Episode 39: Wayfinding through the human genome

Where ancient Polynesians studied the stars to navigate the vast Pacific Ocean, Hawaii’s first Native genomic scientist is analyzing genetic data to rewrite the narratives of Indigenous communities and help change their future.

Through his genomic analyses, Keolu Fox hopes to find clues that lead to new medicines, better health care, and even land reclamation.
Photo by Rebecca Hale

National Geographic Explorer Keolu Fox grew up hearing stories about his ancestors, Polynesian navigators, and the men who in the late 1970s led the first Hōkūleʻa voyage to Tahiti. As the first Native Hawaiian with a Ph.D. in genomic sciences, Fox tells us how genetic data can help reveal powerful narratives about the history of Indigenous people and their achievements, and empower communities to use data to improve public health and preserve their culture.

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KEOLU FOX (GENOME SCIENTIST): My name is Keolu Fox, and I’m an Indigenous futurist and genome scientist of all kinds of varieties—humans, bacteria, you name it.

PETER GWIN (HOST): Keolu Fox is a National Geographic Explorer. He’s also the first Native Hawaiian to get a Ph.D. in genome science. 

This idea of Indigenous futurism—where did that come from?  

FOX: The first time I arrived at the idea was at the University of Hawaii in Mānoa because there was a sign on the wall—somebody drew a poster—and it said, “Hawaiian Futurism.” And then I was like, what is that? And it got me really thinking about that deeply. 

And I’m a technologist. I love developing things. I like thinking about what that looks like when we are in control and we are using this. What does that future look like? How does it empower our communities? That’s Indigenous futurism. 

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week we’re going on a wayfinding journey with Keolu Fox. We’ll start with the stories he heard growing up in Hawaii about his ancestors and the knowledge they used to find islands throughout the Pacific, and then learn how he’s working with Polynesian communities to not only understand how their genomes have been shaped by history but also to use that information to make them more resilient in the future. 

But first, adventure is never far away with a free one-month trial to National Geographic Digital. For starters, there’s full access to our stories online with new ones published every day; plus, every Nat Geo issue ever published is in our digital archives! 

There’s a whole lot more for subscribers, and you can check it all out—for free—at natgeo.com/exploremore.

GWIN: Can you tell me a little bit about your family history? What was it like growing up in Hawaii?

FOX: Yeah, you know, my family history—my mom’s family is all from the island of Hawaiʻi, so Moku o Keawe for those from Hawaii. And we’re from an ahupuaʻa, or district, called Kohala. We now live in the Hilo area north of there, kind of nearest the area called Hāmākua. And a lot of people on the Big Island are Hawaiian and Portuguese, but Portuguese from Madeira. So you get a really unique mix of Hawaiian cowboys over there, lots of land management, lots of ranching communities, big-time agriculture. 

GWIN: OK, so as a kid, though, what’s it look like through the eyes of a kid growing up there? 

FOX: Oh, it’s an absolutely beautiful place to be, you know? I mean, I think, like, I even see that with all the keiki, the youth, now. I mean, they’re really enjoying themselves. 

Yeah, it depends, a lot of people spend time in the ocean. I think that’s an essential part of people’s lifestyles. So fishing—big-time for me, that’s something I really enjoy. All types of fishing. Diving—not necessarily with a tank and oxygen, but diving and hunting game. Those are really, really important pieces of ways that people are connected to the reefs and like, the region we live in is really beautiful. It’s got a lot of lava reefs that kind of meet the jungle, and you get these really beautiful colors, some alkaline pools, so many waterfalls. Oh man, beautiful. I mean, little kids love jumping off of things, right? Like, you know, cliff diving. 

GWIN: So can you have that kind of adventure as a kid, like you go out the back door and you just disappear into this wilderness you’re describing? 

FOX: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s how—and a lot of the places we live on the Big Island are way more raw than Oahu or L.A. So there’s—there’s just more opportunity to do that. It’s more untouched, more pristine, or even at night, you know, the way you see the stars is unreal, you know? I mean, that’s why everybody’s trying to build telescopes on Mauna Kea, right? You just get these beautiful visuals. You can literally see the Milky Way edge on. I remember being little and learning about that, about relativity and knowing that that’s the angle at which we’re looking at our own galaxy. 

GWIN: So you mentioned the stars, Keolu, and that is such a crucial piece of the Hawaii story and knowledge, and I think Oceania in general. Did you have somebody teach you how to look at the stars and orient yourself with them? 

