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Native American DNA

Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science

Kim TallBear

Publication Year: 2013

Who is a Native American? And who gets to decide? From genealogists searching online for their ancestors to fortune hunters hoping for a slice of casino profits from wealthy tribes, the answers to these seemingly straightforward questions have profound ramifications. The rise of DNA testing has further complicated the issues and raised the stakes.

In Native American DNA, Kim TallBear shows how DNA testing is a powerful—and problematic—scientific process that is useful in determining close biological relatives. But tribal membership is a legal category that has developed in dependence on certain social understandings and historical contexts, a set of concepts that entangles genetic information in a web of family relations, reservation histories, tribal rules, and government regulations. At a larger level, TallBear asserts, the “markers” that are identified and applied to specific groups such as Native American tribes bear the imprints of the cultural, racial, ethnic, national, and even tribal misinterpretations of the humans who study them.

TallBear notes that ideas about racial science, which informed white definitions of tribes in the nineteenth century, are unfortunately being revived in twenty-first-century laboratories. Because today’s science seems so compelling, increasing numbers of Native Americans have begun to believe their own metaphors: “in our blood” is giving way to “in our DNA.” This rhetorical drift, she argues, has significant consequences, and ultimately she shows how Native American claims to land, resources, and sovereignty that have taken generations to ratify may be seriously—and permanently—undermined.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-xi

Many people helped along the path to this book. I can name but a few important individuals here, and I name them chronologically. I thank my mother, LeeAnn TallBear, for impressing on me from my earliest memory that education could make all the difference in living a full and productive life—that it could take me to interesting places in ...

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INTRODUCTION: An Indigenous, Feminist Approach to DNA Politics

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pp. 1-29

Scientists and the public alike are on the hunt for “Native American DNA.”1 Hi-tech genomics labs at universities around the world search for answers to questions about human origins and ancient global migrations. In the glossy world of made-for-television science, celebrity geneticist Spencer Wells travels in jet planes and Land Rovers to farflung ...

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1. Racial Science, Blood, and DNA

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pp. 31-66

The phenomenon of Native American DNA can be understood in all of its richness only if it is understood as co-constituted with U.S. race categories, which themselves are coproduced with Euro-American colo nial practices, including eighteenth- through twentieth-century U.S. race laws, policy, and programs. The meanings of Native American ...

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2. The DNA Dot-com: Selling Ancestry

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pp. 67-103

In the early 1960s, researchers began applying new genetic techniques to traditional anthropological questions.1 The new science was coined “molecular anthropology.” Today, researchers around the world use a growing arsenal of techniques to study ancient human migrations and the biological and cultural relationships between human groups in ...

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3. Genetic Genealogy Online

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pp. 105-141

Genealogy research is perhaps the most popular U.S. American pastime.1This chapter explores the practice of “genetic genealogy,” or genealogical (“family tree”) research that makes use of ancestry-DNA tests to fill in documentary gaps. Often called an obsession, genealogy re search had an estimated forty million practitioners in the United States ...

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4. The Genographic Project: The Business of Research and Representation

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pp. 143-176

In April 2005, the National Geographic Society and IBM, with funding from the Waitt Family Foundation (established by a cofounder of Gateway, Inc.), launched the Genographic Project as a five-year “research partnership”1 that aims to “trace the migratory history of the human species” and “map how the Earth was populated.”2 The Genographic Project, a ...

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CONCLUSION: Indigenous and Genetic Governance and Knowledge

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pp. 177-204

“Native American DNA” fascinated me from the first moment that I heard it uttered. Not having taken a genetics or biological anthropology class, that first utterance struck my ears at a meeting having to do with a grant that my employer had won from the U.S. Department of Energy’s program in the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) ...


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pp. 205-235


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pp. 237-252

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About the Author

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p. 254-254

Kim TallBear is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

E-ISBN-13: 9780816685776
E-ISBN-10: 0816685770
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816665860

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2013