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Iceland, Blood and Science

Paul Billings

Indigenous Peoples: Blood and Barriers

Consider the example of the 500 indigenous tribes that live in the United States and Canada in semiautonomous relationships with the federal governments. Tribal membership (a variant form of national citizenship) confers on individuals certain special rights and benefits in addition to those extended with standard citizenship. A significant entitlement granted to tribal members is the right to own land in special areas.

Inclusion in tribal membership is determined by two competing systems, one official and federal, and the other traditional. The federal system, used to determine special benefits such as land ownership, uses two differing representations of evidence to establish inclusion. One involves "blood quanta," a quasi-quantitative calculation of biological relatedness based on family information (not biological tests).

In an idealized example of this method, the genes of "full-blooded" individuals match at all tribal-associated sites in the genome. Blood quanta are surrogates for genetic connections to the tribe much as genetic information can be a substitute for links to race, ethnicity, creed and other social groupings. Individuals carry an official tribal identity card that may read 8⁄32 Sioux, 16⁄24 Hopi and so forth. Such "quanta" systems have a long and sad history, having been associated with societies where racism was institutionalized and intermarriage often illegal.

A second method used in federal determinations of tribal membership also relies on family history. Applicants must carefully document descendancy from certain identified tribal families. Several types of evidence of direct relatedness are accepted. Nonmembers of the tribe originally determined which founder families were selected to compose its original organization. Both systems employed by the federal governments reflect principles of the science of population genetics described early in this century.

The traditional system of membership determination used by the tribes themselves is another matter. (It has no legal standing in terms of the granting of special federal benefits.) It utilizes traditions, which vary from tribe to tribe, and other culturally acceptable conventions to make inclusion decisions. Over the years, many tribes have granted membership to adoptees, immigrants from nonindigenous communities and to members of other tribes.

Science now offers DNA-based methods that theoretically could be applied to determinations of tribal membership. Genetic polymorphisms that are common to specified tribes or their subgroups, or that are inherited in the descendants of the founder families, might be identified. A more reproducible and easier-to-quantify application of molecular biological techniques could replace the current federal systems with their undesirable histories and problematic data sources. Such a system would be "rational." But would it be appropriate?

The fascination with "blood" in society—"bad blood," "low blood," "good blood," "mixed blood," "blood sports" and other linguistic representations—suggests cultural views of relatedness not necessarily appreciated by simple scientific definitions. Kinship and clan membership mean more than just related by blood. The precision of DNA analysis may be attractive to government bureaucracies that find estimating blood quanta or family ties cumbersome or nettlesome. Yet any DNA-based reform, like the current federal systems, would tend to exclude the heterogeneity and variation present in tribes. This diversity originates from practices of determining tribal membership based on culture and tradition. The limitation of DNA-based methods and the discontinuance of current flawed systems with their sorry pasts might be welcomed by indigenous peoples in North America.

Only these people and their tribal organizations are competent to determine their membership; these determinations should make use of whatever data or evidence they see fit consistent with their traditions, cultures, systems of belief and knowledge, and universal notions of basic human rights. In this case, the application of a scientifically derived method would tend to exclude those traditionally included and serve to reinforce an unjust political relationship that does not deserve that buttress. The outcomes of these two deliberations within cultures may look quite different, but the lesson is the same. In each case, a group is seeking a balance between scientific and cultural concerns that represents for them a socially just outcome.

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