FOX: You know, our people are obsessed. This is one of the pieces of technology that we use to find the most remote places in the world. So, you know, you figure you have your understanding of the celestial sphere as wayfinding people, as navigating people, throughout the Pacific. Stars are an essential part of that portfolio of things, but it’s not like you’re just using stars, right? You’re using that at night, clearly. But you have other things, like where does the sun rise and set? What types of land-finding birds are here? Do you see Manu-o-Kū, fairy terns, things like this, that nest at night? You can follow them back. Does it have a fish in its mouth? Because if it does, that means it’s going back to land. 

GWIN: How did you learn the stories of how Hawaii and the other islands were pollinated, in terms of, like, the wayfinders? Like what are the stories that people were told? How did you learn about that part of the history? 

FOX: So depending on which kind of Polynesian community you’re interacting with, they’re going to talk to you about the individual wayfinder or navigator that brought a canoe to that area. So a lot of people will talk about “This person is our king, our chief for our region,” and it’s always in context of individual boats over time and that sort of thing. So it’s kind of interesting because the number of boats and the number of people per boat—and I mean, imagine you’re the crazy person that rolls up to somewhere like Hawaii or Tahiti for the first time. 

GWIN: Yeah.

FOX: It’s untouched. There’s nothing there. That’s wild. So I always thought about that as a kid. I was like, that is so crazy that somebody did that. Some crazy–I’m not going to cuss, but—MF-er left Taiwan and just started this chain reaction of island-hopping, going back and forth. And it’s not simple. It’s not like one, you know, the way I envision it, it’s not like some unidirectional, bold black arrow, which is what’s presented in history books or in Nature and Science and all these major scientific journals. It’s way more dynamic and complex. 

GWIN: Well, as a kid, do you remember hearing about the Hōkūleʻa?

FOX: I heard about it. Yeah, I do remember hearing about it.

GWIN: And what’d you think of it? Let’s describe what that is for people who don’t know: What is the Hōkūleʻa?

FOX: It’s a boat. I think [laughs]—it’s a double-hulled voyaging canoe, and I think it’s about 62 feet. And in the 1940s, there were all of these, like, popular ideas around how people got to Polynesia. Our ancestors, our kūpuna. (Shout-out to the kūpuna.) And they ultimately didn’t believe that we came the correct direction, which we now know to be true, which is out of Asia, into Taiwan, into the Bismarck Archipelago, and then radiating out into these like larger transoceanic, you know, like long legs into the Pacific, into places like Rapa Nui and Tahiti and Hawaii and that. 

GWIN: So they just thought there’s no way that people can make such long journeys. That was the conventional thinking? 

FOX: Right, but moreover, it was rooted in some deep, dark, racist stuff. And one of the things was that we must have floated over helplessly on rafts from South America, right? It wasn’t thought that, and now we know that actually we made it all the way to South America first. That’s us. We made it to Antarctica first, well before Shackleton or any individual of western European ancestry. 

But still, the popular message was one that discredited our voyaging history and our accomplishments, which was truly outstanding. But some of the other things that happened on the back end kind of after that—so think about it, from the forties to the sixties to the seventies—it’s like our culture was on life support. You know, no one’s allowed to speak Hawaiian. Only like certain types of hula were cool. Like, there were a lot of real, awful, racist policies that were installed in Hawaii after the illegal overthrow. Now, you compound on top of that that you have something called a virgin soil epidemic. So you get exposure to things like leprosy—largest leper colony in the history of the United States of America was in Molokaʻi—and syphilis and smallpox. And so you have this, like, decrease and collapse of our whole population. Like, some people say, 80 to 90 percent of Hawaiian people just died just like that, boom, like a handful of generations—phut

And what happens in those situations and with the nastiest, darkest part of colonialism is in this population-collapse scenario—and this is where I think Jared Diamond’s wrong, because it’s not guns, germs, and steel; it’s germs, germs, and germs—is that, is that you lose knowledge systems, so you lose your knowledge of understanding and thinking about wayfinding. That almost goes extinct: the language, and we had other things that I think were interesting at the time. 

So that’s like the historical context for why Hōkūleʻa was so important. So then you get to the 1970s, and these guys are saying, no, we know that we come from Tahiti and the Marquesas and these other places first, and we’re going to prove it to you. And the way we’re going to prove it to you is we’re going to build this boat, Hōkūleʻa, and we’re going to sail it from Hawaii to Tahiti. And I learned as a child about the triumph of that. And there’s these famous photos of them rolling up in Papeʻete, and it’s nuts, you know. So when you see that, I think there’s a video of it, and I think National Geographic was there for that moment. 

