The Havasupai Indians and the Mistreatment of Their Blood

In my Junior Seminar, we had Professor Ruha Benjamin as a guest speaker to provide us insights into how to effectively carry out in-depth interviews. Professor Benjamin started off her talk by showing us a New York Times video clip on the story of the Havasupai Indians, who donated samples of their blood for diabetes research that was conducted at Arizona State University. This incident was briefly mentioned in Genetics and the Unsettled Past, but it is worth expanding on because the Havasupai’s story is an important and powerful one that is directly related to our final class unit.

The Havasupai is a community with high rates of Type II diabetes, so members were eager to find out the cause. However, university researches would end up using their blood for other forms of research outside of what they donated their blood for, which would lead the Havasupai to retrieve back their blood. In addition, the University would provide them with a $700,000 compensation.

This video shines a light on the desire for groups to understand their communities past. As we learned from our readings, such desires were and still are extremely common. Different stakeholders use this public interest in genetic understanding to exploit marginalized communities and to use their genes for their own purposes.

Moreover, culture plays a huge role in this instance. As mentioned in the video, blood is extremely sacred to the Havasupai. At the end, we see the Havasupai perform a type of prayer as they retrieve the blood from the University’s lab, and one of the Havasupai women is in tears when she is in the room where the blood was held.

I was curious to hear people’s thoughts on this story. I’m especially curious about people’s thoughts on the role of culture in these types of instances. In addition, I would like to hear people’s thoughts on the $700,000 compensation. In a sense, I am glad to hear that they received compensation at all, because exploited communities have historically been deprived of reparations. However, I’m also disturbed by the gesture because it seems to suggest that money is all that it takes to repair the damage created.

Looking forward to hearing people’s thoughts!

2 thoughts on “The Havasupai Indians and the Mistreatment of Their Blood”

  1. I think you a touched a very sensitive point with your allusion to the trade-off between science and culture. As a person interested in science and who has had hands-on experience with biological material, I understand the University’s decision to use the blood for other research, as every sample is cherished as a potential treasure. However, as a person, I believe that science is oftentimes too impersonal towards anything non-automated and it seems to inevitably cause psychological trauma. And here comes your second question: how can we compensate for psychological trauma when it is immaterial and has no degree of measurement? I think the story is a dead-end situation: you cannot really help these people recuperate without knowing their traditions inherently, even if you offer support, because they are a tight-knit community, and you cannot do much more than give a certain amount of money (except offering moral support of some kind, but let’s face it: science has no time and money to revisit what it messed up). So the bottom line should be: prevention is key. You follow the “contract”, everybody is happy. You don’t – everybody suffers, either psychologically or reputation-ally. I really get frustrated by the lack of a just outcomes of this kind of instances, but maybe that’s why there is ethics and people study it in order to apply it (prevention is key).

  2. I thought that this video was extremely powerful and brought up the clear issues that still exist with informed consent or lack there off. I feel like both parties in question were at fault, as the scientists could have been much clearer about what the blood was actually going to go towards, and I also think that the Havasupai should have asked for clarification on the consent forms that they signed. I do think that their culture does make this issue much more complicated, as blood holds such a sacred meaning in their religion. Especially when some of the research directly contradicts some of the beliefs that they hold. I think that is the difficultly when science and religion intersect. On one hand, the scientists want to advance the field and learn all they could from these blood samples. But on the other hand, I think that cultures, especially from people who are historically been exploited. In terms of the money they were given, I think that this was the best the judge could do to help alleviate some of the emotional pain the Havasupai were feeling. Unfortunately, there is little else the court could do in this situation. Instead, I think that consent forms need to be explained so that this situation doesn’t happen in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *