NEWS_SHI to sponsor visiting scholar studying effect of subsistence diets on oral health

NEWS_SHI to sponsor visiting scholar studying effect of subsistence diets on oral health

Posted By:
Kathy Dye
Kathy Dye
Published On: December 22nd, 2020

Aug. 19, 2019

(Ethics of Genomic Research) (About Dr. Alyssa Bader)

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) is sponsoring a visiting scholar who is studying how consuming traditional foods and participating in subsistence harvesting activities shapes the oral microbiome of Indigenous communities in Southeast Alaska.

The scholar, Anthropologist Alyssa Bader, says she is seeking to understand the evolution of the human oral microbiome more broadly and the impact of industrialized foods on human health and biological function. The community of bacteria and other microbes living in the mouth, known as the oral microbiome, play a critical role in supporting health both within and beyond the mouth. Diet can impact the composition and function of these microbes.

Bader, who is Tsimshian and a member of the Malhi Molecular Anthropology Lab, will engage in archival research this fall and facilitate community focus groups to identify the various social, economic, environmental and political factors shaping Alaska Native subsistence practices in Southeast Alaska.

“This contextualizing data will be paired with survey data from four Alaska Native communities, two rural and two urban, to assess to what extent individuals participate in traditional subsistence activities and consume traditional foods,” Bader wrote.

She will also collect mouth swabs to examine how the oral microbiome responds to dietary variation, especially variation in the amount and type of traditional foods consumed.

The traditional foods consumed by Native people in the region are some of the healthiest in the world, said SHI President Rosita Worl. Some communities maintain a diet made up largely of traditional foods, while others rely partly or largely on Western food, Worl said, noting the integration of Western foods has occurred in a relatively short period of time.

“This type of research is important because it will give us more insight into best practices for oral health in the area of diet, and because we need to understand these kinds of impacts on health when policy decisions are made,” Worl said.

“The findings could also inform management of subsistence resources.”

Individual data collected will be kept confidential and used only for the study, and the samples will later be destroyed. In addition, Bader will regularly update communities on the progress of the project and present preliminary results for community feedback and collaborative interpretation of the results. Each collaborating community, and Sealaska Heritage Institute’s archives, will receive a copy of all publications from the project. SHI will also sponsor a lecture by Bader on her research.

Bader will be reaching out to leadership in communities throughout Southeast Alaska this winter. People with questions or who want to participate may contact her at

Ethics of Genomic Research

Bader, a Tsimshian descendant who has collaborated on similar research with the Metlakatla First Nation in British Columbia, is part of a growing movement of Native scientists seeking to become their communities’ own genome experts. The movement stems from the tensions between Native communities and scientists worldwide that exist in part because of scientists’ past disregard of Indigenous knowledge and customs.

Dr. Ripan S. Malhi, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana and Bader’s former doctoral degree advisor, works with Indigenous communities as a partner in DNA research and uses community-based research methods. In the past, scientists earned a reputation of going to Indigenous communities, taking DNA samples and just leaving.

In response, he and other scholars (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) founded the Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics (SING), which aims to train Indigenous scientists in genomics so that they can introduce that field’s tools to their communities, bring an Indigenous perspective to research, and become leaders in genomic research.

Bader, who participated in SING, also has an interest in this approach, known as the ethics of genomic research. 

About Dr. Alyssa Bader

Bader is an anthropologist with expertise in ancient DNA, bioarchaeology and stable isotope analysis. She uses these research methods to investigate the diet and health of communities in the past. Some of her recent research includes a collaboration with the Metlakatla First Nation in British Columbia to investigate diet and the oral microbiome in the ancestral and descendant communities. As a Tsimshian descendant, she is particularly interested in how community-held knowledge and oral history can be integrated with genomic and archaeological research methods for a more holistic understanding of the past. Bader also has been working under the direction of Dr. Malhi in the project Epigenomic Effects of European Colonization of Alaska Natives, in collaboration with SHI. Bader earned her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She also received an M.A. in anthropology, with a focus in bioarchaeology, from Southern Illinois University, and a B.A in anthropology from Whitman College. Born and raised in Washington, Alyssa has family in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska and is looking forward to calling Juneau her new home!

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

CONTACT: Kathy Dye, SHI Media and Publications Specialist, 907.321.4636,

Caption: Anthropologist Alyssa Bader at Sealaska Heritage Institute. Photo by Lyndsey Brollini.


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