An Indigenous Ontological Reading of Cryopreservation Practices and Ethics (and Why I’d Rather Think about Pipestone)

/, Kim TallBear/An Indigenous Ontological Reading of Cryopreservation Practices and Ethics (and Why I’d Rather Think about Pipestone)

As presented at the American Anthropological Association 111th annual meeting, San Francisco, CA, on the panel: “Defrost: The Social After-lives of Biological Substance.”

Cryopreservation—or deep freeze of tissues—enables storage and maintenance of bio-specimens from whole human bodies, to plant materials, to blood samples taken from indigenous peoples’ bodies. And all of this happens within ontological, ethical, and racial regimes that never belonged to indigenous peoples. It allows the suspended animation and temporal transport of cells and within them DNA, life’s so called code, into realms beyond the bodies whose lives these biologicals helped constitute. That we have barely begun to read that code matters less, as my co-panelist Joanna Radin has pointed out elsewhere, than “desperate” desires “to accumulate fragments of a world whose inherent plasticity, augmented by the corrosive forces of modernity, seemed poised to render certain life forms extinct.[1]

Radin calls for “cryopolitics,“a strategy for grappling with the unresolved problem of the appropriate use of old tissue for new purposes,” a response to the ethical shortcomings of narratives and practices past. In other enlightening ethnographic work, my co-panelist Emma Kowal explains the “biovalue” constituted by the ethical work and network construction of bio-scientists as they build collections of samples and curate them throughout their lives, hoping to cultivate intellectual descendants to whom they might bequeath their treasured bio-valuables—indigenous biological patrimony.

Bioethical responses emerging from non-indigenous institutions and philosophical terrain, including the incisive analyses of my co-panelists, teach me much. And leave me… speechless.

I have found myself these past months unable to think or write or do fieldwork for this project. I have not understood my own resistance. Faced with standing before you today, I had to admit simply that I am weary of having the agenda for what will be responded to set by those who are trying to figure out a way to do things better, but things that indigenous people never asked to have done in the first place. I learn much from my colleagues from around the world who chip away at tired old hierarchical regimes of knowledge production.

And I have been aided in my own critiques of the politics that inhere in the genome sciences by my grounding in feminist technoscientific epistemologies and ethics, including the concept of “feminist objectivity” that calls for inquiry from multiple, especially marginalized, standpoints. The argument is that inquiry from marginalized lives produces a more rigorous reading of the world, and knowledge for the benefit of peoples who have too often been treated not as the beneficiaries of research, but as its raw materials.[2] Indeed, this is an indigenous standpoint talk.

But all of this is focused on response, and I’m running out of steam for that.

So I turn to yet another feminist scholar, Neferti Tadiar, who articulates a concept of faith that enables me to write—to speak here today—in a faithful attempt to regain speech: Informed by the voices of other Oceti Sakowin thinkers within and without the academyMore commonly known as Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples, today we comprise multiple “tribes” in the upper Midwest of the U.S. and south-central Canada. Some of the thinkers who influence me are living and—like the biologicals this panel is attuned to—some are now beyond bodies. As I lean on their thoughts, words, and imperatives, I speak “in concert with” these people I call my own. Tadiar explains this as being “already caught up in the claims that others act out.”[3] Refusing to be excised from them by some imperialistic, naïve notion of exact representation, I try to turn speechlessness into more than response, into claims about the world that I would rather see made.

Tadiar’s particular concept of <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>faith helps me move beyond critiquing a non-feminist politics of objectivity such as pervades the genome sciences. That kind of critique comprised my work of the past ten years. Today, I hope to demonstrate how an indigenous standpoint can take us to an analysis of life and vibrancy that even a Western feminist standpoint cannot take us to.

But let me first highlight three critiques of the technology and practices we consider today, that are in part gestured to in my co-panelists’ analyses, but which I would cast in the shadow of an indigenous standpoint.

Cryopreservation aims to preserve “life,” but is predicated on death

Cryopreservation of indigenous biological samples is about life, the extension of life, the study of life, the preservation of life. But a notion of “life” focused on the largely indecipherable patterns and instructions that comprise DNA’s scaffolding. It is a materialist conception of life that I do not disagree with. Indeed, there is bibliographic beauty in it. But I know now why I don’t want to talk about it.

