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. 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 academy. More 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.” 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”…Technologies of cryopreservation appeared a powerful way to keep them—or at least their genes—from going extinct.”
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=”http://www.kimtallbear.com/homeblog/an-indigenous-ontological-reading-of-cryopreservation-practices-and-ethics-and-why-id-rather-think-about-pipestone#_ftn6″ title=””>
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.
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.” 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.”
So indigenous bodies are both <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>de-animated (After Mel Chen I think in terms of animacy) 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.