The Science of Settler Colonialism: The Thrifty Gene Hypothesis and the Persistence of Nutrition Experimentation on Indigenous Peoples, by Travis Hay

Introduction: ‘Administering Colonial Science’ and Type-II Diabetes

In 2013, an article published by nutrition historian Ian Mosby garnered much attention in Canadian media for its descriptions of nutrition experiments conducted on Indigenous children in residential schools between 1942 and 1952. That the architecture of Canadian settler colonialism used malnourished and captive groups of Indigenous children to produce scientific knowledges about nutrition was a horrifying revelation for many; one newspaper, for example, reported that the experiments were a “dark chapter in Canada’s treatment of aboriginal people” (Livingstone n. pag.). In what follows, I argue that this ‘dark chapter’ in Canadian history is an open book and that scientific studies on malnourished and captive Indigenous populations continued well into the 1990s and arguably through to the present day. I substantiate this claim by reviewing the history of the ‘thrifty gene hypothesis’ and interrogating the ways in which settler knowledges about Indigenous foodways have constituted technologies of colonial power. To borrow the words of Vine Deloria Jr., I articulate the thrifty gene hypothesis as one of those “anthropological definitions that have made Indian communities at times mere laboratories for political and social experiments” (51). Further, I review the ways in which the thrifty gene hypothesis naturalized and biologized colonial violence in a fashion consistent with Darwinian intellectual history. My critique of the treatment of Indigenous communities according to what Michael Montoya calls the “diabetes enterprise” (6) follows the advice of Kim Tallbear, who argues that it is tremendously “important to look back at how [Indigenous] bodies have been treated historically, for knowledge-producing cultures and practices that shaped earlier research and continue to influence the way science is done today” (2). Before reviewing the history of the thrifty gene hypothesis, however, it is necessary to give some background on the communities it used as laboratories and the fallacies on which it is premised.

The thrifty gene hypothesis is based on the idea that Indigenous peoples are genetically predisposed to type-II diabetes because their ancestors did not eat like European agriculturalists and instead relied on land-based food procurement strategies reductively labelled as ‘hunting-and-gathering.’ The idea of the thrifty gene was coined in a 1962 paper by the late American geneticist James V. Neel. In 1999, a team of Canadian scientists led by the endocrinologist Robert Hegele claimed to have discovered a ‘thrifty gene’ causing diabetes in the Oji-Cree community of Sandy Lake First Nation in northern Ontario. However, both Neel and Hegele have since rejected their respective findings and called into question the viability of the hypothesis (particularly as it relates to Indigenous peoples in settler colonial contexts). For example, in 1982, Neel wrote that “the data on which that (rather soft) hypothesis was based has now largely collapsed” (811). In 1998, moreover, Neel admitted that “the enormous range of individual or group socioeconomic circumstances in industrialized nations badly interferes with an estimate of genetic susceptibilities” to type-2 diabetes (49). Further, in 1999, Neel explicitly situated the rejection of his hypothesis in reference to settler colonial contexts when he wrote that there is “no support to the notion that the high frequency of Non Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (NIDDM) in reservation Amerindians might be due simply to an ethnic predisposition” (3). Robert Hegele has since joined Neel in his rejection of the hypothesis, despite his original ‘discovery’ in the 1990s. Hegele has said that “newer genetic data suggest it’s incorrect to pin the blame for type 2 diabetes on a single gene in any population” (quoted in Abraham, “How the diabetes-linked” n. pag.); he insists that “environmental or lifestyle factors are the key ingredients” by also addressing the colonial question when writing that “the whole thrifty-gene idea seems to me not to capture the subtlety and complexity… of type 2 diabetes in First Nations communities” (Abraham, “The Life and Death” n. pag.). To be clear, thus, the very scientists responsible for the production and circulation of the thrifty gene hypothesis retracted their original claims with regard to the genetic predispositions to type-2 diabetes in Indigenous communities.

What is more, the fundamental assumption of the thrifty gene – that Indigenous populations lived a ‘feast-and-famine’ lifestyle before the arrival of Europeans – has been severely critiqued as built on a mythology about Indigenous foodways. As one particularly damning article in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology reported, the thrifty gene hypothesis’ “fundamental assumption, that foragers are more likely to experience regular and severe food shortages than sedentary agriculturalists, remains largely untested” (Benyshek and Watson 121). The authors further argue:

Our results indicate that there is no statistical difference (P < 0.05) in the quantity of available food, or the frequency or extent of food shortages in these reports between preindustrial foragers, recent foragers, and agriculturalists. The findings presented here add to a growing literature that calls into question assumptions about forager food insecurity and nutritional status in general, and ultimately, the very foundation of the thrifty genotype hypothesis: the presumed food shortages that selected for a ‘‘thrifty’’ metabolism in past foraging populations (121-122).

