• A laboratory technician holds plates containing genes extracted from customers' saliva, in preparation for genetic analysiS. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
More than 7,000 DNA samples could help reconnect Stolen Generation members with their families.
Andrea Booth

12 May 2016 - 6:31 PM  UPDATED 13 May 2016 - 11:38 PM

The National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG) says it will consider analysing about 7,000 DNA samples from nearly 50 communities in its care to trace families of the Stolen Generation.

The NCIG says it will only analyse them however, if communities where the samples came from approve and testing follows ethical protocols.

“If that’s what the community wants, what a truly wonderful partnership that would be,” Dr Misty Jenkins, a medical research scientist who serves on the eight-member NCIG board, told NITV. 

“Families inflicted by the Stolen Generation live with their grief every day, and if we could help, if the centre could provide that platform to help people reconnect with families and heal their minds and bodies and spirits, well what a wonderful thing to do.”

Tens of thousands of Aboriginal children were taken from their families by the Australian government between 1910 and the early 1970s, in a bid to assimilate them into Anglo-Saxon society. 

Ken Riddiford, the CEO of the Kimberley Stolen Generation Aboriginal Corporation, says his organisation would like to trace the Stolen Generation and their families that it supports.

He says the corporation met with the NCIG in 2015 to discuss the potential to analyse DNA for this purpose.

“We walked into this room at this vat that contained all of these samples and the moment they pulled all of these blood samples out we immediately thought, ‘well…this allows us the ability to trace people back to their country’."

Why the NCIG hold thousands of DNA samples

Blood samples of Indigenous Australians were taken for scientific research between the 1960s and 1990s by the Australian National University. But Indigenous people expressed concern about consent and how the research would benefit them, which led the university to place a moratorium on the samples in 1990. They wound up in storage.

Ethical concerns arose because of international research such as by the Human Genome Diversity Project that started at Stanford University in the US. It was side research to the international Human Genome Project, intending to map the human genome for the first time.

The diversity project, dubbed the "vampire project", was conducted to research the diversity of groups or the "human biosphere" around the world.

Professor Kowal, deputy-director of the NCIG and former medical doctor, says researchers' conduct was "insensitive and naive."

"The history of colonisation for Indigenous people is the history of having things taken away, and the history of being ignored and the history of not having their values and their priorities taken into account."

She says science has played a "critical part" in that colonisation.

"Older ideas of human difference viewed Indigenous people as inferior - biologically inferior to Europeans, and that justified colonisation."

The Indigenous community were concerned about the Human Genome Diversity Project and it never got off the ground in Australia. Nearly all genetics research in Indigenous Australia stopped at this point, including research on the samples at the Australian National University.

In 2012, an Indigenous Consultative Committee was formed to determine what to do with the collection, and assessed it had "immense cultural, historical and scientific importance". It said the collection should be governed by an Indigenous body and in 2013 the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics was born.

The centre has been developing an ethical framework for genetic testing that avoids social and cultural harm, and in 2016 began consulting with Indigenous communities about if and how they want the samples to be used.

Retracing families is 'difficult'

While reasons behind analysing these DNA samples have back-flipped. Professor Emma Kowal says establishing connections pose difficulties because there is “no genetic test for Aboriginality”.

“All that testing ever does is compare your genes sequences with a sample, with someone else’s gene sequences, or a group of gene sequences,” she says.

It can only tell you how similar you are to a group of DNA sequences that act as a reference sample.

“If our board approves and there’s a process that is respectful and that is aware of all the difficult issues that may come up,” she says, “we could say, ‘well, [this person’s DNA sample is] similar to samples that were collected [in a particular location’, so] it’s possible that people could find relatives.” 

Geneticist Dr R. John Mitchell says genetically analysing people across the nation may not be possible because many of the samples come from the top half of Australia, including in areas such as the Kimberley in Western Australia. 

“Any reconstruction of the past genetic history is going to be limited by the fact that no sampling has really occurred on the eastern states, Queensland, NSW, Victoria,” he told NITV. 

Mr Riddiford says traditional systems to trace family would always hold value. 

“We go through our normal process anyway, we go through elders, we go through people who knew the families, we collect a lot of oral and written information,” he says. “Generally it works quite well.”

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