Thursday, December 04, 2008

JACKSTRAWS: Native American Blood

“Hopi Tribe Asks for Blood Samples of All Scientists Studying Native American Blood.” The hope is to find out whether this category of scholars have a vampire gene or what. “We had thought to take mirrors around to their offices to see whether they had reflections,” said the chief. “But that much travel would leave too big a carbon footprint on the environment. And we are very protective of Grandmother Earth.”

Not really. That’s a down payment on April Fool’s Day, but it sort of makes vivid the issues raised by an article entitled, "Whose Blood Is It?," by Scott Jaschik. December 1. 2008. Copyright 2008. Inside Higher ED. All Rights Reserved. Full Text Available At:

Jaschik says, "The basic concept of informed consent in research is straightforward. Those ethics issues may be about to get a legal airing, following a decision Friday by an Arizona appeals court to revive a lawsuit by a small Indian tribe against the Arizona Board of Regents and some researchers involved in the use of blood collected from the tribe. Tribe members consented to the blood being used for research on why they may have been experiencing high rates of diabetes. But they charge that some of the studies conducted with their blood — in some cases by researchers who played no role in the original study, or its informed consent protocols — violated their rights. Some of the additional research challenged the tribe's religious beliefs and members say they never would have contributed to such studies…"

Curiosity about Native American body parts, including bones, scalps and DNA, have been hot topics from the very beginning. In the forties blood type grouping indicated that Native Americans were of Asian descent, which was not politically happy news in two ways: one was that we were at war with Japan, treating Japanese-origin citizens to property seizure and sequestered camps, to say nothing of prejudice and hostility. The other was that the idea of Native Americans having arrived by migrating across the Bering Straits has been used to devalue their status as First Peoples by implying that they were no different from the Euro-immigrants who arrived recently, except earlier.

Beyond that was the preoccupation on the part of Euros with blood quantum as defined by provenance, that is, knowledge of parentage, before there was any ability to analyze blood types and presently actual DNA code. Euros place heavy emphasis on inheritance and legitimacy because what’s at stake is property and status: the sons of kings make out much better than the sons of peasants. Then there’s the question of slavery: one person could own another person, depending on the inheritance of skin color. The “owned” people could be hunted down like any animal and treated as viciously as the owner wished, even if the slave in question had been produced by intercourse with her mother's owner and was half created by the owner’s DNA. Paternity could not be legally proven until recently when analysis of DNA has revealed that even presidents were not above such behavior, though the evidence is found generations later.

So blood is a source of hypocrisy and oppression, except that blood has also been elevated to the status of mystical relationship in the supposed theory of “blood brotherhood” when a white man (always a man) and a red man mingle blood produced by a minor voluntary wound. And since DNA is often found through the analysis of blood, it has taken on a metaphorical relationship, though DNA can also be found by analyzing cells swabbed from the inner cheek or maybe hair. No one talks about “sacred hair ceremonies” or “cheek cell brothers forever.”

The accusation often made against full-blood tribal members by mixed-blood tribal members is that the full-bloods are in-bred. At the same time hopeful people shell out hundreds of dollars to have their blood analyzed in hopes of discovering once and for all whether they are Native American and even to what tribe they belong. The chain of assumptions that the profiting companies make leads them to some strange findings because the suggestions are based on alleles, or partial sections of code. (A Lebanese gentleman might be startled to discover he is Navajo.) The other set of assumptions is about tribes: that tribes are like animal species that don’t mix and have distinct borders, when in fact tribes are more like religious denominations based on affinities and location, what language is spoken.

Maybe the most recent issue has been about money (as though they aren’t all about money in some sense). Since DNA is a code, that code can be valuable and to some very limited extent can be used to create molecules that are possibly medicinal as well as diagnostic and can be patented. Someone can own the code in your blood, without giving the generator of the code any compensation. Many researchers use cancer cells taken from patients decades ago and worth a LOT of money as they have been analyzed and preserved by laboratories.

Like effective medicines, once informed and rigorous protocols are used to generate the original substance, it can be used for purposes not specified in the original agreement. So the Havasupai tribe, whose genetics have been limited by the walls of the Grand Canyon, are of major interest because so many have diabetes. Thus they willingly allowed blood samples to be taken. But then those blood samples were used, without permission or even informing the tribe, for a study of schizophrenia. The slippery slope is that the researcher, who is using only 200 samples, will somehow assert that this tribe carries schizophrenia the way the crowned heads of Europe (definitely inbred on purpose) carry the inability of blood to clot. This quickly becomes “all Havasupai are crazy.

Now the Havasupai, justifiably paranoid, have gone from trusting doctors to avoiding them, since it is unknown whether wearing a wreath of garlic at medical exams will keep them from stealing your blood. And the researchers feel that a stake has been driven through the heart of their studies. My favorite quote in this article is the clincher: Jonathon Marks, an anthropology professor, says that anthropology depends upon cooperation of the groups they study, not so much for legal reasons as because “if we treat people contemptuously, anthropology disappears.”

Well, Mr. Spock could have told them that. Even Captain Kirk had that firmly in mind.


Native American Advocate said...

I'm just glad to see this getting a little wider exposure. I wrote about scientists using tribal blood without tribal approval for migration studies back in 2004 and no one believed me. Scientists need to learn that blood is sacred and can't just be used for whatever theory they want to test.

Anonymous said...

Oh my God is anyone aware of the New World Order, The bilderberg group, Genetics, Hitler...We can't sell our blood... It's all we hae left. We've outlived the small pocks, and God knows what else. Our blood line is strong. They know this..they want this.