Moreover, biological anthropologist Emöke Szathmàry has gone so far to say that that the hypothesis is based on “the old 15th-century view that, if you’ve seen one American Indian, you’ve seen them all” (Abraham, “The Life and Death” n. pag.).

It is therefore rather unsettling to note that Canadian federal Indian policy, state literature, and healthcare initiatives designed for Indigenous peoples remain attached to the thrifty gene hypothesis. For example, the Canadian Pediatric Society’s (CPS) “Position Statement” on “Risk Reduction for Type-II Diabetes in Aboriginal Children in Canada” (affirmed on March 1st, 2014) cites Hegele’s 1999 paper. We also find Hegele’s paper in the footnotes of the 2013 Clinical Practical Guidelines of the Canadian Diabetes Association and in state literature more broadly. For example, in 2011, Health Canada issued a report entitled “Diabetes in Canada”; under the subtitle of “genetic risk factors” the report in question suggested that the “‘thrifty gene effect’ plays a role in the increased rates of obesity and diabetes in the Aboriginal population” (Health Canada, 2011). Why would the settler state and health advocacy groups like the CPS and CDA continue to put forth genetic explanations for type-II diabetes in Indigenous communities when most recent scientific views identify ‘group socio-economic circumstances’ and ‘environmental factors’ as its ‘key ingredients’? This question becomes all the more pressing if we recall how the settler state destroyed Indigenous foodways in its creation of the reserve system by replacing them with insufficient market-based models wherein fresh and healthy foods (as well as land-based foods) are unaffordable, thus leading to high rates of type-II diabetes (Burnett et. al.). My paper answers this question by situating it within the knowledge-power formations that have constituted the very conditions of possibility for the emergence of scientific knowledges about Indigenous bodies, foodways, and their relationships to diet-induced illnesses. In terms of my critical objectives, the story of the thrifty gene will provide the proper setting for the critique of settler power-knowledges and also serve to substantiate my claim that the ‘dark chapter in Canadian history’ wherein scientists study malnourished Indigenous peoples has not ended.

Structure of the Paper

In order to situate the history of the thrifty gene hypothesis and its emergence in epidemiological discourses in the 20th century I begin with a brief historical review of what European observers thought of Indigenous foodways in the preceding centuries; specifically, I focus on a 17th century Jesuit priest who commented in his journals on the nature of Indigenous foodways and feasting; next I compare the writings of this Jesuit priest to the travelogues of Charles Darwin as he sailed aboard the HMS Beagle throughout South America, commenting often on Indigenous propensities to salt, sugar, and alcohol, and his theory that these desires might bring about ‘new diseases’ that would doom the ‘Indian’ to extinction. My purpose in this section is to argue that pre-20th century “discourses on the extinction of primitive races” (Brantlinger 17) constituted the discursive conditions that rendered the creation of the thrifty gene hypothesis possible. Next, I review in further detail the emergence of the thrifty gene hypothesis in the research of James V. Neel in the Amazon and of Robert Hegele in Sandy Lake First Nation in northern Ontario. In the same way that I draw connections between the Jesuit priest and Darwin’s theories, I suggest a kind of colonial continuity between Neel and Hegele as scientists whose objects of study were molded and made available by means of colonial violence. In my conclusion, I comment on the ways these travelling observers participated in a discourse of disappearance that “bestow[ed] the appearance of scientificity on the naturalization of the products of history” (Bourdieu 33) by suggesting that Indigenous foodways—and not colonial violence—were responsible for high rates of type-II diabetes in Indigenous communities.

The Jesuit Observer and the ‘Feasting Indian’

During his travels through the ‘new world’ in the 17th century, one Jesuit priest made the observation that “the Savages do not eat as we French do” (Thwaites 267). On that end, he analyzed the connection between indulgence and Indigeneity (or, more accurately, ‘Indianness’[1]) by writing that “eating among the Savages is like drinking among the drunkards of Europe” (Thwaites 249). He also wrote of a potential encounter with a group of ‘Indians’ in the following terms:

This would ruin us in three days; for they would want us to go with them, and eat their food as long as they had any, and then they would come and eat ours as long as it lasted; and, when there was none left, we would all set to work to find more. For that is the kind of life the live, feasting as long as they have something (259).

