Taíno Symposium – Session 2 – Deborah Bolnick


Okay. All right. So I am Deborah Bolnick. I am an anthropologist and a geneticist at the University of Texas. Like Jada and Hannes, I analyze DNA from both ancient and contemporary peoples to help reconstruct population histories. I’m particularly interested in how sociopolitical histories have shaped our biological makeups and how we can therefore use DNA to gain some insight into ancestries, histories, and ties to both other peoples and places. And so in this context, I think a lot about how scientists and non-scientists use genetic information and how our understandings of genetic ancestry in particular intersect with social political and legal debates around identity, social belonging, race and indigeneity. My own research is centered in the southern United States not in the Caribbean, so I want to take the next few minutes to talk not about genetic studies that I have done, but rather — let’s see if I can get this — but rather about what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of applying genetic technologies in these ways, about the possibilities and perils that come with using genetic science to recover Native ancestries, reconstruct genealogical histories, and support individual and group identities. I want to acknowledge in this context that my thoughts on these topics have not formed in isolation. They’ve been shaped by insights from many colleagues, some of whom are here today, many of whom are not including my students and including members of the Indigenous communities with whom I work. As Jada and Hannes have shown, studies of genetic ancestry have real promise and power to transform how we see individual and community identities and histories in the Caribbean. And I think it’s really exciting to see how genetic data in this context have been marshaled to support assertions of Taíno identity and heritage, to show that people today have biological connections to the Indigenous peoples who have lived in these locations in the past, and to combat mythologies of eraser and extinction with scientific evidence of persistence and survival. These are approaches that have a lot of power I think because common Western understandings of ancestry and relatedness are largely biological and genetic in nature and we imbue DNA with a lot of meaning. And this allows us then to use these scientific findings of Indigenous genetic ancestry to provide a kind of proof or validation of what many individuals have known all along, of what many individuals have long been saying, but it provides a way to say it in a sense in a currency that holds a lot of value in our society. And this is why I think there’s been so much interest in personal genetic ancestry testing as well as the kinds of broader population genetic studies like those that Jada and Hannes have just told us about. Using genetic data in these ways obviously has benefits for individuals and communities, but I also want us to consider their limitations and the potential risks if we rely on genetic data to establish these connections and to mediate claims about identity heritage and descent. So, for example, if we use genetic data to validate narratives of identity in history, if we use genetic data to prove that individual and community knowledge is accurate, does that suggest that scientific knowledge is superior to other kinds of knowledge? That scientific forms of knowledge production are in some ways better than other ways of making knowledge and understanding about the world? Does it imply that the things that you think you know about yourself, your community, and your history are incorrect and should be discounted if no genetic evidence has emerged to support them? And these are questions that I think we need to consider as we think about using genetics in these contexts. I think the answer to all of these questions should be “no” for several reasons. First, for all the advances that have been made in genetic studies in the Caribbean and recent years, this field is still well, perhaps not in its infancy, but still in its toddler years. There’s still a lot that we don’t know about the patterns of genetic variation in this region both today and in the past. It’s kind of like we’ve sketched a painting of Caribbean genetic diversity with really broad brushstrokes, but we have yet to fill in any of the details. We know from studies in other parts of the world that genetic diversity patterns can vary in very nuanced ways across both time and space because individuals, families, and communities have not been fixed and stationary through the centuries. This means then that the genetic markers that have characterized people living in one location at one point in the past, may not be representative of those living in other places or may not even be representative of those who lived in that same location at another point in time either before or after. Furthermore, because different parts of our DNA can track different relationships and different histories, they may therefore tell different stories. This is something that Jada alluded to when she talked about how your mitochondrial DNA, which she’s looked at, traces those direct maternal genetic histories, but not others. What this means then in the context of genetic ancestry testing is that if a study of genetic ancestry does not turn up a connection to Indigenous ancestors, it does not necessarily mean that such a connection does not exist. We might just not be looking at the right part of the genome to find that connection or we might not yet have genetic samples from the right place or the right time in the past to identify relevant ancestors. So in other words, an absence of evidence in this context does not necessarily mean evidence of absence. And that is something that I think is important for us to keep in mind. Apparently, my other slide is not there. Okay. So another thing that I think it is important for us to remember is that the relationships between DNA, identity, and indigeneity is not simple, straightforward, or clear-cut. Our identities are not ingrained in our DNA or governed by the genetic material that we carry in our bodies. Rather our identities emerge in shift over the course of our lives. They’re shaped by our interactions with others and the social, political, cultural, and legal context in which we live. Some of the identities that we hold certainly are influenced by our familial relationships. And so there can be some parallels with the DNA we have inherited from our biological ancestors and share in common with our genetic relatives, but of course, not all of our relations are biological in nature. We make kin in other ways as well and can inherit aspects of our identities from those who are not genetically related to us. These relationships can be equally important, but they won’t have parallels in our DNA. For all these reasons then I think we need to remember that human genetic variation does not map precisely onto the socially and culturally defined groups that exist in our world, that we recognize today. And there is not a clear-cut link between a person’s genetic makeup and their cultural identity or sense of social belonging. And just as our identities are not embedded in our DNA, neither is race, or ethnicity, or community belonging, or indigeneity. DNA does not define our race or whether we are Indigenous. These two are things that emerged in social context. Two people with very similar genetic ancestries may identify in very different ways, and this is because there are no genetic markers that are only found in a single race, or ethnic group, or community. And so, DNA cannot tell us what groups we belong to or descend from with any complete certainty regardless of what genetic ancestry testing companies may tell us. So this is something that is important to keep in mind, and I think the other thing that I’d like to just throw out here is that while we may talk about “Native DNA,” “Indigenous DNA,” “Taíno DNA” we need to think really carefully about what that means and how we come to label DNA rather than a person as anything in particular, as Native for example. Race, indigeneity, many of our contemporary conceptions of ethnic groups are concepts that really emerged only in the last 500 years in settler colonial context where it was expedient to those in power to differentiate themselves from others and to create hierarchies that facilitated their conquests of other lands and peoples. Before then individuals did not identify with the same labels that we apply today. They had their own identities, some of those terms we may know today, many of those we do not. But while those contemporary identities have emerged in this recent time period, the DNA that we have in our bodies can be traced back to ancestors who lived long before those concepts or identities emerged. A set of genetic markers might therefore be considered Indigenous today because it resides in the body of someone who identifies as such but if you go far enough back in time, those same genetic markers will be found in someone who did not identify in the same way. And so I think we therefore need to remember that these labels can be useful, but they’re also political. They reflect our contemporary understandings of social identity and social belonging, and they’re legible to us only because of the social and political realities in which we live now. In a different time or place, this way of labeling DNA might make very little sense. And so, in this regard then I think these discussions of “Indigenous DNA” may tell us more about how we think about identity than the DNA itself is really telling us about those identities. In other words, we see our identities as so important, so core to our beings, so fundamental that we presume that they must be tied to our DNA itself, even if they really are not. So given all this, how can we use genetic data than in positive ways to improve our understandings of identity and ancestry and to support marginalized narratives without having it undermine the identities or connections that are also valid but may exist only in non-genetic spaces. I think the key here is that we need to not think about genetics as writing our histories and determining our interpretations of non-genetic data, but rather the opposite. We need to situate the new genetic data that we’re collecting within what we already know from non-genetic sources. We need to let oral histories and existing community knowledge be our guide here. In doing this I think will also do the broader service of helping us upend the knowledge hierarchies and power structures that have been created in science and academia and the West more broadly. And that’s something that can only be a good thing. I’ll go ahead and stop there.

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