Ripan S. Malhi, Ph.D., speaks at the Walter Soboleff Center on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Malhi is a Richard and Margaret Romano Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with affiliations in anthropology, the School of Integrative Biology, and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. The lecture is part of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s events in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Ripan S. Malhi, Ph.D., speaks at the Walter Soboleff Center on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Malhi is a Richard and Margaret Romano Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with affiliations in anthropology, the School of Integrative Biology, and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. The lecture is part of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s events in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

DNA, oral tradition indicate 10,000 years of Native history in Southeast

Paleogenomics connects ancient ancestors to present people during lecture

DNA science lent credence to thousands of years of Alaska Native oral history, and tradition allowed that to happen.

Ripan S. Malhi, a professor for the Department of Anthropology at University of Illinois, spoke about studying ancient DNA and what insights Shuká Káa, a Native man found in Southeast Alaska in the ’90s, offered about the regions’ Native population, during a lecture Thursday at the Walter Soboleff Building.

“Last year, we showed there’s genetic continuity from 10,000 years ago to today,” Malhi told the Capital City Weekly prior to his presentation. “Before paleogenomics, there was lots of talk about movements of people across different areas. It seems people mostly stayed in one geographic area, and trade was extensive.”

Malhi said it can be difficult to distinguish trade from travel, but through paleogenomics, the study of ancient DNA, a throughline was discovered that connected Shuká Káa’s DNA to a 6,000-year-old ancient Native, who in turn was able to be connected to modern-day Native people.

“We were able to show genetic continuity through today through three ancient individuals,” Malhi said.

This supports oral tradition, said Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl.

“It validated belief in our oral traditions that we had lived in our homeland since time immemorial,” Worl said.

That validation came, in part, because Native people in Southeast Alaska were willing to allow testing.

Malhi said in the past, some DNA researchers have been less-than scrupulous in their studies, and had taken DNA samples from members of indigenous communities and never shared results, which can erode trust and lead to future unwillingness to participate in studies.

During his lecture, Malhi detailed the ways in which he and colleagues formulated research ethics that place an emphasis on working closely with indigenous communities.

“Ancestral remains should be treated as human relatives who deserve respect,” Malhi said.

Another reason some communities may not participate in a study: Native beliefs may also discourage disrupting an ancient body.

However, Worl said core cultural values, Haa Latseen and Haa Shuká — strength of body, mind and spirit, and valuing ties to ancestors — led Southeast Native peoples toward participating in such studies.

“Southeast Natives really believe in education and science,” Worl said. “I would say, Southeast Natives were among the first to do DNA studies. That was a cultural value in action and adopted to a new study.”

Other findings

Malhi also presented results from studies involving ancient Natives on Prince Rupert island and current British Columbian Tsimshians.

They also supported genetic continuity from thousands of years in the past to the present day and showed the impact of colonization.

For example, the DNA showed an over 50 percent reduction in effective population that coincided with a smallpox epidemic. There was also a shift in present day Native people sampled toward a genetic profile closer to that of Europeans.

A young science

Malhi’s lecture, which is part of a series of November talks sponsored by SHI for Alaska Native and Native American Heritage Month, also detailed some of the history of paleogenomics.

The field started in the ’80s, and studies were often undermined by contamination or other errors.

“DNA in the early history of this field had a very rocky start,” Malhi said.

Now, Malhi said there are facilities such as the lab in which he works in Illinois that employ rigorous safeguards to prevent contamination and ensure reliable results.

Additionally, Malhi said researchers have endeavored to improve industry ethics, and there is a push to get indigenous people involved in paleogenomics, and there is an ongoing internship oppotunity for interested community college, undergraduate and graduate students.

The Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) Workshop is currently accepting applications online at sing.igb.illinois.edu.

“We would love to see people from this community apply,” Malhi said.


• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or bhohenstatt@juneauempire.com.


Ripan S. Malhi, Ph.D., speaks at the Walter Soboleff Center on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Malhi is a Richard and Margaret Romano Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with affiliations in anthropology, the School of Integrative Biology, and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. The lecture is part of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s events in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Ripan S. Malhi, Ph.D., speaks at the Walter Soboleff Center on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Malhi is a Richard and Margaret Romano Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with affiliations in anthropology, the School of Integrative Biology, and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. The lecture is part of Sealaska Heritage Institute’s events in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

More in Home

Juneau Assembly members and other visitors examine a meeting room formerly used by the nine-member Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development on Monday, April 8, which is about 25% larger than the Assembly Chambers at City Hall. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Of three possible new City Hall buildings, one stands out — but plenty of proposed uses for other two

Michael J. Burns Building eyed as city HQ; childcare, animal shelter among options at school sites.

The Boney Courthouse in downtown Anchorage, across the street from the larger Nesbett Courthouse, holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska judge strikes down state’s cash payments to families using correspondence school programs

Decision will become a ‘hot-button legislative item’ in final weeks of session, lawmakers say.

Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, speaks to members of the Senate majority caucus’ leadership group on Friday. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Schools, university and projects across Alaska are set to receive money from new budget bill

Alaska Senate sends draft capital budget to House as work continues on a state spending plan

A fenced lot proposed as a campsite for people experiencing homelessness located next to the city’s cold weather emergency shelter, in the background, is also next door to a businesses where extensive construction is scheduled, thus prompting city leaders to rethink the proposal. (Photo by Laurie Craig)
Indefinite ‘dispersed camping’ for homeless proposed by city leaders due to lack of suitable campsite

Proposed Rock Dump site is next to long-term construction, more costly than expected, report states.

A statue of William Henry Seward stands outside the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Juneau man convicted of sexual abuse of 15-year-old girl more than four years after incidents occur

JPD: Randy James Willard, 39, sent explicit videos to and engaged in sexual contact with victim.

Capital Transit buses stop at the Valley Transit Center on Thursday. Two bus routes serving areas of the Mendenhall Valley and near the airport will temporarily be discontinued starting April 22 due to lack of staff. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Capital Transit temporarily suspending two Mendenhall Valley routes due to shortage of drivers

Officials hope to fix situation by July; extra tourist buses also scaled back due to fleet shortage.

Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, watches as the tally board in the Alaska House of Representatives shows the vote against House Joint Resolution 7 on Thursday. Eastman supported the amendment. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska House votes down constitutional guarantee for Permanent Fund dividend

Guarantee had been discussed as part of long-term plan to bring state expenses in line with revenue.

Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer and co-chair of the House Finance Committee, speaks Thursday on the House floor about the state’s operating budget. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska House passes draft state budget amid warnings that state spending doesn’t balance

Changes during floor debate include $9M by Rep Andi Story, D-Juneau, for youth reading program.

Most Read