When science meets aboriginal oral history
In Inuit oral history, the Tuniit loom both large and small.
They inhabited the Arctic before the Inuit came, and they were a different stock of people — taller and stronger, with the muscularity of polar bears, the stories say. A Tuniit man could lift a 1,000 pound seal on his back, or drag a whole walrus. Others say the Tuniit slept with their legs in the air to drain the blood from their feet and make them lighter, so they could outrun a caribou.
But despite their superior strength and size, the Tuniit were shy. They were “easily put to flight and it was seldom heard that they killed others,” according to one storyteller in the book “Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut.” The Inuit took over the best hunting camps and displaced the conflict-averse Tuniit. Soon enough, these strange people disappeared from the land.
This week, the prestigious journal Science published an unprecedented paleogenomic study that resolves long-held questions about the people of the prehistoric Arctic. By analyzing DNA from 169 ancient human specimens from Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Greenland, the researchers concluded that a series of Paleo-Eskimo cultures known as the Pre-Dorset and Dorset were actually one population who lived with great success in the eastern Arctic for 4,000 years — until disappearing suddenly a couple generations after the ancestors of the modern Inuit appeared, around 1200 A.D. There is no evidence the two groups interbred.
The Dorset are almost certainly the Tuniit of Inuit oral history.
“The outcome of the genetic analysis is completely in agreement, namely that the Paleo-Eskimos are a different people,” says Eske Willerslev, a co-author of the Science study.
It’s not the first time his genomic research has synchronized neatly with indigenous oral traditions.
In February, when Willerslev and colleagues announced they had sequenced the genome of a 12,500-year-old skeleton found in Montana, the results showed that nearly all South and North American indigenous populations were related to this ancient American. Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe of Montana, said at the time: “This discovery basically confirms what tribes have never really doubted — that we’ve been here since time immemorial, and that all the artifacts and objects in the ground are remnants of our direct ancestors.” The sequenced genome of an Aboriginal from Australia also revealed findings in line with the local communities’ oral histories, Willerslev says.
“Scientists are sitting around and academically discussing different theories about peopling of Americas, and you have all these different views on how many migrations, and who is related to,” he says. “Then when we actually undertake the most sophisticated genetic analysis we can do today, and this is state of the art, genetically — we could have just have listened to them in the first place.”
He was laughing when he said that. But he and many others are serious when they say that scientists need to revaluate the weight they give traditional indigenous knowledge.
“This is a pretty common theme. It’s really surprising that scientists and general commentators don’t appreciate the knowledge collection and transmission of indigenous peoples, given the wealth of knowledge about medicine, physiology, geology, earth sciences, wind patterns, ice fluctuations — the incredible scope of knowledge that indigenous people have and have sustained them in North America for tens of thousands of years,” says Hayden King, director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University and a member of the Beausoleil First Nation on Georgian Bay.
“It defies logic that this knowledge they’ve generated and transmitted wouldn’t be accurate and helpful in myriad ways.”
Respecting indigenous knowledge is about more than boosting research — it’s an attempt to redress systemic wrongs.
Most people today are aware that European theorists in previous centuries created racial hierarchies that justified the dominion of white men over various types of “savages,” including Africans and Native Americans. But the mistrust between scientific researchers and indigenous communities continued to fester well beyond the era of bewigged gentleman-scientists.
In 1989, Arizona State University researchers began collecting blood and genetic material from members of the Havasupai tribe for a study on diabetes. But the samples, which were collected with vague informed consent, were later used for research on schizophrenia, inbreeding, and migration. A tribe member discovered the other research by accident, and the Havasupai sued successfully for damages and the return of the samples.
The court battle over Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton, was drawn-out and poisonous. Tribes far and wide, from the Maori to the Hopi, are suing museums and universities for the repatriation of human remains and artifacts. And between these headline-generating events lie uncounted examples of an extractive relationship between science and indigenous peoples, experts say.
“Researchers would go to indigenous communities and take what they needed and then just leave and never come back,” says Ripan Malhi, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who works with North American First Nations communities.
In recent years, indigenous groups and researchers have pressed for a more equitable and just relationship — and some point to a successful model in one Canadian jurisdiction.