Cryopreservation recalls the poverty of the genetic articulation of indigeneity that becomes ever more salient in our world of genomics-as-nation-building. Cryopreservation, like genetic indigeneity, emerges not only out of technoscientific innovations but also from a discourse of death. Cryopreservation’s co-constitutive narrative is that gathering indigenous DNA is about staving off certain death, preserving remnants of human groups and their nonhuman relations, defined in molecular terms, and archiving those molecular patterns and instructions before peoples or species “vanish,” the so-called genetic signatures of founding populations obscured forever in a sea of genetic admixture. Death by admixture. Or actual extinction in the case of nonhuman species.

As Joanna Radin explains:

“Groups like the Yanomami or the Babinga did not live on the electric grid in real life—a signifier of their primitiveness—they, or at least pieces of them, could be frozen on it via the laboratory freezer. In this way, these populations would continue to live outside of time, and even outside of death”[4]…Technologies of cryopreservation appeared a powerful way to keep them—or at least their genes—from going extinct.”[5]

Genetic indigeneity, which grounds cryopreservation practices surrounding indigenous samples, and which is implicitlypolitical, might focus on connection to the land and cultural cohesion, like indigenous peoples ourselves do. In biological sampling of a group, the idea of geographic and cultural isolation and longevity in place is paramount. But genetic indigeneity also fundamentally contradicts a definition of indigenous in its explicitly political social movement formation. For indigenous peoples ourselves, indigeneity as an organizing category is added to our people-specific understandings of ourselves. It helps us articulate our resistance as peoples to the assimilative state. It is about indigenous peoples’ survival, a “we are still here, and we are proliferating” discourse. Indeed, numbers of indigenous people have risen worldwide during the past two decades. This is not only about birthrates but about the generative success of the category. It is a source of power for peoples.

My forthcoming book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)and the last ten years of work have been about responding to the erasure of indigenous peoples’ survival in bio-scientific research practices and narratives over several hundred years. Notwithstanding recent collaborative efforts, the interplay of genome-focused narratives and the political economy of genome research both pre-suppose and enable the erasure of indigenous peoples and their cultures.

Cryopreservation enables appropriation of indigenous natural resources

Radin explains that the International Biological Program (IBP) that ran from the early 1960s through 1974, and which set the 20th-century scientific stage for the biological sampling of indigenous peoples (along with nonhuman communities) as remnants of a bygone world, an increasingly “civilizing” yet ironically toxic world. She reminds us that “The stated goal of research on primitive isolates was to salvage information that might benefit civilized communities’ understandings of themselves.”<a “mso-footnote-id:=”” ftn6″=”” href=”″ title=””>[6]

But the conception of indigenous bodies as “natural resources,” the raw materials upon which nations are built, did not begin in 1960. In the 18th and 19th centuries too the U.S. nation building project relied on the appropriation of indigenous peoples’ lands. The U.S. positioned itself—positioned whites—as the rational agent capable of transforming nature in to productive property, and indigenous peoples in these lands as incapable of developing, indeed surviving in the face of the modern industrial state.[7]

Whereas indigenous land (and bones and cultures ready for study) were seen as the rightful inheritance of whites in the 18th and 19th centuries and before—the live Indian has apparently been vanishing since contact, literally meeting death in the face of Westward expansion, or transformed biologically and culturally beyond recognition. Today rare, precious indigenous DNA is the remaining natural resource to be appropriated or stewarded “before it is too late.”

As Jenny Reardon and I wrote in a recent Current Anthropology article, in the 21st century, the goal is to transform the raw natural resources that are genomes into something of value for humans: Genome knowledge supposedly “for the good of all.”[8] But who in pragmatic terms counts as fully human, and as recipient of those benefits is the question. Certainly a vanished Indian cannot make a claim.

<strong “mso-bidi-font-weight:=”” normal”=””>Cryopreservation enables social relations, including with indigenous people, even while it continues to de-animate them

We see a partial de-colonization of Western disciplinary thinking and a dismantling of hierarchies between Westerners’ and their non-human others, indeed also their previously less animated human others, in this move to caretake biological samples via cryopreservation. We see recognition of non-human animacy, even if it is not explicitly stated in the analyses of my co-panelists, of human biological substance and the social relations it helps effect, especially that substance derived from indigenous bodies. Stewarded by non-indigenous scientists and institutions, the substance acts as object of mutual concern and desire by both scientists <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>and the indigenous communities that lay claim to it. Inspiring, frightening, challenging  and empowering the humans involved with it, archived biologicals help constitute social relations.

