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Cornell American Indian Program Opposes Genetic Ancestry Project

The Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Project is drawing strong opposition from another part of the institution—Cornell’s American Indian Program—which says the project is based on a melting pot agenda that overlooks the communal identities of indigenous communities and the distinctive cultural and political patterns that make them diverse.

The American Indian Program (AIP) is joined in its opposition to the DNA research project by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

The Cornell effort is a part of the larger National Geographic Genographic Project, a multiyear research initiative that will analyze the DNA of hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. Based on the assumption derived from DNA studies that all humans today descend from a group of African ancestors who began to migrate about 60,000 years ago, the genetics research project will map the DNA of 200 randomly-selected undergraduate students from across the Cornell campus and analyze the migratory patterns of the students’ expected common ancestors from Africa.

In a statement published in the American Indian Program Newsletter, AIP Director Professor Eric Cheyfitz expressed a “unified opposition” by faculty, staff and student representatives to the project.

“Since 1492 indigenous peoples around the world, including Native Americans, have focused their attention on resisting an ongoing genocide, which has over time taken various forms, including preemptive war, ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation and biogenomic projects including the kind represented by the Genetic Ancestry Event,” Cheyfitz said.

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In contrast to the project’s goals of defining people biologically, indigenous peoples customarily define themselves socio-culturally and politically according to varying ideas of nationhood, Cheyfitz said.

“[These are] communal identities that predate the intervention of Western biology, which arrived in the early nineteenth century in the form of scientific racism (used to assert the superiority of Europeans and thus rationalize genocide) and now seems to have taken the apparently benign form of arguing for a universal if genetically diverse humanity, a kind of ‘family of man.’ This homogenizing fantasy of a diversity where we all somehow wind up being the same only serves to overlook the vital national and cultural differences between peoples and the manifest injustices in the world against which indigenous communities continue to struggle,” he said. The AIP views the Cornell Genetic Ancestry Project as a “fundamentally assimilationist project of the kind that indigenous peoples have been struggling against historically.”

He also noted that the AIP was not consulted about the project before it began.

The lack of consultation was key to the U.N. Permanent Forum’s recommendation in May 2006 that the Genographic Project “should be immediately suspended and that they report to indigenous peoples on the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in all communities where activities are conducted and planned.” The right of “free, prior and informed consent” was formalized in the U.N. General Assembly’s September 2007 adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

NCAI said in a resolution that it is “unethical” to do genetic research on indigenous peoples when the risks outweigh the potential benefits. The organization demanded a return of all genetic samples and data to the indigenous peoples and tribes who have not given their free, prior and informed consent to participate.