‘The geneticist’s vanishing Indian’: Kim TallBear speaks on the genetic study of Indigenous peoples

University of Alberta professor of Native Studies Kim Tallbear spoke about the difference in how genomic sciences and Indigenous people themselves approach Indigeneity. (Courtesy: Cecilia Ransburg)

On Thursday, Nov. 9, the Pomona College Anthropology Department and the Science, Technology and Society Program hosted Kim TallBear for a lecture titled “The Geneticist’s Vanishing Indian vs. Indigenous Collective Presence.” Over 50 people attended TallBear’s talk, which was hosted at Pomona’s Hahn Hall.

TallBear is a professor of Native Studies and the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Society at the University of Alberta. She is also the author of four books on DNA testing and race science and a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe.

TallBear was invited to Pomona by Assistant Professor of Anthropology Christina Bejarano, who previously assigned one of TallBear’s books — “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science” — to her Anthropology of Genetics class.

“I was just hopeful she would come and enrich everyone’s conversation around these issues that are a challenge to understand,” Bejarano told TSL. “It’s just important to get as many perspectives as possible.”

TallBear began her talk by discussing terminology used to talk about native peoples. She noted that different terms carry different significances across the world and that it is always best to use people-specific and nation-specific terms.

“Talking about Indigenous or native peoples terminology is geographically, temporally and politically contextual,” she said. “When you’re talking about native peoples, there’s always somebody who’s gonna not like the word you use, depending on where they come from and when they come from. You don’t ever get to be lazy.”

TallBear explained that the term Indigenous works best in the Americas and can act as an umbrella term that helps Indigenous peoples organize globally. However, TallBear noted that there is a downside to using this particular term.

“It is enabling increasingly promiscuous definitions. And so you’re now beginning to hear people talk about being Indigenous based on some long ago ancestry with no connection to a living collective community,” she said.

The central part of her talk focused on the myth of “the Vanishing Indian” that has influenced American thinking.

“The idea that native peoples are destined to vanish is, by now, a more than 200-year-old cherished American myth. We still hear this all the time and still the expectation is that the ‘red race’ was expected to fade away, leaving empty land for inevitable occupation and development by white civilization,” she said.

TallBear then discussed the ways in which this myth has influenced genomic sciences.

“These things permeate our society,” she said. “Because scientists are citizens and members of our society, they’re not exempt from these kinds of widespread insidious ideas in the way that we think about race in this country, and around the world as well.”

TallBear explained that, contrary to the Vanishing Indian myth, the number of people defined as Indigenous is actually growing worldwide.

“250 million to 600 million individuals belong to over 4,000 Indigenous groups globally,” she said. “In the United States, we have among the highest birth rates of any ethnic or racially categorized group.”

She then went on to outline the key differences between genomic definitions of Indigeneity versus the Indigenous peoples definitions, noting that the genomic definition focuses on genetic descent from specific populations instead of what she says actually unites present-day Indigenous peoples.

“The Indigenous definition of indigeneity challenges the state, the colonial state and the assimilated state,” she said. “The genomic definition implicitly supports the vision of the settler state … they will talk about that in a way that is implying stasis, that’s not implying dynamism, growth, continued change and self-governance.”

In her talk, TallBear asserted that, although there are many problems with the way genomic definitions currently operate, Indigenous people must engage with the science.

“We do have to engage with science and technology, but I think we need to do it on our own terms and with our own kind of scientific advisor who understands not only the science and the technology that we’re dealing with, but also understands our political histories, our regulations, our cultures.”

Isabel Held SC ’26 was inspired to attend the talk after talking to a friend who had taken Bejarano’s class.

“It was all new to me, as far as genetics and race,” she said. “I thought it was super interesting.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy Jordan Daniels also attended TallBear’s talk, noting that it was “extremely accessible.”

“I was familiar with some of the issues she spoke on, but I really appreciated learning about specific cases, like the Kennewick Man,” Daniels said. “I find TallBear’s discussion of identity as constituted by relationships and cultural practices rather than genetic markers or willful self-description to be really powerful, especially within the context of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.”

TallBear is currently working with a summer internship program training Indigenous scientists to be more critical of the inherited race theories of the past.

“Indigenous movement is about challenging the state, the settler state or the otherwise colonial state,” TallBear said. “We are here. We want governance over our land, our territories and our populations. You do not alone get to decide who we are and how we are.”

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