Solution Overview

Solution Name:

Safeguarding Indigenous Genomics

One-line solution summary:

We are partnering with local museum experts to design digital tools to safeguard against predatory access to ancient Indigenous remains.

Pitch your solution.

More ancient genomes have been sequenced in 2019 than in the entirety of history. Sequencing ancient genomes requires the partial destruction of Indigenous remains. Indigenous remains are often acquired through colonial means and stored in museums without adequate inventory. Moreover, the internet has made it easier than ever to communicate and exchange cash for human remains on a global scale. Look no further than Christies, Ebay, Etsy, and Instagram for thriving digital ecosystems that are involved in cash exchanges for human remains. Big data has ushered in emerging technologies that simultaneously provide new challenges for the exchange of human remains as well as potential solutions to safeguard their access, exchange, and processing. We are developing digital tools to safeguard against predatory access to ancient Indigenous remains rooted in Indigenous data sovereignty. These tools will enable Indigenous communities to repatriate their ancestors, strengthen our identity today, and imagine a healthier future.

What specific problem are you solving?

Raw data, including digital sequence information (DSI) derived from human genomes, has in recent years emerged as a top global commodity. This shift is so new that experts are still evaluating what such information is worth in a global market. As “investigators” begin to aggregate and harmonize large scale ancient genomics datasets in an effort to compare them to both ancient and modern human populations, questions around data access, privacy, and control arise. From the point of view of Indigenous communities, whose ancestors are being mined for DSI and traded around the world like baseball cards, several additional questions arise: Who does this benefit? How did our ancestors end up in ice layered freezers and dust filled steel drawers in the first place? Whose scientific questions are we prioritizing? And most importantly, who is in control of our history and access to resources as Indigenous peoples? As careers are made, empires and academic legacies are built, and future generations of scientists are trained to prioritize a culture of science built of an anxiety of discovery we need to reflect on the consequences of the current unsustainable trajectory of human ancient DNA research that is making its way to Indigenous communities.

What is your solution?

We would like to use computer vision and automated annotation of photographs from Instagram, to uncover networks of buyers / sellers of human remains. Using cloud computing and machine learning services, we will annotate and then visualize the co-occurrence of tags as a series of networks, uncovering elaborate patterns of digital exchange of human remains including skulls, bones, hair and teeth-- all of which contain DNA. This artificial intelligence driven digital surveillance approach may be useful for future large-scale investigations that can be used to uncover illegal networks of exchange, including the trade of human remains for cash beyond a single social media platform (e.g. Instagram).

We would also like to create a digital human remains auditing list using a ledger system (i.e. blockchain) to create transparency and accountability around the processing of ancient remains in museum collections. Imagine a system where collections of ancient remains are weighed by the gram and accounted for in list formats representing an entire museum collection. These lists would be accompanied with time cross-section data, initial weight, weight after partial destruction and DNA extraction, and before and after CT scans of human remains—this data would all be publicly available via a ledger system.

Strong preference will be given to Native-led solutions that directly benefit and are located within the Indigenous communities. Which community(s) does your solution benefit?

Like many Americans I am the child of multiple waves of remarkable immigration. My mother’s family hails from Kohala, an Ahupua’a on the Big Island of Hawai’i where our Kūpuna (ancestors) arrived via canoe from the Marquesas Islands ~1,000 years ago. As generations passed our Kūpuna mixed with immigrants from Madeira to form what is now called Paniolo (Hawaiian Cowboy) culture. My father’s family hails from Safed, Israel—an eccentric Jewish-refugee artist colony established in aftermath WWII. Before founding the artist colony in Safed my grandparents fell in love collaborating on what they told me were, “arts-and-crafts” projects in a concentration camp in Mechelen, Belgium. I let the complexity of my genome and my families experience(s) with both colonialism and genocide guide my everyday practice as an Indigenous futurist, genome scientist, and advocate for community driven research.

Our team is composed of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) legal, historical, design, archeological and genomics experts from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum located in Honolulu, HI. The Bishop Museum is the Piko or epicenter of Hawaiian history and we are excited to innovate at a local Native Hawaiian serving historical institution. Our non-Native Hawaiian collaborators have expertise in designing and applying emerging digital technologies like computer vision AI and its ethical implications, blockchain, and cloud computation. 

