Indigenous Perspectives on Gene Editing 

Continuing its opening theme on science and societal narratives, CRISPRcon 2020’s second panel on Sep. 3 explored Indigenous viewpoints from a variety of geographies —a viewpoint that has been marginalized and excluded throughout history, not just in the conversation around technology and gene editing.  

We have to acknowledge that indigenous peoples and communities are still widely not at the point of engaging or utilizing this technology,” said Krystal Tsosie, co-founder of Native BioData Consortium, who moderated the discussion. “Listen carefully, thoughIt’s not coming from a point of being anti-science, but rather anti-exploitation.” 

The panelists started the session by offering individual presentations highlighting several issues from Indigenous perspectives on topics in health and agriculture, including sovereignty, control, access, and benefit sharing with respect to traditional knowledge, Indigenous data, and biological and cultural resourcesCalandra McCoolan associate at Big Fire Law and Policy Group, a Native American-owned law firm that specializes in tribal law and federal Indian lawfocused on the ethical and legal questions over introducing gene editing technologies into native communities and how these communities can protect themselves. 

“One of the best ways for the tribes to protect themselves and their community is through robust tribal code drafting because tribes have varying degrees civil and criminal jurisdiction over their Indian Country, said McCool. 

Maui Hudson, an associate professor at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, presented findings from a project he led that examined what he called the co-innovation interface, or the space that exists between Indigenous communities and the scientists involved in gene editing. Among the key issues examined in Hudson’s study was the right to act, the effect on cultural values, inequitable outcomes, responsibilities, and use along with non-genetic technologies. 

“Values affected by gene editing could be enhanced or diminished depending on its use. It then became a question about not whether the technology itself was good or bad but whether its use was good or bad, said Hudson. 

Devon Peña, a professor at the University of Washington, shared a presentation on Indigenous seed and food sovereignty that focused on the evolution of Zea mays, or corn. He began with the story of Maiz de trensa, or braided maize, which is an intermediate ancestor of native corn. Peña believes the forced evolution of native corn into the high-yield modern form of corn most are familiar with today is an example of technology superseding native agricultural methods. 

 “I actually see [the modern ‘Green Revolution’ form of corn] as an example of the arrogance and the hyperbole of the settler colonial gaze on maiz,” said Peña.  

Keolu Fox, assistant professor at the University of California San Diego, offered the final presentation, which examined rewriting human history and empowering Indigenous communities using genome-editing tools. In particular, he described the historical practice of researcherstudying genetic information from Indigenous communities and creating a narrative with little-to-no involvement of those communities—narratives that have longlasting effects. 

The point is many of these narratives are real. They are what I would call A-plus stories, and some of them are F-minus stories because they have no evidence supporting them mechanistically. And it’s hard to tease that apart when they are published in major journals without the consent or partnership of the communities that the information was actually derived from,” said Fox.  

The panel closed with a lively discussion among panelists on whether Indigenous communities should engage in a colonialism construct, perspectives on open source genomes, and what good allyship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists looks like, among other topics. Watch the full panel discussion below.