NEWS ANALYSIS: Native Americans fight `genetic piracy’ using Kennewick Man conflict

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ It has been two years since the emergence of Kennewick Man, the 9,300-year-old human remains discovered in the Columbia River at Kennewick, Wash. And everyone wants a piece of him.

Some scientists want to know who this relic is, where he came from and who his predecessors and descendants are. Others want to mine the remains for clues to resistance or susceptibility to diseases, which might help pharmaceutical companies develop drugs.

The Asatru Folk Assembly, a religious group, wants the remains analyzed to discover whether Kennewick Man is an ancient European to whom they might be linked.

Newspapers have argued the ancient remains at some point ought to be regarded as the common inheritance of humanity and no group should suppress the scientific information the legacy might reveal.

And there are those who simply ask: “How can anyone stand not knowing?”

Well, many Native American tribes, that’s who.

Some of their reasons became clear recently in Portland, Ore., at a meeting of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, a presidential panel that helps the government decide what is fair or foul when using human subjects and tissues for research.

Frank C. Dukepoo, one of two Native Americans with doctorates in genetics, explained why most tribes find genetic testing culturally and spiritually offensive:

_ Using or cloning genetic material violates the uniqueness and sanctity of each life. The laboratory techniques amount to “playing with life and acting like a Creator, creating life unnaturally.”

_ Analyzing human genetic information is abhorrent because it goes against the idea that it is wrong to own another person in whole or part. “I haven’t found an Indian who is for it.”

_ Cell-line research involves immortalizing a part of a person _ keeping that person in the laboratory for a long time, theoretically indefinitely. “This violates our belief that one should be buried whole.”

_ Genetic research, leading to genetic patenting, also implies partly owning another person and profiteering on the products that come out of that possession.

_ The exploitation extends also to botanical research on tribal plant life and the indigenous knowledge that goes with it.

_ Use of Native Americans’ tissues to map the genes that control human traits (the Human Genome Project) and to explore tribal origins and migrations (Human Genome Diversity Project) is also offensive because it turns Indians into research subjects without their informed consent.

Others have explained to the commission that tribes fear some people want to use genetic testing to find reasons to have the government treat Native Americans like any other modern group of migrants.

If Kennewick Man was a European as opposed to a Native American, for example, the political goals would be to delegitimize tribal sovereignty, cancel treaties and walk away from the trust relationships developed since 1831.

Some worry genetic detection might lead to intertribal friction _ new claims of aboriginal rights to lands now occupied by other tribes.

The tribes care passionately about how invasively Kennewick Man is examined to decide where to return his remains.

It is little recognized outside of Indian Country, but fears of genetic piracy and abusive genetic anthropology are leading toward two major changes in how Native Americans can be studied.

Take these as predictions: Tribes will soon declare the human genetic material of their members is tribal community property and any invasive research of that material will require the informed consent of the tribe.

Kennewick Man, who long rested under 18 inches of the Columbia River, has begun to make waves that are rippling across the continent.


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