Bridging Cultures: Repatriating Indigenous Remains with DNA Science

In this interview, Dr. Meradeth Snow and Haley Omeasoo discuss their work in forensic and molecular anthropology at the University of Montana. They focus on their project “Building Bridges: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Repatriating Unidentified Indigenous Remains”, aiming to resolve the issue of unidentified remains, potentially Native American, using DNA techniques. They emphasize the importance of cultural sensitivity and ethical considerations in their work, particularly regarding the use of genetic information. The interview highlights the underrepresentation and challenges in addressing missing and murdered indigenous persons (MMIP), underscoring the need for trust-building with tribal nations and the significance of community outreach and education. Dr. Snow and Omeasoo also touch upon the technical aspects of their research, including the development of non-destructive DNA testing methods.




Laura: Welcome, Meradeth and Haley, we are so honored to have you here at ISHI 34. This is our annual video series. We love to talk to our presenters and workshop folks and learn more about what they’re telling us this year. So, we’re so excited to have you here. Before we get into the details of what you’re presenting, I’d love to hear a little bit more about each of your backgrounds. Meradeth, maybe you want to start for us.


Meradeth: Awesome. Okay. I’m Dr. Meradeth Snow. I received my PhD from the University of California at Davis and moved up to Montana to start working at the University of Montana about a decade ago.


Laura: How about you Haley?


Haley: Yeah, I’m Haley Omeasoo. I’m a second-year doctoral student at the University of Montana. Doctor Snow is actually my advisor. I did my undergrad and master’s at the University of Montana as well, in forensic anthropology. So now I’m in forensic and molecular anthropology. I come from the Blackfeet Reservation, and I’m also an enrolled member of the Hopi tribe.


Laura: Thank you so much. I heard a little bit about your presentation, and I’ll be able to watch it later, but I understand you came to the field of forensics in a slightly different way. I’m not sure if that’s correct or not, but maybe you can tell us a little bit about what attracted you to the field.


Haley: Yeah. So, on the reservation, we don’t really have a whole lot of resources when it comes to the forensics field, and so over the years, I’ve been assessing and seeing what we need on the reservation. When my relative, Ashley Heavyrunner Loring went missing in 2017, that was kind of when I kind of delved more into the forensic anthropology side of things and, you know, wanted to kind of help that way.


Laura: Absolutely. I’m so sorry to hear about that. Yeah. Thank you. It’s amazing that then you took your career in that direction to help. Why don’t we talk a little bit about what you’re presenting, and let’s just dive right in and have each of you, you know, talk about what you shared today.


Haley: So, our presentation at ISHI this year is called Building Bridges: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Repatriating Unidentified Indigenous Remains. At the University of Montana, we have a collection of unidentified individuals that could possibly be Native American. Meradeth and I have kind of teamed up to try and resolve this issue by going about it in a way of using DNA. And so, she’s been teaching me a lot of the DNA side, and I’m kind of, you know, the motivation of the study, I guess. And so, yeah, she’s really been helping me in, in the lab and everything and teaching me all the  fun techniques and stuff of DNA.


Laura: I love that.


Meradeth: You’re not just the motivation. You’re the push behind it all. The motivator. . And yeah, we just we spoke a little bit also on kind of the different things that we’ve discussed and tried to implement to ensure that what we’re doing is mindful of the cultural issues and how we can potentially do this most ethically to build a bridge, basically, and ensure that the sovereign tribal nations are maintaining control of their own DNA. Just there’s been too many things that have happened in the past where there’s been some real misuse of genetic information. That’s such a tiny slice of the mistreatment. But that’s definitely something that we’re, , trying to mitigate today and, and basically make better and hopefully do right.


Laura: Yeah, absolutely. When I was doing a little bit of research on missing and murdered indigenous persons (and it’s often abbreviated for our viewers as MMIP), the statistics were horrifying frankly on how much is happening. How much is not visible, isn’t being covered. Do either or both of you want to talk about that and how this might address some of that?


Haley: Yeah. One thing that I always have to mention is that, you know, they put these statistics out, and as they are staggering and horrifying, typically they could be still an underrepresentation. So, that’s just one of the things that I always have to mention.