(Sound of people in Papeʻete Harbor cheering for the arrival of Hōkūleʻa

GWIN: What you’re hearing is the 1977 National Geographic TV special, “The Voyage of the Hōkūleʻa.

NARRATOR: (Archival audio) In sober chagrin, the crew greets Tahiti’s welcoming throng of 15,000. Still remembering a flurry of blows on Hōkūleʻa’s deck, they hear the cheers of the greatest Polynesian gathering since the arrival of Captain Cook. 

FOX: And that’s really special that they captured it. And I think that that moment in history is very much considered the first Hawaiian renaissance. 

FOX: So I was a terrible student in high school. I was way more focused on sports. But I ended up at the University of Maryland, which is a great school. And I ended up in this primate and evolutionary genetics class. And I got assigned this paper, and it was odd, but this paper was all about how a certain percentage of people in western Europe or northern Europe were immune to HIV-1. And it was about their history with smallpox, the bubonic plague, or something like this, and how that shaped the genomes of contemporary people. And that for me was like the moment it like [snaps] clicked.

I was like, this is a powerful tool. We can look at history a totally different way. And in Hawaii we have this saying, “I ka wā ma mua, ka wā ma hope,” and that means that we’re walking backwards into the future. And it means that, what genomics means and the way we analyze that data, it’s a reflection of our past. It’s a reflection of our relationship with geography, with disease, and it is a mirror of our diaspora. 

GWIN: OK. When I was looking at this and your background, I mean, in some ways I thought there’s this connection or this metaphor of the genome as almost like this vast ocean. 

FOX: Definitely. 

GWIN: And I mean, do you ever think of it like you’re almost like on your own, kind of like a wayfinding journey through the genome, through the genome ocean? 

FOX: Yeah, big time. And like quite literally. When we, I think—last year we published this paper in Nature, and it was reconstructing the pathways and timing of our migratory history and diaspora in Polynesia for the first time. And in that paper we got to use all of the actual names of the islands and the places and the people. So not Easter Island–Rapa Nui, you know. But it just quite literally made me realize that we are a reflection of the ocean. Our island-hopping, if you will, has shaped our genomes in very unique ways.

GWIN: So can you give me the layman’s version of your project? Like, explain how you went about—what is it you’re trying to do and how did you do it? Like for the person who doesn’t understand, necessarily, genetics. 

FOX: This takes time, right?—and especially if you want to do things right, if you want to adhere to a cultural protocol and build consensus with communities. And again, we’re talking about the largest ocean in the world. So it’s, for example, the Marquesas, I think Nuku Hiva, which is one of the islands there, for every one person that visits Nuku Hiva, I think nine people visit Antarctica. That’s how remote these places are. So we’re going there, we’re working with community members. Some of our collaborators have data that they’ve collected, so we’re kind of like harmonizing our efforts. 

GWIN: So you’re collecting genetic data from the people who are living—

FOX: From people, but we’re not doing it like–

GWIN: Is it like cheek swabs? 

FOX: Yeah, cheek swabs work. I mean, again, there are different levels and ways to look at the genome. So when 23andMe, for example—

GWIN: Yeah, I think that’s what people know—is stuff like that. 

FOX: Right. And that is a small fraction of the variation that exists in human genomes. You know, if there’s six billion units, they’re probably looking at a half a million of them or maybe five million of them or whatever. But the point is, it’s not like a complete representation, and neither was the project that we did. We used a limited amount of information, but we imputed or inferred a lot of other pieces of the genome and looked at relationships between different communities of people within Polynesia. 

So in Tahiti, they have a rich history of colonialism and imperialism and interaction with the French. In Hawaii, we’ve just had so many different communities of people, but it’s going to vary region by region. So we’re able to kind of piece those things together. 

GWIN: So as part of this project, you must have met some really interesting people. Like who were some of the people that stand out that you met spread all over this massive area? 

FOX: So many incredible people. I mean, the coolest part partially was getting to work within our own community in Hawaii, and that’s ongoing. 

We started a gout study. Are you guys familiar with gout? Gout’s gnarly. If you know your uncle who has a kidney stone, for example, that’s because of uric acid buildup and having problems metabolizing uric acid. And this is quite common amongst men, but it’s the most common in Tahiti and French Polynesia. Like, it’s up there. So we know, I mean, some estimates are like 30 percent of men, which is crazy. So we worked with the local government and local representatives and an incredible staff of clinicians, nurses, community members. And we recruited almost 1,200 people into this new study. I think the difference is we were actually asking the community what are the health ailments and questions that you have? What have you prioritized? Because I think, like one thing that happens with colonial entry points for genetic science, which National Geographic has a history of being complicit in, I think now we have a different vantage point-– 

GWIN: What does that mean? Like entrance points, colonial entrance points? 