We are excited to proof of concept / develop novel tools to safeguard against predatory access to ancient Indigenous remains. We are also excited to continue to develop and utilize a new exhibit at the Bishop Museum to address, build consensus on, and collect information on emerging issues around genomics, paleogenetics, AI, surveillance technology, and the future of decolonial science. The exhibit we are building, "(Re)Generations: Challenging Scientific racism in Hawaiʻi," will bring to light the racist motivations at the origins of colonial race based science in Hawaii (e.g. phrenology). 

It will also celebrate the new life given to genomics science through descendant communities doing genealogical research, revisiting and adding their own connections & stories. By extension, this exhibit will challenge the notion that race/ethnicity/identity can be scientifically measured or determined and will explore how anthropology/science continues to be haunted by this legacy.

As members of the Kanaka Maoli community and through the development of "(Re)Generations" and a partnership with Kamehameha Schools, we will have the privilege of performing ethnological interviews with multiple generations of Kanaka Maoli community members to discuss the importance of the develop of the digital technologies discussed above and the potential for novel community based participatory driven technologies to protect our ancestors. 

We also look forward to sharing both our successes and failures with the larger Indigenous genomics community through the Summer Institute for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING) network. The SING workshop is a one-week workshop aimed at discussing the uses, misuses and limitations of genomics as a tool for Indigenous peoples' communities. The workshop also assists in training Indigenous peoples in the concepts and methods currently used in genomics.

While Indigenous communities from across the globe will benefit form the digital tools we hope to develop we know that issues around data sovereignty, including DSI, are scalable for other vulnerable under represented minority populations. We hope the the tools and solutions developed though this project benefit the least, the last, the looked over, and the left out. 

Which dimension of the Fellowship does your solution most closely address?


Explain how the problem, your solution, and your solution’s target population relate to the Fellowship and your selected dimension.

I ka  ma mua, ka  ma hope”-- Walking Backwards into the Future.

It's critical for Indigenous communities to define the questions we want to ask about our history, because by stewarding / protecting the DSI that represents our ancestors, we have the potential to not only repatriate our past-- but we rewrite it. Self governance in Indigenous genomics has the potential to lead to a heather Indigenous economic ecosystem, education opportunities for all age levels, cultural revitalization, healthy and sustainable food ways, and a path towards predictive, preventative, and personalized medical treatments for Indigenous communities. 

In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

Honolulu, HI, USA

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model rolled out in one or, ideally, several communities, which is poised for further growth

Who is the primary delegate for your solution?

Keolu Fox, PhD

Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your primary delegate.

Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian)

Is your primary delegate a member of the community in which your project is based?


More About Your Solution

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new application of an existing technology

Describe what makes your solution innovative.

The digital solutions we are proposing disrupt the status quo in paleogenomics. Currently, a patchwork of regulations and institutions determines whether destructive research on ancient human remains can proceed. In some jurisdictions, Indigenous communities are formally involved in decision-making for research that involves the bones of their ancestors. In others, the decision could rest in the hands of a single curator.

But on its current trajectory, genomic research on ancient-human populations, or on close extinct relatives, could hit a ceiling within decades because of the scarcity of ancient remains. It is therefore urgent that, rather than sequencing an ancient genome in the hope that something interesting will emerge, researchers state up front what question they are seeking to answer — and that people with diverse perspectives evaluate their goals. 

Just as timber and minerals are meticulously tracked at truck weighing stations and other venues to discourage the illegal acquisition of resources, curators, researchers and others must openly document the passage of ancient remains from one institution to another — and everything that happens to those remains along the way. With such a record, all ancient remains would be audited and people would know which specimens were ground into dust, but did not generate useful data, and which efforts generated data but did not result in a publication.

Our grass-roots initiative at the Bernice Museum, could help to shift practice. Importantly, such a decentralized approach would help to ensure that knowledge about ancient samples is not limited to a few groups.

Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

We have two core technologies that we hope to incorporate. 

1.) An artificial intelligence (AI) driven digital surveillance approach  for large-scale investigations that can be used to uncover illegal networks of exchange, including the trade of human remains for cash beyond a single social media platform (e.g. Instagram).Our collaborators Dr. Damien Huffer and Dr. Shawn Graham co-founders of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online have already applied this technology and identified large networks of the illicit trade of Indigenous remains on instagram.

