Off the Rez: How Indigenous Bodies Became “Big Data”

Off the Rez: How Indigenous Bodies Became “Big Data”

Joanna Radin

This project examined intersecting histories of big data and postcolonial biomedicine, with an emphasis on the relationship between situated bodies and seemingly mobile information. The focus, in particular, was on how health information about the Pima Indians of the American Southwest has become a dataset now used by statisticians as well as genome scientists. The former are interested not in the content of that data, but its quantitative complexity. In other words, as Pima data moved off the reservation it has become available for new and unexpected uses in basic informatics research. The Pima Gila River Indian Community was created as a reservation in the 1850s. A century later epidemiologists began sustained investigation of the health status of its residents. The political boundaries of the reservation functioned to emplace the Pima, making them appear as a natural laboratory in which to study issues of chronic illness, most notably diabetes. This work was undertaken against the backdrop of the International Biological Program (1964–1974), a worldwide effort to sample and archive genetic data from human communities understood to be geographically isolated and in danger of disappearing. This project situated the fate of Pima-related data, the accumulation of which was enabled by the legacies of American settler colonialism, within a broader discussion about the history and ethics of indigenous peoples in postcolonial technoscience. In doing so, it examined the limits of alienability and the persistence of place and personhood in the history of big data.