Can Native research codes avoid culture clash?

The San people of southern Africa seek to encourage mutually beneficial collaborations with scientists with an official code of research ethics. Can lessons from past conflicts help bypass future battles?

Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto/Sipa U/Newscom
San men make fire in the Living Museum of the Ju/'Hoansi-San in Namibia. Researchers have long been fascinated by the San people of southern Africa, but the indigenous group has not always been comfortable as the subjects of scientists' scrutiny.

Knowledge is power, and the San people want to wield it as such.

In March, the long-studied San people joined other indigenous groups in asking that scientific study be a two-way street, carrying benefits back to their communities as it shares their information with the world. Such guidelines seek to bridge the divide between scientific pragmatism and traditional values, in hopes of making painful legal battles a thing of the past.

More than ten distinct nations spread across five countries make up the San, an indigenous people of southern Africa who have drawn ample scientific attention for their genetic diversity, botanical knowledge, and unique linguistic consonants. But decades of sustained research traffic through their communities has created a culture clash.

The South African San Institute (SASI), a non-governmental organization dedicated to serving San communities, says some scientists have not treated the San fairly over the years. "Promises were not kept, there was no clear communication about the research, no consideration of language and cultural differences, no consultation with elders and leaders, no involvement in research results," according to a statement from SASI. The group cites a 2010 genetics paper involving a number of illiterate individuals who some suggest may not have fully understood the study's ramifications.

To build more equitable relationships with the scientific community, early last month SASI published the San Code of Research Ethics, a first for any African indigenous group.

At stake is not just the San's image, but ending the sense of loss research participants often feel when scientists disappear at the end of the study without fully communicating what they learned back to the community, according to SASI.

"The San to this day suffer from a major derogatory image, to which – not all – but many researchers have contributed, even to the extent of exploitation," a SASI spokeswoman writes in an email. "It is time to correct this image and prevent further potential exploitation." 

The code emphasizes transparency, respect, and fairness, and asks scientists to consult the San at each experimental stage from design to publication, to protect the privacy rights of individuals, and to provide some sort of tangible benefit in return, such as money, training, or employment. The outline isn’t legally binding, but proposes listing unethical researchers in a “black book” in extreme situations.

The San code shares many elements with forerunners published by Australian Aborigines in 2002, and Canadian First Nations in 2009: namely, the importance of asking groups for input, getting consent from the appropriate governing body, and sharing results with the community in a non-technical format before publication.

A model of respect

These guidelines make explicit central tenets of partnership that many hope will prevent the bitter clashes of the past.

Neither side wants a repeat of the two-decade battle over the fate of the Kennewick Man, an 8,500-year-old skeleton uncovered in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state. For years scientists argued that the man’s Caucasian features meant the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), did not apply. NAGPRA, which took effect in 1990, requires researchers to return cultural materials found on public land to related Native American groups. A costly legal debate raged until DNA techniques advanced enough to confirm his Native American ancestry, resulting in reburial earlier this year.

But the story of a 10,300-year-old Alaskan skeleton discovered just weeks earlier unfolded differently, showing that researchers and tribes don't have to be rivals. When University of South Dakota paleontologist Timothy Heaton found ancient human remains on his final day excavating an archaeological site in southeastern Alaska known as the On Your Knees Cave, he contacted Forest Service tribal liaison and archaeologist Terry Fifield immediately. Within 24 hours Mr. Fifield was meeting with Tlingit tribal leaders to decide how to proceed.

The discussions got "pretty animated," Fifield recalls in a phone interview, but in the end the councils involved voted to support the investigation out of curiosity about their heritage.

"The Tlingit have a deep respect for education and pursuing knowledge. We also have core cultural values that were at play in this case: Haa Latseen – Strength of Body, Mind and Spirit," explains anthropologist Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

The decision led to a 12-year collaborative project that produced a number of findings, after which representatives from both the Native and scientific communities gathered to celebrate what they had learned would be a Native American ancestor reburial.

Courtesy of Terry Fifield/USDA Forest Service
A gravestone gives estimated birth and death dates for the On Your Knees skeleton's reburial.

Throughout the decade, Fifield kept the tribes updated every step of the way, a clear contrast to the lack of conversation SASI criticizes. "You wouldn't want to count up the number of hours I spend attending meetings and making phone calls," he says. "It's all about communication."

Dr. Worl attributes the success of the project to the deference scientists showed the Tlingit. "The decision about further research was made by the Tlingit themselves and was not imposed on Native Americans, as was the case in Kennewick," she explains.

Fifield's telling also reflects a partnership between equals, where local leaders had the final say. "We really didn't keep secrets," he says. "We were prepared for them to say no and luckily for us they never did."

Tlingit culture, history, language, and arts have long been research targets, as have the San's. While no official guidelines existed at the time of the On Your Knees cave find, the Sealaska Heritage Institute now has an official research policy that aims to foster such trusting and respectful collaborations.

When views conflict

But other researchers worry such ethics codes run against science’s open nature. San Jose State University anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss supports measures such as practicing cultural sensitivity, getting proper consent, and hiring locals, but suggests guidelines could give tribes carte blanche to halt unfavorable research.

"I think that codes of ethics can put the power into the wrong hands. Research should be driven by the desire for increased knowledge and when it helps populations, great. But, not all research is clearly advantageous to a single population," she writes in an email.

Like Dr. Weiss, many scientists feel that sharing pre-published research for tribal feedback smacks of censorship. While the findings of the On Your Knees cave skeleton and a recent Aboriginal DNA hair study largely upheld oral tradition, some researchers fear that printing results that challenge indigenous views of history could land them on the blacklist.

These worries may be overblown, Fifield says, because at least in the case of the Tlingit, censorship is not the goal. "They have never objected to anything we've put out. The motivation was that they didn't want to be surprised and embarrassed by something that came out that everyone else knew about," he says.

Worl insists that the Tlingit seek to include Native voices, rather than suppress conflicting findings. "If we have differences of opinion, we ask that our perspective be included in the account, but we do not demand that the scientist change their writings," she explains.

SASI suggests the San would handle conflict in a similar way, not censoring but requiring that publications include the San views.

Another concern of Weiss’s is reproducibility. Analytic techniques advance each year, but if tribes maintain control of scientific data (or worse, bury it), that puts a roadblock in the way of re-visiting past conclusions.

Dr. Heaton, of the University of South Dakota, agrees that unfettered access would be ideal, but suggests both sides need to compromise. "It's just a balance between the purely scientific interest and the cultural interest."

Regardless of personal opinion, now that indigenous groups like the San are joining the Tlingit and others in recognizing the value of their cultural resources, researchers who want access will need to come to an agreement. "There are rights associated with the origination of the information," says Fifield.

The details of such agreements will vary from project to project, but Heaton suggests the spirit of the collaboration matters more than the fine print. "If you're talking to people and you're open with them and you share concerns back and forth and you develop a rapport, I think that's really the key thing."

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