Laura: Yeah, definitely. Because of under-reporting and underreporting.


Haley: Yep. I did a poster presentation back in 2018 on MMIP and kind of using Ashley’s case as, you know, kind of what kickstarted all of this. And, so when I was doing my research for that poster and trying to find statistics and I just went into like the missing persons for Montana, and there was only maybe four individuals that were shown in there that were indigenous. And I was like, that cannot be right. And it wasn’t. That’s just kind of goes to show that, you know, need to get.


Laura: Yeah, absolutely. Meradeth, do you want to comment on that as well?


Meradeth: It’s just something that really shocked me moving up to Montana. It just doesn’t necessarily get on the radar enough elsewhere. I grew up in California. That’s where I went to graduate school, and it just was not on the radar. And that does not mean that it wasn’t happening. I mean, we have quite a large tribal representation in California as well, but we just don’t hear about it. Then moving up to Montana and realizing that, you know, I have students that are daily dealing with missing family members, and you drive down the highway and there’s these billboards of like, desperate families, like just trying to find information and closure at the very least. And it’s gut wrenching. And that definitely hit me pretty hard and made me hope that there was some way that maybe I could be an ally, maybe I could help. And Haley. So that’s bringing all that together.


Laura: Haley, I think that’s remarkable. Was there any resolution with Ashley? If you’re. If you’re open to talking about It


Haley: No. She’s been missing for six years now.


Laura: I’m so sorry.


Haley: Yeah. And I’ve just kind of, over the years, watched her case fall apart, basically,  just the way that the evidence has been handled, from what I hear from her family, it’s just. Yeah, it’s heartbreaking.


Laura: Thank you for sharing it. It can’t be easy, but what you’re doing gives me a lot of hope and I hope we can get this out to a large audience and get more people talking about it so there’s more visibility. What are some of the challenges you’re facing now as you’re working on this project, given you know, everything that’s been working against you for so long?


Haley: Some of the challenges we face, I guess, is, uh, I guess there’s a lot of moving parts. With the MMIP thing, we face a lot of, like, jurisdictional issues. So where we want to help, we want to use Meradeth’s lab to help do DNA and everything, but there’s a lot of other steps that, you know, we need to go through with that and then with the repatriation side of things with, like, possible ancestors. There’s those, would you say, a lot of hoops that we have to jump through, I guess. Because all of the tribes are different and we don’t know where these individuals came from. And so, you know, having to try and bring together all of the tribes and, like, you know, do tribal consultation to try and figure out, you know, where they could possibly, you know, be returned to has really been difficult, but hopefully DNA can help if the tribes are up for it, because some are and some aren’t. And so, yeah, it’s been a little difficult in that realm.


Laura: Yeah, absolutely. That was going to be my next question. And Meradeth, I’d like to definitely get back to you too, on the same topic. And this relates to that, but it’s a much better representation.


When you talk about the tribes, is there a reluctance sometimes to work with you or because you are working with so many different, you know, groups of individuals. How have you tried to address some of that?


Haley: Yeah. There was a meeting that we went to that had a lot of tribal representatives there from Montana. And that was kind of when we noticed that not every tribe was, was for DNA, but thankfully, my tribe, the Blackfeet tribe, has been pretty supportive of that. And so as of right now, we’re only working with the Blackfeet tribe. But we hope that, you know, that this all goes well, and that the other tribes can kind of see that this works, and will be more open to possibly doing that, too. Yeah.


Laura: Building bridges couldn’t be a better title for it.


Haley: Yeah, it’s a lot of trust building. And, you know, even if I am a native student, too, you know, like, I still also have to build that trust too with others.


Laura: Absolutely. Well, and because DNA, forensic DNA is covered in so many different ways in the media, and we have a lot of talk about, you know, genetic genealogy and privacy and all of those things. I’m sure there can be a fear that may be unfounded, you know, when it can be such a wonderful tool to help make some of these identifications that I’m sure there’s, you know, far more going on, you know, in Montana and beyond Montana. So, someone has to start the process. Yeah, where do you stand with the project? Like where maybe you can take me through, like where you were at and where you’re going?