These examples reveal the extent to which early European observers regarded the ‘Indian’ as a being bound to his baser instincts. In these and future accounts, the ‘Indian’s’ manner of consuming food revealed his propensity to pursue bodily gratification at all costs. Importantly, the same observer also admitted in his accounts that “we know nothing about their mode of hunting” (249), which should remind readers of the fallacy of forager food insecurity discussed in the above source (and revisited below). Despite this lack of knowledge, the Jesuit made further claims on the nature of Indigenous life before his arrival, writing that “the Savages have always been gluttons, but since the coming of the Europeans they have become such drunkards… although they see clearly that these new drinks… are depopulating their country, of which they themselves complain” (251). As we shall see, a straight line can be drawn between this Jesuit construction of ‘Indianness,’ the picture painted by Darwin in his travelling accounts, and the construction of the ‘Indian’ within the rubric of the thrifty gene hypothesis.

Charles Darwin and the Disappearance of the ‘Indian’

Like the Jesuit priest quoted above, Darwin left behind travelogues in which he often commented on the nature of the ‘Indian’s’ eating and embodiment. “In regard to the domestic animals kept by uncivilised man,” writes Darwin in Origin of the Species, “it should not be overlooked that they almost always have to struggle for their own food” (39). Of course, Darwin’s knowledge of the ‘animals kept by uncivilised man’ was gained through his travels through South America and Australia on board the HMS Beagle—a British naval gunship tasked with a cartography mission on lands targeted for imperial projects. Recalling one episode wherein the ship’s captain took three “Indians” on board the ship, Darwin wrote in his recollections aboard the Beagle: “we got on board with our three giants, who dined with the captain… nothing was so much relished as sugar” (142). In this passage, as well in others, Darwin’s ‘Indians’ are relentlessly embodied beings with massive bodies ruled by primitive passions and base appetites. Elsewhere, Darwin’s travel journals double-down on this construction: “the Indians eat much salt, their children sucking it like sugar… this habit is very different from the Spanish Gauchos, who, leading the same kind of life, eat scarcely any… [the Indians] have an unconquerable desire for salt” (69). I believe Darwin’s language is important here, as the ‘unconquerable desire’ of the ‘Indian’ for salt and sugar seems to show up rather powerfully as analytic assumptions when he discusses “the preservation of favoured races” (his rarely cited subtitle of Origin of the Species). In passages of this kind, Darwin theorizes the inevitability of Indigenous decline; for example, he writes in The Descent of Man:

We can see that the cultivation of the land will be fatal in many ways to savages, for they cannot, or will not, change their habits. New diseases and vices are highly destructive; and it appears that in every nation a new disease causes much death, until those who are most susceptible to its destructive influence are gradually weeded out; and so it may be with the evil effects from spirituous liquors, as well as with the unconquerably strong taste for them shown by so many savages (238).

This passage is a powerful premonition to the thrifty gene hypothesis as a ‘new disease’ that causes the ‘highly destructive vices’ of the ‘savages,’ which brings about ‘much death’ among their ranks. Such claims appear to be aligned with other 19th century writings on the “uncivilized races of men” which held that “the cause of extinction lies within the savage himself” (Wood 791). What is important to note about these observations (and the Jesuit’s, for that matter) is that they were made possible by the travel of colonial knowers, the movement of European orders of power, and what Jodi Byrd refers to as ‘the transit of empire’ (2011).

As Ted Binnema has explained, “during the 17th century exploration became ‘scientized’ in a process influenced by Bacon’s philosophy of science” (77), which held that ‘knowledge is power.’ This process was initiated in the 16th century and carried through to the 19th century; according to J.M. Blaut’s The Colonizer’s Model of the World, “the nineteenth century was the age of scientific exploration – Darwin in the Beagle, Livingstone in Africa, Powell in the rockies, and so on—but the sources of support for these efforts tended to be institutions with a very practical interest in the places being studied” (23). Other scholars such as Johannes Fabian have called this relationship between colonial travel and evolutionist knowledge production ‘the topos of travel’, and Darwin himself is an excellent example of this practice.