FOX: It’s like I’m not telling you what the potential use and misuse of genetic information is. I’m just collecting it. I’m fleecing you. I’m hustling you for your genome. I’m not even giving you an Amazon gift card for something that is extremely valuable. And that’s not the way we do things. I mean, we recognize data as a resource. It’s not only a resource; it’s the resource. It is the number one most valuable commodity on planet Earth. So, like, the way we do things is quite different now, but the way I think a lot of these cohort studies and population genetics started was this colonial extractive means. And we’re happy to disrupt the status quo in that sense. 

GWIN: So do you guys compensate people, then? 

FOX: Oh, yeah. 

GWIN: How does that work?

FOX: We started a whole company, Variant Bio, and it’s been wildly successful. And one of the things that we do is we—the whole company is rooted in something called benefit sharing. So the way it works is, let’s say we design a large cohort study in a community of people that’s adapted to high elevation, OK?

GWIN: So Himalayas.

FOX: The Himalayas or the Andes or something. And we find some genetic mutation in that community only exclusive to them, private to them, that allows them to subsist at high elevation, thrive at high elevation, whereas everybody else would just be smoked. 

And that leads to us understanding a new mechanism for, I don’t know, oxygen metabolism, which allows us to invent the next Viagra, which is a huge financial market. I’m intentionally going in that direction. 

GWIN: I was going to say, man, from mountain climbing to Viagra.

FOX: Yeah, no. I’m just trying to throw it out there about like how serendipitous and circuitous the development of drugs… 

GWIN: I understand, right. Gotcha. 

FOX: OK, so that hits the market. We have a whole new lane for intellectual property, but rather than just taking 100 percent of that—Regeneron, we’re looking at you—we actually give back percentages of the revenue. Now, not the profit—the revenue. So that’s really important. So you build community partnerships and relationships, and you allow that money to cycle back through. So it’s like a circular economic mechanism. And the coolest part is that like—I mean, our large vision for this, my vision for this is, that is going to be enough financial capital and support to create a land trust to buy back land from the community of people that stole it from you in the first place. So that’s beautiful because that’s the exact same land that shaped your genome in the first place. So that’s the larger vision, and I think that’s where the Indigenous futurism comes into it. 

GWIN: I know that there is a lot of resistance to genetic studies, especially as they went on and somewhat badly as you talk about. So like when you come to a new community and you present your idea and you say, hey, we’re going to do it differently, what’s the reaction? How do people respond to that?

FOX: I think it’s quite different because of my positionality. It’s not to say that Hawaiian scientists can’t mess up, because we can. But there’s a higher level of cultural sustainability. It’s like when people from our communities make an error at that level, at that high of a level, that means that we can’t go home for Christmas because we’re part of that community. That’s a different relationship. 

GWIN: I know anecdotally that one of the big challenges for these kinds of studies in some Indigenous communities is that it potentially challenges their origin stories. 

FOX: Yes. 

GWIN: How do you reconcile that thing? Because on one hand, science is like, these are great clues that are going to tell us big pieces of the mystery. And on the other hand, you’re like, well, this is sort of our organizing principle as a community. And you straddle both those worlds, right? So how do you reconcile that? 

FOX: That is a really good question. But I think sometimes investigators need to look in the mirror and say, is this my question to ask? And that’s not something that a lot of my colleagues have paused and done. Especially in the ancient genomics space. If you know what the provenance is of ancient remains that are acquired at X—Peabody Museum, Harvard University, we’re looking at you—then why are you giving investigators access to something that was acquired via violent means? That’s not your question to ask, unless community members organize themselves and build consensus in a fair and honest way. And that becomes the question that they want to ask. And even in that case, they should be provided the latitude to train people from within their community to get these Ph.D.’s, degrees, skills, and training again to move those projects forward. 

GWIN: I don’t know. I struggle with this because I definitely feel like, yeah, somebody’s coming in and telling me where I come from—I’m not psyched about that. Nobody is, right? Challenging the stories that you have heard through your community forever, right? But the scientific part of me says that there shouldn’t be boundaries either. Like, yeah, the pieces of the puzzle should sort of be available so we can all kind of investigate them. I mean, it’s rough. I know it’s not an easy conversation, but I struggle with this. 

FOX: Yeah.

