Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Indian DNA and Paradigm Shift

Brian Dippie’s famous book, “The Vanishing Indian,” managed to convince us that Indians hadn’t vanished at all -- but now we find that our understanding of what to call “indians” and what Indians “are” -- even what human beings are -- is up for grabs. It’s the definitions that are vanishing. We are deeply challenged by how to think about the people who were on this continent before Euros arrived.

Let’s work backwards. It was quite a discovery to know that we could actually write out the recipe for a human being: a DNA map of each individual, a list of the main genes, even the ability to identify the genes we share with other animals -- which turns out to be 99% of the genes we have. It is even possible to “build” a a simple worm by creating the right molecules and getting them to adhere to each other in the right order, which is NOT a simple task. About a zillion times more difficult than exploring outer space.

THEN it turned out that every gene (which we had learned to think of as a sort of round billiard ball with an eye color or nose length written on it) is really a little factory, a jig, a template for molecules and it is these molecules, proteins, floating around in a body that determine what that body is like. BUT whatever happens to that body also affects both the template for the molecule AND the molecule as it floats. The factory turns off and on, and it retools to fit the situation. Ever more complex than we thought. Some genes turn others off and on -- maybe on a time schedule, maybe in response to the environment, maybe in response to something like sunlight (like vitamin D).

So now we have the exponentially more huge task of identifying those molecules, giving them names, figuring out what they do, what atoms are in them, how they are “folded.” This last turns out to be crucial as a proteome (a molecule made in the jig of a gene), if it’s folded wrong, becomes a “prion,” and that will kill you. It won’t fit with the other molecules the way it ought to and will gum up the works until you have Alzheimers or something else bad.

If you don’t eat the substances your system needs to make your proteomes, you will be deficient. Can’t digest food quite. Won’t have energy. Can’t think straight. Get rickets or pelagra or scurvy. But substances vary. The iron atoms in one place are slightly different (isotopes) from the iron atoms in another place. Maybe that makes no difference -- maybe it does.

I understand “race” as being fitted to an environment so exquisitely that one’s very molecules are made of local isotopes, one’s metabolism is adjusted for the specific climate, one’s physical structure is adapted to the necessary tasks, and one’s religion is drawn to and shaped around one’s life. How poetic. What good is an outlook like that when there’s money involved? Legal definitions? Social relatonships? One’s self image?

I dunno. I just thought it ought to be on the table.

Here are other ideas:

1. Anyone who FEELS like an Indian or what they think an Indian feels like, IS an Indian.

2. An Indian is however his or her home tribes defines it.

3. An Indian is whatever the government says, but the government says different things for different purposes: land ownership, scholarships, loans and subsidies. And all these lines can be rearranged if there’s not enough money to go around -- just make the definition a little tighter or looser and the number of Indians becomes greater or lesser.

4. An Indian is a reservation dweller and cannot properly be an Indian any other place.

5. An Indian is a matter of blood heritage and their pedigree is their proof. Did you know Heather Locklear is a Lumbee Indian? Did you know that Ward Churchill is NOT by this measure? (His tribal membership is a complimentary membership given by a tribe he knew so that he could sell art at Indian Art Fairs without being arrested because it’s against the federal law to sell Indian Art if you’re not an Indian according to your own tribe.)

6. The Duck Test -- does the person walk like a... talk like a...
act like a... and so on. Except that most times the duck is straight out of the movies.

7. A white person can be adopted into a tribe and then becomes a kind of blood brother which is a Real Thing.

7. Since you can define Indians so many different ways, they are simply not a coherent entity and it is hopeless to try to define them.

Recently the Cree-Chippewa in Havre got into such a ruckus about how their tribe would define Indian (Some wanted to move the line to qualify their grandchildren who were whiter than the rule allowed) that they got embarrassed and threw the local reporter out of the meeting.

There’s a scientific point of view that “Indians” are only a phenomenon defined by what was here when Columbus arrived. If you find bones that are old enough (like the Kennewick man) to precede known tribes, they aren’t Indian, can’t belong to an existing tribe, but belong to an even more ambiguous category like “early man.”

Back East some tribes are trying to reconstitute from a diasphora that has been passing for white for decades, because they want to have the legal right to buy land and build casinoes. Some of those people think that if their blood were analyzed, there would be markers of tribe in there -- genes that only that tribe carried. Some businesses are analyzing African-Americans’ blood and claim to be able to tell individuals what African tribe they came from. (To me some faces are certainly Somali and so on.) But what if they come from several tribes? Once they got to the States, they would not have been sorted by tribes.

Certifying Indian people as certain tribes according to their blood doesn’t at all allow for the amount of adoption, kidnapping, child sharing, and other genetic mixing that must have gone on across the continent.

It’s all questions with no answers. Every question has three answers: yes, no, and I don’t know yet-- tell me more. Mostly the last.


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themarigoldtrail said...

You ask the million dollar question, don't you? When you get this figured out, let us NDNs know, will ya? :)

I think any answer must have Indians deciding for themselves who is and who isn't; not the gov't, not DNA test.

btw, enjoy your blog, even though I can't keep up all the time. You're very prolific. I've been reading for a while and meaning to comment, so I figured now was about the time.

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