Meradeth: Yeah.


Haley: So, we’re technically still in phase one. I’ve been working on the tribal IRB. So we have the IRB at the University of Montana, but we also have to go through a tribal IRB, that’s specific to the tribe. And so we’re still in the process of getting that approved right now as well as maybe Meradeth can talk about the technology side of things that we’re still trying to get all of that in order and everything.


Laura: So, and for viewers who may not know. An IRB…


Haley: Internal review board.


Laura: Okay. Thank you. Just to make sure. Meradeth, do you want to talk about the lab side?


Meradeth: We’ve been getting up and running as quickly as we possibly can. It’s just a lengthy process to get everything organized, put together, validated, etc.. But, we’re working with QIAGEN. I know this is a Promega meeting, but we’ve been working with them and working with the FGX, a machine that helps to read the SNPs that would work with the Kintelligence system, which particularly we picked because of the fact that it is really only looking at kinship SNPs, which is something kind of tying back to what we were talking about before. Like there have been misuses of the broad genome data in the past, and being able to just target SNPs that we know are not associated with disease or other potential concerns that have been brought up by the tribes and of course, just ethically across the board in discussions of FGG. And that is really helped kind of assure and bring a little bit more trust. At least we’re hoping that we are, because that’s something that we really want to ensure that we’re emphasizing that we’re only hitting on those parts of the genome. That should help make those familial connections as opposed to, you know, you can learn from whole genome and which ethically is a little bit too much for these sorts of scenarios.


Laura: So yeah, absolutely. Yeah, we heard a lot about that in the interviews this year about, you know what, you know, where how much is used and only where it’s used and how to, you know, formulate whether it be regulation or industry standards and then accountability to hold everybody to those standards. So you bring up an excellent point and when you’re able to meet with the tribes, you know, helping them to understand the different pieces of it, because certainly anyone outside the industry like me, it takes a moment to understand that. Is that helping to overcome some of that hesitation, do you think?


Haley: Yeah. Part of our phase one is we want to do community outreach. So, before the project is even, you know, before it even gets going, we want to be able to have events where we can teach the community about what we’re trying to do and not just, you know, just getting in our lab coats and, like, going into the into the DNA room and, you know, just doing our stuff and no one knows, like, what we’re doing. Just so everyone can get a better understanding..


Laura: I think that’s an excellent approach.


Meradeth: Yeah, definitely a lot of community outreach. A lot of, you know, even with not just the community, but like with other tribal boards and things like that. I don’t like to think of it as going in and trying to, like, teach. I think that that’s an important thing to kind of remember. And I said this in my talk, but like, I take my professor cap off, you know and try to go in and be listening just as much as I’m talking to ensure that, you know, I’m not there to just be the professor who’s going to come in and tell you all the things that are good and right. And no, that’s not the not the rule. I feel like especially I have I feel like I need to be listening and making sure that I’m taking into account you know, things that may be understood, what isn’t, and answering questions much more than, than just being the instructor.


Laura: So yeah, having that conversation is so important. So, I think, wow, that’s incredible that you’re really looking at all aspects of this because it can be very easy to dive into the science without, you know, that might I think you’ll avoid a lot of roadblocks. And I hope you can get some media attention as well to bring light and also educate. I mean, from any avenue that we could help you.


So, what comes after phase one then?


Haley: So then phase two would be our data collection. So we plan to do the data collection on the reservation in association with Blackfeet Community College, because they have a math and science department there. And so we plan to use their facility and get buccal swabs from as many community members as we can especially those that do have missing family members. And then we’ll go into the analysis portion and hopefully I can start writing this dissertation eventually and work towards graduating.


Laura: Dissertation. It always sounds like a lot of work.


So when remains are identified, you know, can we talk about that? What happens then or what’s happening now? What would you like to see happen? I’d love to just delve into that a little bit.


Haley: Yeah. So hopefully we will get some hits. And we are also working in association with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, so typically they are the ones that get those cases, and we’re just kind of, you know, a piece of that puzzle of trying to put together of a person’s identity, basically. And so after we do that, then, you know, they can contact the family if there are any hits, and then they can go about the repatriation process.


