Members of the American Indian Program are voicing strong opposition to Cornell’s participation in the National Geographic Genographic Project, arguing that the project overlooks the political and socio-cultural patterns that have historically shaped the identities of indigenous communities.
A Cornell-based offshoot project — dubbed the Cornell University Genetic Ancestry Project — will map the DNA of 200 randomly-selected undergraduate students from across campus. The project is expected to analyze the migratory patterns of these students’ common ancestors from Africa, according to the Genographic Project’s website.
In a statement issued by AIP, the program’s director, Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, English, criticized National Geographic’s language about diversity and said that the project “deconstruct[s] communal identities by individualizing members” of marginalized communities, such as indigenous peoples.
“In marked contrast to the goals of the Cornell Ancestry Event, which seeks to define ‘diversity’ biologically in terms of universal genetic codes … Indigenous peoples customarily define themselves not biologically, but socio-culturally and politically in terms of varying ideas of nationhood,” the statement says.
“[The project] is ahistorical in that it substitutes a biological profile of one’s identity for one’s historical (social and political) connections to a particular community. This clearly has an impact, among others, on historically underrepresented groups in the U.S. — African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/as, and Native Americans — in that a biological profile can be dissociative in relation to one’s history,” Cheyfitz said in an e-mail.
The program’s backers, Prof. Charles Aquadro, molecular biology and genetics, and Prof. Spencer Wells, genetics, acknowledged that there are many perspectives regarding ancestry, but they emphasized that the project focuses solely on genetics.
“The focus [of this project] was genetic ancestry. We didn’t call it the ancestry project. We called it the genetic ancestry project,” Aquadro said. “It’s not meant to replace other means of identity or anything.”
Aquadro also said that similar concerns about the implications of the project had been raised by Prof. Robert Harris, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center. But after meeting with Aquadro and discussing the project’s goals in further detail, Harris decided to sponsor 20 DNA testing kits in support of the project, Aquadro said.
Dajahi Wiley ’14, a student affiliated with AIP, pointed to historical trends that challenge what the AIP statement refers to as the project’s “homogenizing fantasy of a diversity where we all somehow wind up being the same.”
“For centuries, non-white peoples have been called fundamentally different from whites in physical and cultural ways. Now, there are groups and projects like the Genetic Ancestry Project that claim that everyone is basically the same,” Wiley said. “While the former was and is maliciously racist, the latter represents, at best, a naive understanding of the world and social dynamics. As such, this is a topic of concern not only for American Indians, but all communities of color.”
Andrew Curley grad, who is also affiliated with AIP, agreed.
“What AIP objects to I think … is the way in which the Genetic Ancestry Project appears apolitical and acultural when in fact there are very real, but implicit, political and cultural sentiments expressed in it,” Curley said. “In other words, AIP sees the Genetic Ancestry Project as constructing a meta-narrative of human history and has objection to some of the assumptions and characterizations made in this process.”
Curley cited an example from the National Geographic website regarding “The Human Family Tree,” a similar project that tested and analyzed the DNA of 200 people on a single block of Queens, N.Y. The genetic analyses yielded representation of all of humanity’s major ancient migratory paths.
An accompanying timeline on the National Geographic website describes Native Americans as “cut off from the rest of humanity until Christopher Columbus arrived.” The description on the timeline is not only skewed but also a “politically-and culturally-rooted caricature of world historical events,” according to Curley.
A follow-up event for the project, during which the results of the ancestry project are revealed to the public, is scheduled for April 14.
“The most important events are going to occur in April when we interpret the results, and that’s the real opportunity for different perspectives to be presented,” Aquadro said. “This is the time to talk about how [the project is] not an assimilationist project. We’re simply discussing the biological fact that we share the same lineage, and that we can trace those ties genetically.”
According to Aquadro, this event provides an opportunity to discuss the varying approaches to evaluating ancestry, in addition to the genetic focus of the project.
Cheyfitz and Aquadro will meet to discuss their differences on March 29.
“[The genetic ancestry project] was an opportunity, [and] we grabbed it, but we did try to keep it focused on genetics,” Aquadro said. “We’re not trying to push a scientific perspective but we’re trying to present one.”