Biomapping or biocolonizing? Indigenous identities and scientific research in the 21st century

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Université de Savoie, Chambéry, France
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Though, from a positivist point of view, scientific research represents the cornerstone of progress, it is undeniable that such research has often been used to support a particular policy or ideology. For example, during the colonization of the United States, Canada, Australia and New-Zealand, physical anthropology (and in particular craniometry) was used to show the inferiority of indigenous peoples and, thereby, justify their domination or annihilation. For this reason, and also for many others, indigenous peoples have looked on such research with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
These reactions are still in evidence today as new scientific studies are focusing once again on indigenous peoples. In the field of genetics, decoding human DNA has made it possible to look at group-specific variations around the globe. While the first projects were centered on mainstream populations of European origins, Luca Cavalli-Sforza’s call for a multiethnic approach focusing on “human diversity” and on “clues to the evolution of our species” (Genomics, Volume 11, Issue 2, October 1991) opened up the study to non-mainstream groups, and especially indigenous peoples.
While scientists were debating the origins of the Australian Aborigines, the Amerindians, or the Maoris (among others), indigenous peoples gathered in the International Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP) under the auspices of the United Nations in order to try to protect their rights. This led to the drafting of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which, interestingly enough, the aforementioned countries strongly opposed (though Australia has recently indicated its support for the Declaration).
Today many research groups and institutions have understood that testing indigenous peoples to trace the migrations of their ancestors, for example, could generate fierce opposition among those who may feel, once more, objectified. Thus, they have set up ethics committees to deal with such issues, and have placed greater emphasis on the necessity for dialogue with the communities that are the focus of such studies. However, while subsequent projects (such as Project Genographic) have taken pains to explain that they had no part in government policies, would keep the data confidential, and would not use the DNA for commercial purposes, many indigenous groups still refuse to be tested.
The present conference seeks to explore the reaction of indigenous peoples to recent scientific research such as the Human Genome Diversity Project or more specific studies on indigenous populations. Papers may focus on case studies – groups, nations or tribes who agree or refuse to provide samples of their DNA for testing, for example. They may also look at opposition to scientific research from several angles: the clash between supposedly “hard” science and belief systems opposed to research on the human body, the often unspoken fear that genetic testing might uncover mixed origins and thus lead to the loss of identification as an indigenous person or group, the refusal of genetic determinism, the belief that identity goes beyond the merely scientific fact of DNA and is not to be questioned by outsiders – whether scientists or politicians – or the use of scientific knowledge for the purpose of subjugation or domination throughout modern history. Finally, they may inquire into the relationship between scientific or institutional bodies themselves and the indigenous populations being studied in order to determine how dialogue is established, impaired or even severed.

Conference language will be English
Selected contributions will be considered for rewriting as book chapters
Susanne Berthier (University of Savoie, France)
Sandrine Tolazzi (University of Grenoble, France)
Sheila Whittick (University of Grenoble, France)

Date of conference: January 28-30, 2010
Please send a 250-word abstract to the organizers. Deadline for proposals: October 1, 2009.
Acceptations will be sent October 15, 2009
Papers must not take longer than 20 minutes.

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