2.) The creation and utilization of a digital human remains auditing list including a ledger system to create transparency and accountability around the processing of ancient remains in museum collections. Ledger or blockchain systems have already been used to create accountability as a mechanism for data protection in the field of medical record sharing. Blockchain auditing systems have also been used to improve immigration reform, supply chain management and in refugee camp settings to ensure equal access to provisions. The paleogenomic accountability ledger or auditing system could have varying levels of access, transparency, and privacy all dependent on community consensus, involving a diverse board of stakeholders who represent the interests of investigating our deep past as a species. It is important to note that this ledger system could be applied to other collections of remains that are not of human origin—and it might even require being proof of concept tested in a non-human collection before moving forward with human remains.

Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Ancestral Technology & Practices
  • Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning
  • Big Data
  • Biotechnology / Bioengineering
  • Blockchain
  • Crowdsourced Service / Social Networks

What is your theory of change?

My theory of change is based on my connection to my ancestors, our land, and my immediate genealogy; my ohana (family). I am inspired by emerging efforts to decolonize science by simultaneously imagining a future where Indigenous peoples are thriving -- and so is the land we have bought back from our colonizers.  

I am dreaming Indigenous futures; and while the digital technologies detailed in this proposal are a step in the right direction; they are a very small part of the future I am imagining. I would like to create an Indigenous MIT. A space for Indigenous peoples from around the globe to share thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge and recombine it with cutting edge emerging technologies to provide solutions to the problems that we have prioritized. 

Currently, I am the co-founder and co-director of "The Indigenous Futures lab." The Indigenous Futures Lab at the University of California, San Diego is an interdisciplinary lab centering participatory science and design research advancing sustainable development goals using designs co-created by biotechnology and Indigenous guardianship. We partner with Indigenous communities across the globe to co-facilitate incubator programs to prototype novel applications of Indigenous sustainability practices for mitigating the social, ecological, and spiritual dimensions of climate change. 

The Kanaka ’Oiwi (Native Hawaiian) people have known for thousands of years that, Aina Ke Ola O Na Kanaka ’Oiwi or the health of the land reflects the health of the people. This belief transcends Indigenous communities globally. Recent advances in biotechnology confer unprecedented power in accessing and intervening in the unfolding climate crisis, but one that can cause further unanticipated harm without awareness for the complex sociocultural and ecological systems they are applied in. 

Indigenous value systems, on the other hand, offer wisdom for the intricate relationships that sustain human and environmental flourishing in places and cultures. By harnessing the land-based wisdom of Indigenous communities to guide the cutting-edge of scientific research, it is possible to model a new paradigm of awareness-based innovation that fosters regenerative approaches to climate change adaptation in the social, political and economic structures of today.

Select the key characteristics of your target population.

  • Women & Girls
  • Pregnant Women
  • LGBTQ+
  • Infants
  • Children & Adolescents
  • Elderly
  • Rural
  • Peri-Urban
  • Urban
  • Poor
  • Low-Income
  • Middle-Income
  • Refugees & Internally Displaced Persons
  • Minorities & Previously Excluded Populations
  • Persons with Disabilities
  • U.S. Veterans

Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 3. Good Health and Well-Being
  • 4. Quality Education
  • 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  • 9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  • 10. Reduced Inequalities
  • 13. Climate Action
  • 16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  • 17. Partnerships for the Goals

In which state(s) do you currently operate?

  • California
  • Hawaii

In which state(s) will you be operating within the next year?

  • California
  • Hawaii

How many people does your solution currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?

There is a myth that mutations identified in the human genome are either medically actionable or evolutionarily significant. The truth is they are both at the same time; a reflection of our diaspora and migratory history as a species.  For example, from Cook to Cortes, historically our contact with Europeans has resulted in a population collapse (~80% in Indigenous population size. This population bottleneck (i.e. genocide), mostly the result of naive-soil-epidemics (e.g. small-pox), has shaped the contemporary genetics of Indigenous peoples in meaningful ways that directly impact our susceptibility to disease. By integrating DSI from both modern and ancient Indigenous genomes we can observe transects in time and a reduction in human genetic variation in contemporary populations when compared to ancient populations (e.g. HLA diversity). 