Tony Barta reminds his readers that while the young 22-year-old Darwin “began his search for specimens in South America, the settlers were shooting the Indians. Even as his   European companions were discovering the remains of long-dead megafauna, he observed European colonialists doing their best to make the indigenous people extinct” (21). On that basis, the very presence of Darwin in South America was enabled by a genocidal project on the detriment of Indigenous peoples; indeed, reading Darwin’s accounts of his travels brings us in contact with the witnessing of a horrific “war of extermination” (269) waged on the Indigenous peoples of the regions through which he travelled. Much like the Jesuit priest who observed the feasts of ‘Indians,’ what Darwin saw in the eating habits of ‘Indians’ was mediated by the conditions and power relations of a colonial encounter. This point of commonality that exists between colonial travel, scientific observation, and the elision of genocidal violence is of appalling relevance to the stories of James Neel, Robert Hegele, and the emergence of the thrifty gene in the 20th century.

James V. Neel and the Emergence of the Thrifty Gene Hypothesis

In his autobiography, James V. Neel wrote “I feel I have at least one bond with Charles Darwin” (208). To be sure, one connection between the two is that the Indigenous peoples they studied were made viable objects of scientific observation through the violence of colonial genocide. One critic has gone so far as to argue that this relationship was true for most of Neel’s research subjects, writing that they “were uniquely vulnerable products of history and of science” (Lindee 32). This interpretation seems of great validity when reviewing the projects that led up to his to studies of Indigenous blood in the Amazon in the 1950s. For example, after receiving his medical degree in 1946, Neel’s first prestigious research project placed him in post-war Japan where he studied the after-effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that war-torn setting, Neel acted as the first director of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC). Thereafter, Neel became known internationally as a prominent human geneticist for participating in the broader research effort to name and explain sickle-cell anemia (or sickle-cell disease) as a genetic condition “primarily associated, in the United States, with Americans of West African descent” (Duster 159). These examples relate to the thrifty gene hypothesis and discourses on the eating habits of ‘Indians’ as they reveal the ways in which genetic science has emerged in tandem with the violence of western expansionism—the former advancing itself by studying the latter’s effects.

In a 1949 paper, Neel named “diabetes mellitus” as a “disease in which a recognizable carrier state may exist” (27). From this point on, Neel writes in his autobiography that he developed a growing interest in what he termed “the susceptibility of unacculturated human populations to the epidemic diseases of civilization” (163). On that basis, Neel joined his former student—the infamous Napoleon Chagnon[2] on trips to Venezuela where they made contact with and studied remote ‘Indian’ villages. With reference to these trips Neel has written that “the real medical pay dirt comes from the careful and intensive study of blood, saliva, urine, and stool specimens which we collect in the field” (quoted in Lindee 28); on that basis Neel unsurprisingly developed a reputation for fervently seeking out this ‘pay dirt’: “the blood samples remained a very high priority for Neel,” writes one critic, “even as those around him were dying” (Lindee 28). On these voyages Neel also wrote in Romantic and fetishistic fashion about “Indian women” who “were pleasingly plump” and of “young bucks” who “present a picture of exuberant vitality” (Physician to the Gene Pool 146, 149); Neel also claimed that such exotic trips to ‘Indian’ villages enabled him “to illumine some impressive differences between the dietary and disease patterns of Indians and ourselves” (Physician to the Gene Pool 150). Using food and diet as a signifier for civilization difference and biological divergence, Neel surmised in his 1962 paper that “primitive groups” had “a pancreas more rapidly responsive to increases in the level of blood glucose” (355). “In this connection,” wrote Neel, “it must be remembered that during the first 99 per cent or more of man’s life on earth, while he existed as a hunter and gatherer, it was often feast or famine. Periods of gorging alternated with periods of greatly reduced food intake” (356). I want to place a high amount of importance on Neel’s selection of the word ‘gorging’ to articulate the dietary patterns of ‘primitive man’ as it reveals a connection laboured in the above between savagery and bodily indulgence. This likening of ‘Indianness’ to unbridled and irresponsible bodily indulgence relates Neel’s writings on ‘Indians’ to those of the Jesuit priest and Charles Darwin because, in each case, the appetite of the ‘Indian’ becomes a cultural defect that is biologically maladaptive to European forms of agriculture and civilization. What also links Neel’s story to those above is his assumption that Indigenous peoples of the Amazon can be understood as constituting a stage in the same historicist development of Europe—as a step on the way to whiteness and western civilization. Neel himself actually addressed this very shortcoming in his treatment of ‘Indians’ when he wrote “again and again I have warned against taking the Yanomama as an exact model for early human societies. On the other hand, we know of no better approximation” (Physician to the Gene Pool 200). Within this evolutionist teleology long laid down by travelling Europeans, the very presence of the western observing subject demands the disappearance of the Indigenous population whose vanishing becomes the main object of western inquiry. Thus, the specious foundations of the thrifty gene hypothesis laid down by Neel’s travels to the Amazon became the basis of Robert Hegele’s study of thrifty genes in the community of Sandy Lake First Nation in the 1990s. Importantly, the history of this exchange reveals further the ways in which settler knowledge formations about Indigenous foodways function to erase the colonial violence that makes them possible.