When Nunavut was created in 1999 on the basis of the largest aboriginal land claim settlement in Canadian history, the agreement also mandated the creation of the Inuit Heritage Trust. Among its many activities, the trust reviews all permits for archaeological activity in Nunavut and requests for analysis of Nunavut-derived human remains. University of Toronto archaeologist Max Friesen, a co-author on the Science paper who had a rare Dorset tooth in his office, obtained permission for DNA analysis from the trust, as did Jerry Cybulski, the now-retired curator of physical anthropology at Canadian Museum of History, where many more specimens sat.
“We make sure the communities have an opportunity to comment on applications for permits. We’re making sure Inuit have a voice when it comes to issues that relate to their culture and heritage,” says the Inuit Heritage Trust’s Lynn Peplinski.
That voice is especially important when it comes to sensitive issues like the treatment of human remains. This summer, the archaeological team searching for remains of the lost Franklin expedition is reburying bones excavated last year, as per the trust’s request. (Willerslev’s team reburied the 12,500-year-old skeleton in Montana at the behest of local tribes).
Peplinksi is the manager of the Inuit Heritage Trust’s Place Names Program. When European explorers “discovered” the Arctic, they named landmarks after people. But Inuit rarely do that, Peplinski says. For years, the Place Names team has been criss-crossing Nunavut trying to speak with Inuit elders and capture the original Inuktitut place names before they, and the information they contain, are lost.
“The reason they named places is to communicate with other people about what they found at that place,” says Peplinski. “It tells you so much – it tells you where animals are, where hazards are.” The program has gathered 9,000 original place names, which are slowly being confirmed as official and rewriting the cartography of Nunavut.
In the genomic world, some scientists are trying to forge more collaborative relationships with indigenous communities. Malhi, the University of Illinois molecular anthropologist, says he was inspired early in his career by how the Canadian Museum of History’s Cybulski approached his practice.
“You wouldn’t just go there, get what you wanted, and leave, you would go back on a consistent basis to report results and see what community members are interested in studying,” says Malhi.
Malhi is the director of a summer internship program that offers Native Americans training in genomic techniques and a forum to discuss the ethical, legal, and social issues surrounding genetic research on their communities. He has also found collaboration crucial to his own research. In First Nations on the west coast of British Columbia, Malhi discovered the same uncommon mitochondrial DNA signature carried by Native Americans in central California. Was it a relic from migration routes dating to the initial peopling of the Americas, a hot topic for scientists, or the result of more recent movements?
“Elders in the community had stories they had heard from their elders when they were young, about how they would travel long distances down the coast,” Malhi — suggesting the second scenario. “You want to go back and talk to community members about your results and the patterns you’re seeing, because they have insights you could have never imagined.”
COSEWIC, the committee of scientists responsible for the at-risk status of endangered wildlife in Canada, added an Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge subcommittee to sit alongside those dealing with mollusks or arthropods. In July, the journal Ecology and Society published a groundbreaking research collaboration between the Heiltsuk people in British Columbia and scientists. The research, “guided explicitly by principles from Gvi’ilas or customary law,” used non-invasive hair sampling on grizzly bears to describe an undocumented population of animals that showed early evidence of declining numbers.
Evidence of progress in no way means harmony rules in relations between aboriginal groups and scientists. The Navajo Nation, for instance, instituted a moratorium on genetic research in 2002 and relationships with researchers remain tense.
Researchers and natives alike also warn that science and storytelling or other forms of indigenous knowledge should not be conflated. Each has something to offer the other, but are very different things.
Oral histories, for example, are never clean and easy narratives. Pamela Groff, an Inuit woman and program manager for the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, found the results of the paleogenomic Science to conflict with the Inuit history she had learned from elders, archaeologists, and her own research. Her understanding was that Inuit had come 5,000 years ago, and had mingled with the Tuniit.
“Different regions have different stories,” she said. “It’s always interesting to see new things come out, especially when it relates to my people. I thought we were here for a lot longer. It’s something we can pass on now.” Another researcher questioned whether anyone could say the Tuniit “are” the Dorset, given the mythologies built up around the former.
And while native American knowledge of ecosystems is nothing if not evidence-based, given thousands of years of observation, it is a system of information that doesn’t always synchronize with science.
“Indigenous people used to talk about rocks having a spirit . . . scientists would question that philosophy, but if you think about long term evolution of rocks, they move, they migrate, they change shape. There’s an essence to them. That kind of observation can only come from this long-term, long-tenured existence in a single place,” says Hayden King.
“It’s an issue of scope.”