Keolu Fox: Decoding the past to build a better future

National Geographic Explorer Keolu Fox is using genetic research to help understand Indigenous history, rectify injustices, and pave new ways forward in medicine and beyond.

Growing up, National Geographic Explorer Keolu Fox heard the stories of his intrepid ancestors as told by generations before. He comes from a line of voyagers who traversed oceans thousands of years ago aboard canoes fueled only by manpower and wind. 

They eventually founded settlements on islands across the Pacific, including in Fox’s native Hawaii, and their characteristics as wayfinders live on not only as part of Indigenous oral history—the traits are inscribed in their DNA.

But modern-day Indigenous genomes tell a more complex story, Fox explains. The earliest settlers’ history is as much about crossing oceanic highways as it is about the troubles of resettlement and colonialism. By decoding these truths, Fox, a geneticist and Indigenous rights activist, is working to ensure Native communities are spearheading the future. 

“Our genomes can be used to preserve our culture, our language—everything that helps us proliferate and strengthen our heritage moving forward,” Fox says.

This includes ensuring Native communities are healthy. In 2017, with support from the National Geographic Society, Fox conducted research on the high number of recorded leprosy cases in populations across Oceania to understand the origins of the disease in the region, and the possibility of population-specific treatment options. The fieldwork grew into a broader investigation. 

“The bigger question we arrived at since that project is ‘how has the introduction of diseases shaped the genomes of modern Indigenous people, and how does that change how we might attenuate things like COVID-susceptibility and other major infectious diseases?’” He remembers.

To look at genomic history is to help protect the future. “We’re looking back in time to find a way to develop drugs now,” Fox says, citing an example of scientists exploring how high-altitude Indigenous communities, from the Andes to the Himalayas, process oxygen differently and how this genetic trait could help develop the next generation of cardiovascular treatments.

These discoveries could lead to the next frontier of medicine for the world at large, but the methodology used for studying Native populations must be ethical. If scientists want to use Indigenous genetic material for research, Fox implores them to do so while keeping Indigenous sovereignty at the helm of their practice.

Fox is an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, where he is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Futures Institute, which aims to channel Indigenous knowledge to imagine a future grounded in decolonization and inclusivity.

He explains that the entity returns four percent of its revenue to the Native communities contributing to its research. “With every project, we’re thinking about enabling communities. The revenue share allows Indigenous civilians to buy back their own land. And the beauty of this is that’s the very same land that shaped their genome in the first place.”

Today, 95 percent of genome studies are done on people of European descent, and less than one percent feature Indigenous people, Fox cites. 

“This disparity exists for two reasons: One, a failure to engage Native peoples in biomedical research, and a history of exploitation,” he explains. “As a Hawaiian Indigenous scientist, I still believe we can have some measurable benefits from engaging Indigenous people in genome science.” 

These benefits include using data to design population-specific treatments, assisting in piecing together the history of Native land to offer evidence in cases of disputed territories, and rectifying histories of marginalization.

For Fox, expanding Indigenous involvement began with his own career path, which led him to become the first Hawaiian to earn a Ph.D. in genomic sciences. A Native Hawaiian studying Native Hawaiians, he was told early on, “was career suicide.” 

“And we have gone completely in that direction, and now, we’re revolutionizing this field,” Fox cheers. 

His conviction has been fruitful. He’s helped build the first independent Indigenous Genomics Institute, run by and for Indigenous people. He’s also experimenting with blockchain technology and how it could help promote Native innovation and launched a grants program in partnership with Robert Downey, promote climate resilience and Indigenous futurism—a future envisioned by Indigenous people.

“We’ve been working very hard to build global infrastructure on a number of things,” he says. From reimagining ecosystems to economics, Fox encourages people to reinvent and reconstruct the world, all while keeping cultural sustainability and ethics at the center. 

“I’m so stoked on challenging our communities to imagine what it would be like if we, Indigenous people, were to build the world moving forward,” he says. 

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.