Laura: Okay. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. This just occurred to me as we were talking about it because we talked a lot in other interviews about how some states have regulations, some do not. But now you’re also talking about tribal lands and a whole different system of rules and regulations. How do the two interact for you guys in Montana? How do you see that playing out in other states? I mean, that’s speculative, but I’d love to hear, you know, what you think now and what you would like to see. Yeah.


Haley: I think it’s important to mention that we are a sovereign nation. So, we try to, you know, basically take care of our own. And that’s kind of what we’re trying to, to get going to is that, you know, since I am from the Blackfeet Reservation, I would like to be able to teach other Blackfeet members to do this work so that we can start doing, you know, our own DNA analysis and, you know, doing our own repatriating. I guess, instead of having to outsource to other entities.


Laura: It would be incredible to see that, and other sovereign nations be able to follow that same model. That’s quite a remarkable project. Yeah, yeah. Meradeth, what do you have something to add to that?


Meradeth: Just taking a step back in terms of looking at the process, too, like we tend. to see individuals who are recovered come through the state crime lab, and if they are identified or suspected to be Native American, then they go to what’s known as our state burial board, who is in charge of basically attempting to repatriate as best as they can. And that’s definitely a difficult process, because most tribal entities do not want destructive analysis. And for the most part, DNA extraction can be destructive and in a lot of cases is, so the testing for DNA often isn’t even started. So, we’ve been working on like a non-destructive method that we actually have up and running in the lab. It works quite well to be able to hopefully help kind of with that step and recognizing that it’s a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle, but hoping that it allows for a little bit more trust.  Well, I see a lot of individuals go through for DNA testing that aren’t indigenous. And man, there’s a lot of bone that goes missing and it’s kind of problematic at times, and I think that we need to be mindful of the different cultural values that exist and how to potentially address them with other technologies.


Laura: That is incredible. So, I’d love to talk a little bit about, you know, for this audience, that non-destructive method. Yes. Doing something like that, where then you can still assure a proper burial that’s, you know, respectful and that’s incredible. That’s amazing.


Haley: It’s been a lot of fun.


Meradeth: And something that we’ve developed actually out of some other published articles, that have come out, there was one that came out a couple of months ago about the deer pendant where they found actually the genome of the woman who had been wearing it, which was so cool. But, it’s actually that same method and by the same author, she’s actually put out a protocol for this, and it’s utilizing a buffer and heat. That’s it. It’s really quite fantastic. I almost want to use the word magical because it’s kind of like, well, that’s quite cool, but yeah, it’s really, really lovely to utilize that. And actually, we just had a conversation yesterday with some individuals from another crime lab who had been working with a different population that also had some concerns about the destructive nature of utilizing, you know, traditional drilling or bone mills or whatever else is going to be utilized. And so having this other technique is, is definitely something that can help a much broader context, hopefully.


Laura: So absolutely. I like the word magical because I think every new technology I, you know, I’ve been working with Promega on this for about 10, 12 years. So every year something is completely seems completely magical and then it becomes just commonplace. And that’s what we’re using all of the time.


Meradeth: Yeah, I feel kind of silly being a scientist saying that word, but it’s pretty cool.


Laura: I think electricity was magical until it was just…Yeah, so I love it. What can people in crime labs and just the average person do to be an ally and help? You probably have a very long list, so take your time. We want to hear all of it. Okay.


Haley: I guess just, you know what Meradeth is doing, really just, you know, lending a hand wherever needed. She’s definitely been really good at using her expertise to help in this situation.


Laura: Okay. Wonderful.


Meradeth: I don’t feel like I’m doing enough, but…


Haley: I feel like she’s doing a lot, so I’m very grateful for her.


Meradeth: In crime labs, I think that honestly, having that cultural sensitivity is really helpful. And I think that a lot of times we may not even know, you know, stuff that comes into a crime lab is often completely anonymous. We have no idea. It’s very difficult to establish that from the get go. But if there’s any way possible to just be really mindful of that. And I think for us, like our anthropological background really helps with that to begin with. But like for other individuals, I think, you know, that understanding and willingness to be a little bit flexible with how you might go about things, recognizing that, you know, there’s always going to be protocols that need testing and implementation. But, you know, understanding that is definitely, I think, a good step forward, because, yeah, we don’t all have the same beliefs about what to do with individuals who’ve passed away.


