HID Human ID and Forensics, Young Investigator Award 2022 finalist Haley Omeasoo, Caucasian, Customer, Female, Labworker, Scientist
August 29, 2023 | Human ID and Forensics

Young Investigator Haley Omeasoo

A multidisciplinary approach to repatriating unidentified indigenous remains to the Blackfeet Reservation
Haley Omeasoo talks about trust and working closely with the Blackfeet Tribe using genetic techniques to support the repatriation of human remains of possible Native American Blackfeet ancestry. Haley is building a comparison database of living Blackfeet Tribe members to use in both historical and current forensic cases. The overall goal is to return identity to those who can no longer speak for themselves and provide justice for the families who have lost a loved one.

The Young Investigator Community is a forum for young forensic researchers and graduate students. The new Investigator blog is a place to meet one of these talented researchers where they can share their achievements and aspirations with their peers, friends and colleagues. Read on to find out what attracted this month’s blogger to forensic science. Share with them the excitement of discovery that sustains a passionate commitment to their work.

This new Investigator blog introduces Haley Omeasoo. Haley is currently a Doctoral student and Student Teacher/Assistant at The University of Montana and also serves as Lab Leader of a forensic casework class that is in agreement with the Montana State Crime Lab. Haley has tribal affiliations with the Blackfeet and Hopi people.

1. Tell us about your background and how you became interested in forensic science?

Aside from the fascination that everyone has with true crime in today’s world, my interest in forensic science started with the need for help in solving cases of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) on reservations. This epidemic directly impacts my family and friends back home on the Blackfeet reservation. I knew that acquiring the skills of a forensic scientist would be beneficial to bring our sisters back home, with hopes that some changes would be made within the justice system in favor of these girls and women and their families. 

In my undergrad at the University of Montana (UM), I double majored in Forensic Anthropology and Human Biology, with a certificate in Forensic Science. I then completed a master's degree in Forensic Anthropology, where I did my thesis project on "Identifying Skeletal Trauma Markers Associated with Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)." Since completing my master’s degree, I had originally planned to go on to medical school to become a forensic pathologist, but I felt that my time at UM was not finished. 

With our collection of possible Indigenous remains still residing in our facility for over a decade, my main goal now is to assist in getting those possible ancestors home. Though I decided to push medical school off for a while, I still take pride in knowing that everything I accomplish in my educational career also serves a purpose for my community back home and that I will continue to carry out this work until justice is served. 

2. Can you provide a summary of the project you are working on?

My current project for my Ph.D. dissertation involves working closely with the Blackfeet Tribe on a repatriation case of human remains, possibly of Native American Blackfeet ancestry, using genetic techniques. I plan to build a comparison database of living tribal members to use in both historical and current forensic cases (if needed). The overall goal is to give identity back to those who can no longer speak for themselves and provide some justice for the families who have lost a loved one.

3. Please describe your typical day in the lab.

I am a lab leader in our forensic casework class that has an agreement with the Montana State Crime Lab, so I oversee some of the students wanting to learn the applications of creating a forensic report that can be used by law enforcement agencies for identification and implications surrounding the case. I analyze skeletal remains for trauma and pathologies, as well as build a biological profile (sex, age at death and stature). Aside from my work in the University of Montana Forensic Anthropology Lab (UMFAL), I have been learning under my advisor Dr. Snow in the Modern DNA and Ancient DNA labs, performing genetic analyses on both living and deceased individuals. These genetic techniques that I am learning can be carried out in my work involving either forensic or historical cases.

4. What do you find most interesting about your project? Have you seen any surprising results?

I am still in the early stages of my project, so I have not received any results yet! But nonetheless, I am hoping that the results will not be too surprising, rather just confirmation that the remains that we have that are thought to be of Blackfeet ancestry prove that they are, and that the use of genetic techniques serves as a possible solution to this issue of repatriating displaced ancestors.

5. What are the benefits of your project?

My project's primary purpose is to create a database of Blackfeet genomes that can be used to repatriate ancient Blackfeet members' skeletal remains. There are still many Native American remains that reside in several museum's skeletal collections and teaching facilities that need to be repatriated with the incentive that these were once living tribal members and someone's ancestors. This study could be a stepping stone for repatriating Native American remains from all teaching facilities and museums in Montana and worldwide. Using DNA analysis to repatriate remains could assist in the repatriation of residential school remains, which continuously keep popping up, along with assisting in crime lab procedures involving the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Men (MMIWM) epidemic.

6. What are the major challenges faced while working on your project and how do you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges I have faced thus far is the controversy that surrounds the idea of performing destructive analyses on indigenous remains and the fear of exploitation of genetic information. It is very important to have deep consultation with the tribe(s) that may be associated with the unidentified remains and let the members of the tribe be a part of the process. By taking different viewpoints into consideration and building a solid team of people with all different backgrounds, I know I can successfully complete this project in a way that will benefit both the tribal nation and those wanting to perform similar research after me. Building these relationships and trust will ensure the security of the people, and their trust in me to carry out such research will help to ease the fear of what could happen to their information. This is why I have designed this project to be later controlled and maintained by the tribe when the project is complete.  

7. Which QIAGEN products do you use and what do you like about the products?

In our lab at UM we use: (1) The MinElute PCR Purification Kit for extractions (the spin columns are great for low copy-number extractions, especially!), (2) Type-it HRM PCR Kit (this is great for doing sex estimation on subadult skeletal remains or remains that are fragmented or very old), and (3) Buffers PB and PE (absolutely excellent for all extraction needs for the main protocol we use [Dabney & Meyer (2019)]. I also plan to use the Verogen ForenSeq Kintelligence Kit for my study, as I know that is the best option to go with for situations like mine.  

8. Outside of forensic science, what are your hobbies?

Outside of my studies in forensic and molecular anthropology, I am a wife and a mother to two boys. My hobbies include doing whatever they want to do! Whether that is watching them play sports, play with toy cars, ride bikes or take our dog for walks. I do it all! I also love fitness, listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and beading jewelry and traditional regalia.