DNA of Indigenous peoples explained

    Professor Ripan Malhi

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) As part of Native America Heritage Month, Professor Ripan Malhi of the University of Illinois explained recent DNA tests of remains in southeast Alaska and other areas.

    Malhi, Professor of the Department of Anthropology, School of Integrative Biology, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, at the University of Illinois, spoke on Paleogenomics, community engagement and the evolutionary histories of Indigenous peoples of Northwest North America.

    It was part of Native American History Month and a lecture series hosted by Sealaska.

    While studying at the University California Davis, he researched Native Americans.  He explained he got a lot of resistance from Natives who were suspicious of researchers.

    Why should we trust you?  A question he heard from an elderly gentlemen during a talk he gave.  He had offered to research the tribe but got no takers for DNA swabs.

    He spoke about unethical research practices in the Havasupai case.  A professor took samples to research the high rate of diabetes in the tribe.  After he obtained the samples, she studied them for other problems and passed them around to other labs for disease studies.   When the Tribe found out about the research without their consent, they filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents that was settled out of court for $750,000.  The blood samples taken for research were returned to the tribe.

    Malhi, in his work, said he focused on community-based research.  It includes equity, respect, reciprocity and beneficence.  It also includes dissemination, capacity building, transparency and cultural competency.  “They (Natives) are informed about all the research,” he added.

    He also promoted a summer internship for Indigenous peoples to study genomics.  It was held at the University of Washington in Seattle.

    Another newsworthy event over research was raised this past summer when a dig unearth ethical concerns in Chaco Canyon in the southwest.  
    He emphasized experts believe strongly that ancestral remains should be regarded not as artifacts but as human relatives who deserve respect.  They also published a framework for enhancing ethical genomic research with Indigenous communities.

    Kill TallBear, professor at the University of Alberta said if you want to do paleogenomic research in native communities you must be prepared to have life-long relationships.

    There has been an effort to extract DNA from a dinosaur.  DNA was extracted from an 80-million year old bone fragments found at an underground coal mine in eastern Utah.  “If we think about dinosaurs, most researchers suspect birds as those dinosaurs living today.  The dinosaur bone was more closely related to humans than birds.  Does this mean dinosaurs are related to humans?  Probably not."

    He said it was likely a case of human contamination.

    Another Alabama lab claimed DNA of a dinosaur was an exact match to turkeys.  Turns out the researchers had been eating turkey sandwiches in the lab.

    DNA had a very rocky start in this field, after that it became very difficult to publish DNA research without very strict protocols.  This made the work very expensive and very time consuming.  There have been rapid improvements in technology since 2010.  In the past research was limited to the mitochondrial genome.  Now it has expanded to the nuclear genome.

    The professor has a partnership with Coast Tsimshian on the north coast of British Columbia.  The research focused on comparison of the DNA from first peoples from thousands of years ago, to the DNA of today.  Another part of the study was finding the impacts of Europeans on the native American population before and after European contact.  They analyzed DNA from ancestors and present day.  The analysis of exomes showed strong genetic affinity between ancient and modern.  

    A small pox epidemic about 200 years ago also had a huge impact on the population of first peoples.  He was able to trace genetics from a living Tsimshian to a person who lived 5,000 years ago on Dodge Island.  The DNA proof supported the oral history of Metlakatla.  The DNA link showed direct maternal ancestry dating back at least 5,000 years on who was in control of this region over the years.

    The DNA of a person who lived on Prince of Wales Island, unearth in 1996, was also studied.   They said Shuka Kaa lived in Southeast Alaska about 10,300 years ago.  He was reburied in 2008.  In July, 1996 the Klawock cooperative Association and Craig community Association adopted a resolution that called for radiocarbon dating, non-destructive scientific analysis and oversight by indigenous communities.  In November, 2004 Sealaska Heritage Institute adopted a resolution to provide for ancient DNA analysis of a second tooth of Shuka Kaa and oversight by the indigenous communities.
    “This ancient individual contained microcondreal DNA that was found in living members in the Americas, all the way down to the tip of South America.”

    In 2014 researcher Brian Kemp confirmed permissions for genomic analysis and his study was published in 2017.  This showed ancient individuals from the North American Northwest Coast reveal 10,000 years of regional genetic continuity.

    Shuka Kaa shows continuity to present day Northwest Coast individuals.  “There is regional genetic continuity here for at least 10,000 years.”

    The research showed a large population collapse in British Columbia following European contact.  

    Three new studies on paleogenomics in the Americas were published today.  One studied the Andes Highlands.  Another studied Central and South America.  It found numerous early movements into South America from North America. Another paper sequenced 15 ancient individuals from Alaska to Patagonia.  It showed multiple movements into South America from North America and genetic continuity in the great basin.

    About 40 ancient individuals in the Americas found with genome wide data.  After today, about 110 ancient individuals in the Americas with genome wide data.
    Indigenous communities were consulted and supported the research.  None of the study were led by native indigenous scientists.    There is a need to a program to have more indigenous scientists.

    In the past native Americans were absolutely opposed to DNA studies.  The southeast Natives were among the first to bless DNA testing.  Elders want to learn about the ancient histories of tribes.  They believe they are tied to their ancestors and have an obligation for future generations.  


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