Kim Tallbear was at home in South Dakota, prepping to interview an older generation of Native women. She was a graduate student at the time and the women weren’t just any elders; they included Tallbear’s mother, as well as her mother’s friends. Tallbear’s standard procedure would have been to have everyone in the group sign informed consent forms, turn on a tape recorder, and get on with it. She was there in a professional capacity to ask Native people for their perspectives on genetic work. But she couldn’t do it. She felt very uncomfortable even thinking about doing it.
“And then it struck me,” she said. “Wait a minute, who cares what we think about genetic work? The real problem is what non-Native people think about it.” That’s when Tallbear said she decided to “turn the gaze” onto white scientists. “Think about who gets to study versus who gets studied. So that’s when I decided I’m actually an anthropologist of white people,” she said.
Tallbear, professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta and the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Society, recounted the events, during the Provost’s lecture on diversity on March 15. Her talk, “Beyond Inclusion and Reconciliation to Decolonialization in Science and Technology,” addressed efforts to transform scientific training and research to increase benefits for Indigenous peoples.
The lecture series was created as part of Penn’s action plan for faculty excellence and diversity, said Interim Provost Beth A. Winkelstein, who introduced the speaker. “It’s an opportunity to hear from our faculty, as well as experts beyond Penn, about why and how diversity, inclusion, and equity matter in our scholarship, teaching, and clinical practices,” she said.
Colonial ideas about race have Indigenous peoples and people of color as objects of scientific curiosity, Tallbear said, and decolonizing science and technology is a growing topic of interest, study, and policy.
“Decolonialization envisions the wholesale overhaul of the academy to fundamentally reorient knowledge production based on balancing power relations between Indigenous peoples and Canadians, transforming the academy into something dynamic and new,” Tallbear said, quoting authors Adam Gaudry and Danielle Lorenz.
For TallBear, this means the restitution of Indigenous land and life. “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” she said. “When I think about how to achieve proper decolonization, even in small ways in my own programs, what I’m thinking is: How do we get stuff back in order to support the self-determination and the self-governance of our communities?”
Tallbear gave the Canadian immigration test, which she had to take, coming from South Dakota, as an example. She said the test now includes questions pertaining to Indigenous history and treaties. “It's not very much, but it’s important that newcomers to Canada also get a sense of whose traditional lands they are coming into,” she said. “I think that’s kind of an important move.”
On the academic side, Tallbear cited the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING). Founded in 2011 by white scientists, SING is now entirely run by Indigenous professors, including Tallbear herself.
The program, which has been held in the U.S. and New Zealand in addition to Canada, gathers as many as 20 indigenous participants in a week-long intensive training program, with themes ranging from soil biome testing to chronic wasting disease.
Indigenous students are often a minority in science, Tallbear said. They “find that they’re always the only one in their biology class. They’re always the only one in the lab. And they’re trained in these mainstream scientific disciplines in technically sophisticated ways. But they’re also implicitly—if not explicitly—trained that they have to separate their tribal culture or Native worldview from what they're doing in the lab, and we try to show them that they don’t have to do that. That they can work and think these two things together.”
The last 30 years have seen a shift towards community-based research and giving back, “but we want to go even beyond that,” Tallbear said. “We actually just really want to center Indigenous people’s own research questions.” The questions Native people want to ask are often different, she said.
“I’ll just give you an example of one little thing that can change when you center Indigenous ethics and research. Many of you will probably remember, back when the so-called Kennewick man, or the Ancient One was unearthed at the edge of the Columbia River in 1996.”
A big fight ensued, Tallbear said. Scientists wanted to study the remains. The Indigenous community along the Columbia River also claimed the body and wanted him reburied.
Two Native genetic archaeologists advocated to tribal council, saying that the remains should be studied but without destruction to the bones. Traditionally, scientists grind a fragment of bone in order to the extract DNA. “Tribal communities get really concerned about the destruction of remains, even the grinding up of a pinky bone,” Tallbear said. “They don’t want that to happen.”
But one of the Native archaeologists was also a former dental hygienist. Tallbear suggested trying to get DNA out of the calcification on the man’s teeth. “Their ethic was: Don’t destroy the remains. But let’s still think about the research,” she said.
By honoring both science and indigeneity, this researcher created compromise between two communities, said Tallbear.