Alberta Researcher Profile
Who: Dr. Kim TallBear
Professor, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta
Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Society
Dr. Kim TallBear has published on topics such as race science, Indigenous studies, DNA testing and decolonizing polyamory. Her research spans social, community, and science studies. TallBear oversees the Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics Canada (SING) which is an initiative associated with the Indigenous Science, Technology, and Society Research and Training Program (Indigenous STS) at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Native Studies. SING Canada is sponsored by University of Alberta Faculty of Native Studies, Genome Canada, Silent Genomes and LifeLabs, which has helped bridge the gap between science and society.
Dr. Kim TallBear, a Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate professor at the University of Alberta and a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience, and Society, grew up with an aptitude for reading and knowledge, but never thought science could be an option for her.
“I was pretty well tracked away from doing science myself growing up in a reservation border town school. Most Native kids were just tracked away from education period… I was not encouraged to do science and I think it was assumed, as it is with most Native children, that you’re supposed to do cultural things,” says TallBear.
TallBear’s interest in science took off after her master’s degree in city planning, when she got a job for an environmental consulting firm in Boston working for the department of energy (DOE) as a contractor. TallBear worked between the DOE and US tribal governments as a tribal liaison in the Pacific Northwest around the cleanup and management of a nuclear weapons complex.
During her work with the DOE, she quickly saw the intersections in culture and history, and the need to have increased scientific capacity within tribes in the US. TallBear says this allowed Indigenous people to participate more equitably to help manage and clean landscapes.
“You come to see the difference in historical thinking, the Department of Energy and all the non-Indigenous people were spinning these future scenario conversations; ‘how are we going to mark the land so that people 175 thousand years from now know not to make incursions into these underground storage sites?’… versus Indigenous people who have already lived through an apocalypse of their society,” says TallBear.
From there TallBear realized the disadvantage of keeping society, culture, and science all separate, and recognized the importance of equalizing them within research.
After the DOE began funding the human genome project, TallBear found interest in science and returned to school to finish her PhD, resulting in her book Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science.
Since then, TallBear has studied genome science disruptions to Indigenous self-definitions and the colonial ethics historically found in genomic and other physical sciences, and colonial disruptions to Indigenous sexual relations. She also researches and promotes Indigenous scientific and cultural challenges to settler-colonial studies and objectification of Indigenous populations and social and cultural practices.
TallBear says that in her early career because she was not publishing within the formal science field, she could speak freely and inform people of exactly how their research affected Indigenous peoples. Because she was publishing in the social sciences, she did not experience pushback on her professional career, TallBear says there were still times people did not approve of her thoughts.
“It was easier for me to take the heat; I was publishing in social science journals. I wasn’t going to get into that much trouble by offending people at the American Society for Human Genetics… but for young Indigenous scientists going for their first major research grant they have to tread a bit more carefully.”
This led to TallBear’s support in creating SING Canada
, in order to strengthen the relationship and increase the presence of Indigenous voices within the genomic research sector, as well as introducing more Indigeneity to promote scientific governance within Indigenous communities. Since its inaugural program in 2018, TallBear has championed SING Canada through her work at the University of Alberta.
“Now what I’m doing is supporting Indigenous scientists in the background.”
In 2022, Genome Canada committed to funding SING Canada programs for the next 3 years, beginning with this year’s workshop, LandBack: Indigenous Peoples, Soil Science, and Disruptive Sequencing Technologies.
Words of Advice
TallBear’s advice for researchers and students hoping to explore the sector comes from her cultural studies background rather than science, although it’s applicable to any sector.
Often, she says, when doing work in minority communities you will have to fit your research within their societal norms, rather than adhering to your own. This means parts of your research method and results might not look exactly like you thought they would, but it will also lead to new areas you would have never thought to explore.
“I always tell people, if you don’t want to have your career completely hijacked by learning how to work methodologically in more innovative and ethical ways with Indigenous communities, then don’t do community connected science.” says TallBear. “I encourage students to be intensely curious about everything... If I’m not being curious of something, am I being dismissive about its importance in the world?”
For SING Canada, TallBear says that the next steps are developing leadership and independence, much like SING US which has all Indigenous leadership.
“We’d like to recruit an Indigenous geneticist as a co-principal investigator for SING Canada. We’d like to build our own lab and get our own space.”
SING has relied on and greatly appreciates the generosity of non-Indigenous science faculties, but TallBear says the push for their own space will allow them to further their projects and more sustainable training programs.
TallBear is also embracing online education to share her Indigenous people and technoscience course which has taken off during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We want to deliver all of our offerings across Canada and globally, but the micro credentialing comes in because we also want to reach lifelong learners… A lot of the people who take my class are non-traditional students. They’re people working and are able to right away put in the lessons about inclusion and decolonization into their work,” says TallBear.
Enrolment in the Indigenous People and Technoscience course
is free through the University of Alberta, something TallBear says is important to have in order to encourage accessibility.