Co-panelist Emma Kowal offers something slightly different as well. In the process of stewarding cryopreserved samples, she explains that indigenous people become vibrant in the way that genome scientists newly pay attention to the affective networks and biovalue co-constituted with indigenous DNA. But this is paradoxical as Kowal points out because biovalue, “the production of scientific value from human body parts,” is a form of “surplus value” actually produced when “marginal forms of vitality…[including] the bodies and body parts of the socially marginalized –are transformed into technologies to aid in the intensification of vitality for other living beings.[9]

So indigenous bodies are both <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>de-animated (After Mel Chen I think in terms of animacy)[10] in the hierarchies of civilizing, scientific knowledge production. And yet, re-animated as living indigenous people become scientists literally or in name as co-authors or co-Principal investigators within new, more collaborative ethical regimes.[11]

Entrance to quarries. Expansive skies (photo: K. TallBear)

Life, blood, and stone

Vibrancy. Animacy. These are among the words through which disciplines are recently articulating the force of nonhumans in our cultural, political, and economic lives. And though this work is innovative, both methodologically and ethically, it only partially engages indigenous standpoints.

Indigenous cultures” have not forgotten that nonhuman organisms are agential beings engaged in social relations that profoundly shape human lives. In addition, for indigenous peoples, their nonhuman others may not be understood in even critical western frameworks as living. “Objects” and “forces” such as stones, thunder, or stars are known within our ontologies to be sentient and knowing persons. This is where new materialisms intersect animal studies, and helps us to see that violence against nonhumans—water, earth, plant, animal—is  linked to violence against particular humans who have historically been de-animated, made “less-than-human,” made “animal.”

Koyungkawi poet and acorn mushmaker, Linda Noel, explains to me that she doesn’t mind “being considered part of nature.” But she knows what <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>they mean by that, and that’s not what she means. For Noel, non-human is not less than human, nor less alive.

On that note, I turn from indigenous DNA—human biological substance frozen out of place and time—to stone. I want to talk about stone, the life that inheres in a stone, the social relations that proliferate as that stone emerges from the earth, is carved into pipe, is passed from hand to hand. (You may have heard them called “peace pipes”—that’s not quite right.) I speak of Pipestone, otherwise known as Catlinite after the 19th-century U.S. American artist who painted the site where the red stone is cut from the earth.

There is a story that tells us about the blood in that stone, that along with our loving attention to its materiality enables us to apprehend its vibrancy, its fundamental role in our peoplehood. Unlike with indigenous DNA, this is not a cellular vibrancy. Yet without it, prayers would be grounded, social relations impaired, and everyday lives of quarriers and carvers depleted of the meaning they derive from working with stone. Here is that story:

It rained for many days, non-stop. A young girl saw a high hill and ran up there. Many of her people had already drowned. Alone, she began to pray. The rain suddenly stopped. She stood there, seeing nothing around her but water. Above in the sky she heard and saw a giant bird. He opened his wings. A man emerged. The man told her not to be afraid. He had come to rescue her. All of her people were killed in the flood, he told her. He wanted to marry her. Through their marriage together the humans would begin anew. When the water receded it all drained into one place. There in that place was the blood of all the people who had drowned. That place became the cannupa ok’e. The blood of the people, the red stone. [12]

Red is a sacred color for the Dakota, and so this place is taken to be sacred. The cannupa ok’e, the quarry, is also special to many other peoples whose members dig there today. The stone there is sometimes spoken of as a relative.

But U.S. Park Service pamphlets from the Pipestone, Minnesota quarry represent pipes as artifacts, as craft objects, and detail the history of white incursion in the area, into the quarry where Natives produced their artifacts, and the regulatory response of the U.S. government. These ways of understanding the stone and the landscape from which it is quarried—these material and regulatory histories—are not unimportant, but like the politics that enabled the production of indigenous biological samples abstracted from living bodies and vibrant peoples, these politics resulted in a de-animating representation of the red stone. Like bio-scientists in the 20th and 21st centuries with their imperative to bleed indigenous peoples before it was too late, a 19th century Euro-American painter and early 20th century geologists and government agents saw the place where the red stone lies as an artifact of a waning culture and time. They produced a “National Monument” to conserve it.

But like indigenous people who insist on their continuing survival and involvement with their DNA, indigenous quarriers and carvers, medicine people, and just everyday people who pray insist on living with the red stone daily. And they make decisions—some of them seen as compromised about how to best work with the vibrant objects of their attention. Some indigenous people agree to engage in research or commercial activities related to DNA. Others sell pipestone jewellery and craft pieces to make a living while also holding the stone and ceremonial pipes carved from it as sacred.  Literal red human blood and the blood red stone have been translated into “resources.” And while this characterization is troubled by Dakota and other indigenous quarriers and carvers, it is not undone.

And here I am at the end of this talk with a response after all, because this is the fundamental condition of indigeneity. It is predicated on there being a settler, an invader to whom we must always respond. Yet I hope that I am also moving into a stage of inquiry guided by the needs, desires, arguments, critiques, and material lives of the people from whom I derive. In the next couple of years I will turn my attention to pipestone as an agent in Oceti Sakowin lives, one imposed upon by processes of colonization, but a subject that also preceded such things.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Texas, Austin (where I am a Donald D. Harrington Fellow in 2012-13) for funding support this year as I bring together the threads of multiple lines of inquiry. Thanks to David S. Edmunds for his always incisive editorial feedback and to Chris Andersen (UAlberta) for when I lose faith helping me see that what I know and need to write about is right in front of me. Finally, a big thanks to my colleagues and fellow panelists Joanna Radin (YaleU), Emma Kowal (UMelbourne), Tiffany Romain (Ricoh Innovations), Jennifer Brown (UPenn), and to discussants Jenny Reardon (UCSC) and Warwick Anderson (USydney) for our own productive social relations, and for having such fertile minds from which I can appropriate intellectual resources, transforming them into productive goods for the benefit of indigenous people. 

[1] Joanna Radin, “Latent Life: Concepts and Practice of Human Tissue Preservation in the International Biological Program, 1964-1974,” forthcoming, 32.
[2] Donna J. Haraway, 1991a. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York and London: Routledge: 149-181; Donna Haraway, 2000. “Morphing the Order: Flexible Strategies, Feminist Science studies, and Primate Revisions.” In Primate Encounters, edited by S. Strum and L. Fedigan, 398-420. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Donna J. Haraway, 1991b. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privolege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the Reinvention of Nature. New York and London: Routledge: 183-201; Sandra Harding. 2008. Sciences from Below: Feminisms, Postcolonialitiesand Modernities. Durham and London: Duke University Press; Sandra Harding. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
[3] Neferti X.M. Tadiar. 2001. “The Noranian Imaginary.” In Geopolitics of the Visible: Essays on Philippine Film Cultures, ed. Rolando B. Tolentino. Ateneo de Manila University Press: 61-76.
[4] Radin forthcoming 31.
[5] Radin forthcoming, 32.
[6] Radin forthcoming, 22.
[7] Cheryl I. Harris. 1993. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review 8 (June): 1707-1791.
[8] Jenny Reardon and Kim TallBear. 2012. “Your DNA is Our History”: Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property.” Current Anthropology53(S5): S233-S245.
[9] Kowal 7, forthcoming.
[10] Mel Chen. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
[11] Kowal 29, forthcoming.
[12] Adapted from the story as told in the Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy, DVD.

By |2017-10-01T22:11:10+00:00November 20th, 2012|Categories: INDIGENOUS PEOPLES, TECHNOSCIENCE, & ENVIRONMENT, Kim TallBear|0 Comments

About the Author:

Principal Investigator; Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience & Environment; Associate Professor; Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Indigenous Science, Technology, and Society (Indigenous STS) is an international research and teaching hub, housed at the University of Alberta, for the bourgeoning sub-field of Indigenous STS. Our mission is two-fold: 1) To build Indigenous scientific literacy by training graduate students, postdoctoral, and community fellows to grapple expertly with techno-scientific projects and topics that affect their territories, peoples, economies, and institutions; and 2) To produce research and public intellectual outputs with the goal to inform national, global, and Indigenous thought and policymaking related to science and technology. Indigenous STS is committed to building and supporting techno-scientific projects and ways of thinking that promote Indigenous self-determination.

Upcoming Events

There are no upcoming events at this time.