Haley: And just remembering that, you know, these were once people. These could be someone’s ancestors or someone’s family members, you know, and just…


Laura: Yeah, absolutely. We spoke a lot about that at last year’s issue with the Tulsa massacre and excavations there and that’s I think, making more of a national conversation so people aren’t thinking just from their own perspective and can see that larger picture is really important. Yeah. And this has been so underrepresented. I mean, the statistics were horrifying to me, and I was able to watch a documentary before coming here, and I don’t even know what to ask now that it’s just it’s so much. I’m so happy to hear about this project. What have we missed about the project? I don’t want to move on to other questions if we if there’s anything else that we haven’t covered that you want this audience, both ISHI attendees will watch this and the larger public.


Meradeth: I think that one of the things that Haley’s really working on is also to build tribally sovereign databases that kind of goes along with this. So, basically having tribal control of their own DNA. I don’t know if you want to speak more on this.


Haley: Yeah. That was my initial plan is to have, you know, tribal owned and maintained databases, so that, you know, this information won’t be shared, you know, nationwide or however, it will go case by case basis as well.


Laura: That’s lovely because that also then goes back to your point about trust and establishing trust and letting this move forward as quickly as possible to get some resolution. Well, I’m so appreciative of hearing about the project. And just to switch gears for a moment, Meradeth, I understand you’re working on a number of other projects, so we wanted to hear about those too.


Meradeth: Oh goodness. I’ve got so much stuff going on. It’s great, I love it. I also work in northern and western Mexico working with populations there, looking actually more kind of an archaeological context. So, those are definitely some of my favorite areas. I’ve worked on a lot of odd and strange sources of DNA. My personal, I don’t know if I should say favorite, but like, I was working with some paleofeces or coprolites, however you want to call them and looking at the evolution of the gut microbiome. And then, oh goodness, I have a lot of other fun things in the in the docket. I work with a lot of other archaeological and, well, archaeological in the sense that they’ve been excavated recently. But cemeteries across the country that we’ve been working to establish identities and that sort of same vein of research, but just with populations like in Texas and things like that. So, for the main goal of repatriation or at least family identification


Laura: Definitely interesting projects. Can you tell me a little bit more about the gut microbiome? Because, you know, that’s in the health news, you know, constantly.


Meradeth: No, totally. Absolutely. It’s all goodness. So our gut microbiome has actually shifted quite a bit, particularly in industrialized countries where we basically have a much lower diversity and often sometimes also a lower like count, uh, just across the board, the amount of bacteria that live in our gut. Which of course we know we need to be healthy. They do all sorts of things for us from basically digesting our food, obviously, but also creating a lot of our other hormonal regulators. And, you’re happy drugs or happy hormones, I guess, as well as some of our vitamins and also, of course, help for helping control disease and things like that. So, those are just a few of the high points of things that they do is a myriad of different aspects of those gut bacteria are constantly influencing in our body.

And the fact that we have fewer and less of them today is very difficult to then pinpoint. You know, like, what do we need, what is actually healthy? And what we were utilizing then is paleofeces to be able to establish what the gut microbiome used to look like much in the past, right?

Where, you know, 2000 years or so in the past. What did that actually have in it? And what was different about the diet? How can we use that to maybe tie in to see what would be healthier today? We definitely know that we ate a lot more fiber in the past and much well, obviously we didn’t have like processed foods with all sorts of chemicals and things like in them.

So that’s really been an interesting field of study recently and lots of research coming out to enable individuals to better understand, you know, what do we need that’s not there anymore? And so that’s kind of something that’s been fun to delve into. I also led up consultation on attempting to then get permission to utilize those paleofeces because they are not human remains, obviously. But you still need to be able to talk to the tribes to make sure that they are okay with this sort of research, because they were coming either from the desert southwest or from northern Mexico, the paleofeces from a couple of dry cave contexts. I am talking a lot about this, but yeah, that was but that was something that was also another aspect that was really eye opening for me in terms of learning you know, not just how, because I definitely done it before that. But like, what other components play into talking with tribes and even if it isn’t human remains.


