ancient DNA. In addition to Carl Zimmer's article, the Rasmussen paper is also discussed in an article by Jennifer Raff (Link) and covered by Ewen Callaway at Nature (Link).]

Letter to Kim Tallbear:

To: Professor Kim TallBear, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Texas

Professor Kim TallBear,

I had a look at your comments regarding the Kennewick paper:

First, let me say I’m delighted that there is now clear evidence that indigenous people of the Americas can now say that their ancestors have been in the Americas for the last 10,000 years, at least.

Having said that, I recently visited the Piikani and spoke to some of their activists about their current concerns. Of these, their concerns are focused on

1. land claims,

2. infringements and development on traditional land,

3. funding for education,

4. funding for language preservation and cultural preservation,

5. fair access to employment,

6. opportunities to gain an education and employment without having to leave traditional land

I know that the Salish in Vancouver, British Columbia, have similar concerns, based on their recent comments in the press.

This recent Kennewick paper might help Native Americans and Canadians assert their right to traditional territory, (1) and (2) above, something which is very important.

However, this paper does not address the need for inclusion or employment of American Native People.

I had a close look at the authors in this paper. With the exception of Carlos Bustamante and Ripan Malhi, the authors are all of european ancestry.

Only 15% of the authors are women. None of the first or last authors are women. 

Given the inevitable high impact factors that these kinds of papers generate, it is unfortunate that professors like Bustamante, Malhi and Nielsen are not doing more to include Native Americans and female students as researchers and authors on these highly visible papers.

A majority of the authors on this paper are studying and working at universities in Denmark.  I don’t know if you have looked at the demographic makeup of Danish Universities. There are virtually NO people of color, and not even very many people from outside of Denmark in these Danish genetics and bioinformatics programs.  Moreover, Denmark just elected a center right government.

Willerslev states: “One group that had asked for the remains, the Washington-based Colville tribe, donated DNA for the work. Analysis showed that Kennewick Man is "very closely related to the Colville," said Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, senior author of the study. He said DNA from the other tribes that had asked for the bones was not available for the study, but that he suspected they are closely related, too.”

Gee, I wonder why the other groups were not available for study?

Saying that “There’s progress there, and I’m happy about that,” [your comment in the New York Times article] doesn’t address the fact that no Native Americans participated as scientists in this work.

Native Americans should still be scared, not just because the results might be misleading or manipulated, as has been the case in the past, but also because Native Americans are not being included as equals in the process of the research, which is the case with the Rasmussen paper. In my humble opinion, this is not really enough progress for me to be happy.


Marnie Dunsmore
San Francisco

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