This is the empirical observation of the impact of colonialism, and how it has shaped the genomes modern Indigenous populations. This not only has an impact on our understanding of both common complex diseases that plague our communities (i.e. obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease), but this time cross-section data has the potential to be used in the court of law to settle land and resource repatriation claims. 

Who controls that data matters not just for repatriating our deep-past but for achieving justice through science and charting a healthy trajectory where we can begin to design medical treatments for our communities in a drug development landscape where 90% of genome wide association studies and 95% of clinical trials exclusively feature individuals of western European ancestry. 

What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?

In 5-10 years I plan to be the director the worlds first Indigenous Futures Institute. 

The Indigenous Futures Institute will integrate biotechnology, design thinking, and Indigenous sustainability practices to activate and empower Indigenous leadership for the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Our model hereby contrasts with the” helicopter” approach of traditional social and scientific research drop “experts” into a community to extract information from ”subjects” or initiate environmental changes, and then depart without establishing any ongoing connection to the community. In countless instances this approach has led to the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and the misuse of their private information and ecological responsibilities. This legacy of unethical scientific practice has understandably fostered mistrust of outside experts among Indigenous communities.

The Indigenous Futures Lab will re-cast this relationship by creating a participatory science and design lab where Indigenous communities can affordably study, access, and harness biotechnology to improve public services and solve local challenges related to climate change adaptation. We collaborate with the, visiting scientists, multilateral organizations, national and local governments, nonprofits and entrepreneurial firms to advance efforts of decolonization and environmental justice through multi-stakeholder innovation, drawing upon ancient Indigenous science to prototype sustainable development goals identified and prioritized by local communities, revitalizing and preserving Indigenous sustainability practices, seeking community wisdom to prevent misuse and unintended consequences of technology in complex adaptive ecosystems, and emphasizing grassroots citizen science, education, and participatory research.

What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?

Our fight is against colonial science.

How do you plan to overcome these barriers?

By listening / learning about the best available technologies to recombine with indigenous knowledge and intentions. 

About Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?


How many years have you worked on your solution?

since 2010 -- but the digital tools have been a more recent focus (the last two years or so).

Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Please see section on, "Strong preference will be given to Native-led solutions that directly benefit and are located within the Indigenous communities. Which community(s) does your solution benefit? In what ways will your solution benefit this community? (Required)

Describe the target population whose lives you are working to directly and meaningfully improve. Who are they? What are you doing to understand their needs, and how are you engaging them as you develop the solution? How will the solution address their needs?"

What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?

1.) The Indigenous Futures Lab -- La Jolla, California. (Keolu, Wayne)

2.) University of Hawaii -- Manoa, Hawaii (Keolu, Cam, and Jillian)

2.) The Bishop museum -- Honolulu, Hawaii. (Leah, Ray, and Jillian)

3.) The MIT Media Lab -- Cambridge, Mass. (Andre)

4.) Damian and Shaun are two of seven co-founders of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (

Your Business Model & Partnerships

Why are you applying to Solve?

We are applying to SOLVE because we believe in Indigenous self governance and culturally sustainable scientific innovation. We would be honored to be chosen to participate in the SOLVE Indigenous innovation network. We believe in community based participatory research methods and grassroots innovation. If awarded a SOLVE Indigenous Communities Fellowship we would be thrilled to learn about all of the other projects funded by SOLVE and the potential to connect and share our network with the larger Indigenous Innovation community. We are thrilled by the prospect of potentially learning from and contributing to a growing community of Indigenous leaders and innovators. 

In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?

  • Solution technology
  • Product/service distribution
  • Talent recruitment
  • Legal or regulatory matters
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Marketing, media, and exposure
  • Other

Please explain in more detail here.

We would like to partner with software developers who are already applied man y of the AI and blockchain based technologies we hope to utilize in the development of digital technologies to safeguard against the sale of and access to ancient Indigenous remains both online and in museum spaces. We are open to learning as much as we can about both traditional and untraditional applications of such technologies. We are applying to SOLVE because we recognize we require advice and consultation to improve our very fundamental understanding of these emerging technologies -- none the less we are looking forward to learning and designing tools to protect our ancestors and strengthen our future as Indigenous communities. 

What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?

We would greatly appreciate the opportunity to officially partner with the MIT media lab to design / development our blockchain auditing system.  

Solution Team

  • Prof. Keolu Fox Assistant Professor, The Indigenous Futures Lab
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