ABOR settles lawsuit with Havasupai tribe over blood samples

Members of Arizona’s Havasupai Indian Tribe held a ceremony Thursday night to celebrate the return of approximately 200 blood samples from ASU laboratories.

The return is part of a settlement approved Tuesday to resolve a lawsuit between the tribe and the Arizona Board of Regents.

The blood samples, which were willingly collected in the early 1990s, were supposed to be used by ASU researchers to study diabetes and hopefully find a cure, Havasupai tribe member and lead plaintiff Carletta Tilousi said.

Havasupai tribe members allege the samples were then used for other unauthorized research that was against the Havasupai’s beliefs, including schizophrenia and inbreeding research.

“The Arizona State officials came onto the reservation and told us they could help find a solution to diabetes,” Tilousi said. “Since diabetes plagues our community, my people were willing to give blood for that research, but once they obtained the samples, they were used for other research as well — research that calls into question our creation and religious beliefs.”

Chief legal adviser to the Arizona Board of Regents Nancy Tribbensee said ABOR and ASU have agreed not to discuss the case, but “really look forward to the future” collaboration with the Havasupai tribe.

In addition to returning the samples, ASU and ABOR formally apologized and a lump sum of $700,000 will be distributed to the 41 plaintiffs.

As part of the settlement, ABOR will also collaborate with the Havasupai on health, education and economic related projects, beginning with a joint effort between the tribe and ASU to seek third-party funding for a new health clinic and high school.

ABOR President Ernest Calderón said in a statement that the settlement will do more than simply resolve the litigation.

“The Board of Regents has long wanted to remedy the wrong that was done,” Calderón said. “This solution is not simply the end of a dispute, but is also the beginning of a partnership between … ASU and the tribe.”

Tilousi said she will be happy to have the samples returned so she can see the deceased tribal members who donated blood rest peacefully.

“In our belief system, when an individual passes away, we feel everything they own of the body, house or clothing — anything they have, needs to be buried with them and go with them to the next world,” she said. “When you have blood samples being held in a laboratory, the transition to the next world is not completed. That’s why we need these samples.”

Havasupai chairwoman Bernadine Jones agreed the settlement will greatly benefit the tribe.

“As we see it, this settlement is far more than dismissing a lawsuit,” she said in a statement. “The settlement is the restoration of hope for my people, and the beginning of nation building for my tribe.”

Reach the reporter at keshoult@asu.edu