Robert Hegele and the Re-Discovery of the Thrifty Gene Hypothesis

In his 1962 paper, Neel wrote that his thrifty gene hypothesis was “eminently subject to testing” (353) provided that scientists could gain access to “favourable analytic opportunities” (352). In the 1990s, Canadian endocrinologist Dr. Robert Hegele found such an opportunity when he was enlisted to participate in the Sandy Lake Diabetes and Health Project (SLDHP) led by Dr. Stewart Zinman—a medical director of the Sioux Lookout region in northern Ontario who was approached by the Sandy Lake Band Council to discuss the high rates of type-II diabetes in their community. Hegele thereby secured access to over 700 community members to research their blood (or what Neel called ‘pay dirt’) for an explanation as to why this community suffered from the disease at such a high proportion relative to non-Indigenous communities This round of blood collection was approved by the University of Toronto ethics review committee as well as the band council; however, the question of ‘informed consent’ acquires complicated dimensions if we recall the above histories and how they have created a predatory relationship between scientists and Indigenous communities traumatized by colonialism. For example, in 1993, the American Diabetes Association launched the Genetics of Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes (GENNID) initiative, which further oriented research in the field to take the form of genetic studies that paid more attention to biology than historical power relationships. Significantly, one article in the Globe and Mail reported on the SLDHP in the following terms: “At that time, gene hunting in remote populations was as fashionable as starting a dot-com, and the Sandy Lake project stood out as a model – a rare instance in which a community negotiated compensation for the DNA of its members” (Abraham, “Let’s make a DNA” n. pag.). The article explains that “in exchange for fresh food, expanded medical services, school programs and a share of any profits, the band council allowed scientists to search for an explanation as to why the diabetes rate was five times the national average” (Ibid.). That the community of Sandy Lake decided to buy fresh food and medical services with the money they received from a research initiative that studied genetic components of type-II diabetes is a clear indication of the continuous power relations which are at play in settler knowledge production about Indigenous foodways. If we take into account how both Neel and Hegele determined ‘socio-economic’ and ‘environmental’ factors as primary in the rise of type-II diabetes in remote Indigenous communities, we can appreciate in the example of the SLDHP the way in which settlers continued to study the bodies of traumatized and displaced populations of Indigenous peoples in a way that naturalized the violence of genocide as the playing out of biological processes. What is more, while Hegele has recently gone public about his misgivings on the thrifty gene hypothesis, the popularity of his 1999 publication has outsung these retractions by a sizeable register and has created a tendency in Canadian healthcare wherein Indigenous peoples are judged and disciplined on the basis of assumptions about their propensities to unhealthy foods.

Even before the scientific publication of his findings in 1999, Robert Hegele was very vocal about the success of his study’s hunt for the thrifty gene. In 1998 he told the Globe and Mail that the community of Sandy Lake had, until recently, lived a feast-or-famine lifestyle “but now it’s feast and feast and… their metabolism still tends to treat every morsel that passes their lips as caloric gold. They hold on to it, become obese and develop health problems, like diabetes” (Abraham, “Let’s make a DNA” n. pag.) Describing the embodied act of eating with the phrase ‘every morsel that passes their lips’ and laying down the imagery of indulgence in the doubled ‘feast and feast,’ I argue that Hegele’s writing here is firmly situated in a history of settler knowledge productions about ‘feasting Indians’ that sees the Indigenous body as excessively desirous of dietary indulgence. This appears to be the case if we read further into this article where Dr. Hegele writes that “they [Sandy Lake residents] have to know not to eat the Doritos” (Ibid.). The notion that a propensity for salty snacks combined with unlucky genetics are the two main pathologies inducing death and disease from diabetes in Indigenous communities is remarkably consistent with the histories of Jesuit missionaries and scientific travellers reviewed above. Indeed, we can see this continuity readily in the 1999 paper, which argued that “one such factor [in causing type-II diabetes in Sandy Lake] is the recent change in the Oji-Cree lifestyle, which has been characterized by an increase in their intake of dietary fat and a decrease in their level of activity, both of which have led to obesity and expression of diabetes” (1077). This sentence more or less articulates fatness and laziness as causes of type-II diabetes amongst Oji-Cree peoples and—in combination with Hegele’s advice on eating ‘Doritos’—suggests that better eating habits and more exercise can help cure a problem caused by colonialism. On this basis, I think it is fair to say that Hegele’s 1999 thrifty gene study homogenized all Indigenous peoples in the region as ‘Indians’ whose ‘feast-and-famine’ foodways created a maladaptive response to conditions of modernity imposed upon them by the settler state and the creation of the reserve system. This interpretation is helped by the words of Hegele’s 1999 paper itself, which concludes by claiming that its discoveries in Sandy Lake are transferable across the region on the basis of the assumption “that the allele and genotype frequencies in Sandy Lake are representative of the approximately 16,000 aboriginal residents of Northwestern Ontario” (1081).

