Championing Native American DNA

Kimberly TallBear (Ph.D. ’05, history of consciousness) , this year’s Distinguished Humanities Graduate Student Alumni Award honoree, is a passionate champion of Indigenous rights in the sciences.

Kimberly TallBear

Kimberly TallBear, this year’s recipient of the University of California, Santa Cruz Distinguished Humanities Graduate Student Alumni Award, is being honored for her work in championing indigenous rights and protecting Native American DNA from exploitation. 

Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder said that TallBear’s far-ranging work exemplifies the multidisciplinary approach to UC Santa Cruz Humanities. 

“Her work combines humanistic problem solving and community-engaged scholarship with scientific grounding and a strong commitment to equity,” Alinder said. “And her success in a range of disparate but related fields - activist, lecturer, storyteller, organizer - speaks to the power of the Humanities to provide imaginative solutions to complex problems.” 

TallBear, a passionate advocate for equitable and responsible genomics research related to Indigenous people in the United States, grew up on the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.

While working at the U.S. Department of Energy as an environmental planner, TallBear, a citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota, became aware of an alarming situation. She found that DNA research was being done on Indigenous people that was being used without their consent in ways that were not helpful to their tribes. 

That realization provided her with a strong focus and motivation when she arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 2005, where she pursued a Ph.D. with James Clifford and Donna Haraway, both distinguished professors emeriti in the History of Consciousness Department, and wrote her dissertation, which explored the concept of Native American DNA. 

Her formative years in the History of Consciousness Department encouraged her to pursue an intensive research project that brought together her gift for writing, her critical judgment, and her immersion in politics and the sciences. TallBear later expanded her graduate thesis project into an influential book, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (University of Minnesota Press 2013)

“It all kind of started for me at UCSC,” TallBear said. “The History of Consciousness is a great program that taught me how to accept a multidisciplinary approach as a legitimate outlook on the world.”

The program also provided her with a helpful network of professional contacts and friends. 

If you look at (History of Consciousness) graduate students, you’d see that we’ve worked on very different subject areas,” TallBear continued. “But I’ve met so many people from the program who were there before I was, and we instantly had so much to talk about. One thing about the History of Consciousness is the way it brings about the ability to make connections over disparate areas.” 

That graduate school experience also helped lead to her career as a professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta, her work as an influential lecturer, and her contribution to an ongoing and highly successful campaign to encourage and foster the careers of Indigenous people in the sciences. 

That advocacy work came about in the wake of her first book. After Native American DNA was published, TallBear realized that she wanted to promote good science carried out by Indigenous genomic researchers instead of just criticizing bad and exploitative science.

That decision led her to be a founding faculty member of  the University of Illinois’ Institute for Genomic Biology’s  Summer internship for Indigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) USA, a program that promotes aspiring Indigenous scientists and researchers and gives them the critical tools they need to start up their own genomics laboratories. 

“The world has changed since I was at UCSC,” TallBear noted. “Now there are Indigenous scientists with their own genomics labs, and that has happened in part because of our summer internship program.” 

A member of the Oak Lake Writers’ Society, a gathering of Indigenous writers, TallBear also co-edited an anthology of the group’s work titled This Stretch of River, which offers a new perspective on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

TallBear also co-founded a live storytelling show about sex, sexuality, and gender titled Tipi Confessions.

The common thread in her various interests is anticolonialism scholarship and advocacy, TallBear said. 

“Settler colonialism disrupted Indigenous kinship systems,” TallBear said. “Children were forced into residential schools. Our family and economic systems were disrupted. Settler colonialism seeks to undermine our relationships with our family, our land, and our own bodies. So it becomes clear why I'm interested in decolonizing sexuality and decolonizing science.”

Decolonizing science is a way to empower and provide redress for Native American communities, not just for historical wrongs but for exploitative science that is going on right now, TallBear said. 

To this day, TallBear maintains strong ties to UC Santa Cruz. She is an advisory board member for the Science & Justice Research Center on campus, and her daughter, Carmen TallBear-Edmunds (Kresge, '25, feminist studies and critical race and ethnic studies) is a current UCSC undergraduate.

“She loves it,” TallBear said. “She’s a real outdoors person.” 

TallBear’s visits with her daughter on campus bring back memories of her time there. “UCSC still feels very comfortable for me politically and intellectually.”