GWIN: So I’m curious to hear how you reconcile it. 

FOX: I also struggle with that because we do want to answer and approach these—I can’t tell you how many scientific questions, grants, papers, and things that we’ve had to shelve for those reasons. And I think ultimately there are ways to do culturally sustainable research. There are ways to move projects forward. There’s also this weird sort of anxiety for discovery that exists. Sometimes, again, you should wait for the right opportunity to build a project. So part of it is timing, right? 

There’s a scholar from Hawaii named Maile Arvin, and she talks about something called regenerative refusal. It’s like if there’s only three doors that are open and available for me to take my research program through, and I tell a community, you have to go through door one, two, or three, they’re going to mull over it, and they’re going to choose. But regenerative refusal is to say, I’m not going in any of those doors, and I’m waiting till door 10 arrives in a decade when I have my own genome center, when I have my own servers, I have my own satellite, when I have a vertical integration of technologies where I’m in complete control, and then we can discuss what type of experiments we want to do. But right now, we don’t have technological independence. You have a central centralization and concentration of these tools that exist in major academic universities that aren’t serving our communities’ priorities. They’re serving their priorities, and they store the data, which again is the number one resource on planet Earth. So given that, we built our own stuff, and you can’t play with our toys now, and that’s why we built the Native BioData Consortium. So we built the first independent genome center on a reservation in U.S. history, in Cheyenne River.

GWIN: All right, so last question. Well, I don’t know, my last question. I want to know what your questions are. What’s your dream project? 

FOX: Oh, man. 

GWIN: Do you have, like, a dream project? Like, if you had the resources and you had the wherewithal, is there some sort of big moon shot genetic project that you would, I don’t know. Maybe you’re working on it already.

FOX: I’m really in love with point-of-care research, so that means that we’re doing everything on-site, mobile genome sequencer, mobile PCR, access to the cloud, solar power source—the genome center in your backpack. That’s something I want to deliver and create with one of these Polaris grants for National Geographic. 

GWIN: What would a genome center in your backpack do? If that worked, what would that do for me? 

FOX: It would really help us create a lot of data. So you can imagine like point-of-care stuff. Imagine if there’s a genome filter sort of, on a Delta flight, and you’re capturing the presence of bacteria and viruses before the plane even touches down, or you’re in the most remote places in the world analyzing the presence of a certain bacteria, and you’re figuring out which antibiotic you need to give someone in that instance or that case, or you’re identifying a harmful fungal bloom or algae bloom that’s the result of temperature, water change, pH change. So it’s just creating data on the fly. It’s technology on the go. That’s the direction we need to take things, is mobile—access points and generating data. And I think that’s going to be really important for any type of conservation genetics. Sampling a bunch of ideas in that space—I don’t want to give people too many ideas because then they’ll steal ’em.

GWIN: [laughs]

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

As you just heard, Keolu is incredibly passionate about changing the field of genome science to be more inclusive and collaborative with Indigenous communities. To hear more of that, you can watch his Ted Talk on why genetic research needs to be more diverse. 

You can also read his essay in Scientific American on what genomic research could potentially reveal about the history and accomplishments of Indigenous people—such as the genomes of Polynesian navigators who discovered islands in the Pacific Ocean. 

And if you want to learn more about Polynesian wayfinding, read our piece on how people are trying to keep it alive by sailing around the world on traditional voyaging canoes. And you can also get to know the Hōkūleʻa’s first female captain, National Geographic Explorer Lehua Kamalu. 

That’s all in your show notes, right there in your podcast app. 


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by senior editor Eli Chen.

Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss. 

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode. 

Our photo editor is Julie Hau. 

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music. 

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. 

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Keolu Fox.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling. 

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief. 

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more?

Less than one percent of genome studies include Indigenous people. Watch Keolu Fox’s Ted Talk on why genetic research needs to be more diverse

Also, check out his essay in Scientific American on what genomic research could potentially reveal about the history and accomplishments of Indigenous people. 

Also explore: 

If you are working on an idea that promotes Indigenous futurism and environmental health, Keolu is collaborating with Footprint Coalition Science Engine to encourage people to apply for grants to help execute their projects. 

For subscribers: 

You can read our magazine profile on Keolu and how he hopes to find clues that lead to new medicines, better health care, and even land reclamation.

Read about how the Polynesian Voyaging Society is trying to keep the art of Polynesian wayfinding alive by sailing around the world on traditional voyaging canoes—and you can also get to know the Hōkūleʻa’s first female captain, National Geographic Explorer Lehua Kamalu.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe today.