Conclusion: Continuities in the Science of Settler Colonialism

The history of the thrifty gene hypothesis reveals some very unsettling aspects of the cultural forms and power structures inherent to settler colonialism and scientific knowledges about the nature of Indigenous bodies. Perhaps most significantly it orients us towards the reality of continued experimentation on Indigenous communities suffering from nutrition-related illnesses that are primarily caused by ‘socio-economic circumstances’ and ‘environmental factors’—both euphemisms for colonial marginalization, displacement, and genocide. The claim that a ‘dark chapter’ in Canadian history has closed—wherein nutrition experiments have been conducted upon Indigenous bodies captive to colonial structures of power—is a tenuous one at best when reviewed in light of the history above. Similarly, the mutual relationship between evolutionary, anthropological, and genetic knowledge production about Indigenous peoples and colonial exertions of control over Indigenous communities remains staggering in its sheer knitted-togetherness. A final example of underscoring the interconnecting nature of the relationship between scientific knowledges about Indigenous foodways and colonial power comes from a letter written by the director of the Indian Affairs Branch of the Canadian government to the Deputy Minister of the Department of Mines and Resources in 1957. That was written after the passing of the Nuremburg Code in 1947 and after the nutrition experiments in residential schools reviewed in Mosby’s article cited above; one passage from the letter reads:

The scientists I have interviewed appear to be… interested in psychological and sociological studies with the object of securing information relating to the temperament of the Indian, his innate inertia, his nomadic instincts, lack of frugality, etc. It is perhaps well that we should have a thorough understanding of these before we undertake a program aimed at the legitimate exploitation of the resources to which the Indian claims ownership. But even at this stage, research work in forestry, fish culture, educational effort and the dietary habits of the Indian, and his available food supply, might very profitably be undertaken (Hoey n. pag.). 

This excerpt intimates the ways in which ‘favourable analytic opportunities’ for the study of Indigenous nutrition have long been anchored within a broader settler colonial framework whose raison d’être has been the success of the colonial project. This was the case in the 1940s, when the nutrition experiments discussed by Ian Mosby were taking place; it was also the case in the 1950s, as this letter testifies, and even in the 1960s when Neel’s thrifty gene hypothesis challenged geneticists to seek out remote Indigenous populations where studies could be ‘very profitably undertaken’. Finally, this state of relations between colonial power and scientific knowledges about Indigenous food consumption persisted in Canada in the 1990s and arguably through to the present day.

When we recall that Health Canada, the Canadian Pediatric Society, and Canadian Diabetes association continue to use the idea of the thrifty gene to inform official documents such as clinical guidelines, statements of advocacy, and other literature, we face the grim reality that healthcare for Indigenous peoples in Canada has done more to erase colonial violence than meaningfully address it. Even worse, in failing to come to terms with the root cause of type-2 diabetes in First Nations communities, the Canadian medical establishment and ‘diabetes enterprise’ obscures the truth about the ancestors of Indigenous peoples and misplaces the responsibility for the structural violence of settler colonialism on them.

[1] For my purposes, ‘Indianness’ is the imaginary essence of Indigeneity invented by European observers; the ‘Indian’ is, accordingly, the symbolic object of these fantasies. In this paper, neither ‘Indianness’ nor ‘Indian’ corresponds to truths about Indigenous peoples; rather, they are cultural forms that reflect the values, assumptions, and anxieties of Europeans and Canadians.

[2] Napoleon Chagnon, his anthropological conduct with the Yanamamo people, and his complicity in the Brazilian government’s violent military expulsion of numerous Amazonian tribes is considered by many to be the largest single scandal in the history of american or western anthropology; see Patrick Tierney, Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (New York: W.W. Norton and Company Publishing, 2000).

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