Laura: What an interesting connection to the projects and sort of brings it full circle. I think I could talk to you guys for hours. I still have so many more questions, but we do want to let you see at least a few presentations too. Maybe we can end with anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t talked about and what’s next for you? What’s on the horizon when you head home?


Haley: Aside from our project, we also do a lot of casework. So I’ve been trying to get the get our crew to come up to the Blackfeet reservation to help with searches. So we’ve been doing that as well as other cases that are in Montana, too. So as much as possible, I would like to help Ashley Heavyrunner Loring’s case, Jermaine Carlos’ case, Arden Pepion and just so many others that are going on in Montana right now and in the US. So, I just want to mention.


Laura: Is there anything a viewer might be able to do to help?


Haley: I mean, just reading their story, and getting their names out there, even just sharing, you know, their posts and everything there. There’s definitely a lot of groups that are on social media that, you know, people can join to see how they can help with, the families and the searches that are going on.


Laura: That’s great. Thank you.


Meradeth: Last summer we were out on a search. And definitely that’s open to the public to anybody who would like to come and help out. And it was nice to have more hands and more eyes on the ground when we were doing that. So if you happen to be in the Browning or Missoula area, that is something that is occasionally a possibility. For myself, this is a, you know, an absolute top priority for me. I do run a busy lab as well. And if anybody is interested in discussing more about work that they are doing, that they think that maybe we could lend a hand with, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I do a lot of work for people across the country, and I don’t want to talk myself up too much, but we’re pretty good at what we do, so.

Uh, if you’d like to like to discuss more about options for something that you might have, either from an archaeological site or from other crime scenes and stuff like that, we definitely are always happy to, to be either consulted or discussed or help with.


Laura: I love that open approach and I hope people are able to help. I can imagine a search is very difficult and if anybody is working on similar, you know, it’s good to share. You can’t know everything that’s out there. So, excellent answers. I hope that it I hope it leads to something that would be fantastic. Yeah, have either of you attended ISHI before?


Haley: This is my first time.


Meradeth: This is my second. I attended last year.


Laura: So how are you finding it? And then I’d love to know as your second year, how how it’s been for two years.


Haley: Yeah, it’s been a great experience I love it. Yeah.


Laura: Anything stand out? Have you been to other symposiums?


Haley: Yeah, there’s been a lot of great talks and I hope to, to hear more today and tomorrow.


Laura: I’m so happy you’re here. How about you.


Meradeth: It’s been wonderful. I’m very glad that our talk is over in the sense that now I feel like I can kind of absorb and enjoy what’s going on.


Laura: Yeah, we should have scheduled you earlier. We try not to make it too bad.


Meradeth: It just not this. But like the talk in front of everybody, I was like, oh, my goodness. It was great, I enjoyed it. I actually really enjoy public speaking, but like, it was just one of those a little overwhelming, I guess. Yeah, but, other than that, though, it has really been excellent to hear a lot of things. I really am enjoying that. There’s so much FGG talk at the conference this year to be able to get so much more information and background and networking, which has been amazing.


Laura: We hear that a lot. It’s such a tight community, and because it is forensic DNA only focused outside, the discussions can go into a lot of depth. And so, we have the largest crowd we’ve ever had. So, it’s not just pre-COVID days. It went beyond. So, it’s lovely to see all the old and new faces and a lot of great people to connect with. And if we can help in any way, let us know.


Haley: So yeah, it was my first time speaking in that large of a group. And I felt okay. Actually, I kind of felt like these are my people.


Laura: Yes. Yeah. That’s the yeah, great thing.


Haley: A lot of people came up to us afterwards and, you know, it said how much they loved our talk and give us all their support. And it was really nice.


Laura: We are honored that you were willing to come and speak. And thank you so much for telling us about what the work that you’re doing. It’s really important and we really appreciate it. Yeah.


Meradeth: Thanks for having us. Yeah. This has been lovely. Yeah.