Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Native American DNA Testing

What can it say about membership and identity?

The question of who belongs to what Native American tribe has long been politically, socially, and legally fraught. In the 1930s, for example, the US government passed “blood quantum laws” that defined tribal membership – a particularly sensitive episode that demonstrates the many flaws with outside declarations of who has the required amount of “Indianness.” The delineations of identity in those laws were often based on imperfect records and ignorance of the fact that tribal membership has always been a complex combination of factors, not all of them biological.

Native American tribes now have their own varying membership criteria. But controversies continue. The growth of casino gaming and the resulting profits have led some tribes to tighten their requirements, and thousands have had their tribal citizenship revoked. James Mills of Creating Stronger Nations, a Native-owned company that consults with tribal communities and nations, has said, “The moment you draw a line in the sand on enrollment, the moment you have rules, there is going to be some unfairness. There is no perfect system. There just isn’t one.”

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DNA ancestry tests are nonetheless currently being marketed to Native Americans as though they could be this “perfect system.” Advertisements make bold claims such as,

Discover your personal history: Cherokee? Apache? Choctaw?” - DNA Spectrum. What’s your tribe? Mayan? Navajo? Salish?” - DNA Tribes. “Discover your Native American History” - Family Tree DNA.

As UC Berkeley assistant professor of science, technology, and environmental policy Kim Tallbear and University of Texas assistant professor of molecular anthropology Deborah Bolnick have noted, the central message of such advertisements is “that DNA testing proves Native American identity in a scientifically objective manner.”

How does this affect tribes’ hard-fought sovereignty? How does it impact tribal and personal identity?

A few tribes have adopted DNA testing. Some see it as a way to end disagreements over disenrollment, reasoning that if some kind of identity test has to be utilized, perhaps this is one of the better options. Sure, such tests could never identify social or political access to membership, but they can at least give an accurate portrayal of genetic ancestry, right?

Well, in a word, no.

The freedmen are descendents of black slaves who were owned by the Cherokee. They have been involved in legal battles for years with the Cherokee Nation over their membership status. Many have difficulty tracing their lineage to the Dawes Rolls, used in the years around the turn of the 19th century to determine tribal membership, because blacks were often excluded simply due to their racial appearance, despite having been part of the Cherokee tribe for a century at that point. Many freedmen hoped that DNA ancestry tests would help prove that they are in fact Cherokee.

In 2004 a number of freedmen took DNA ancestry tests from the company African Ancestry. The test results were a disappointment to them because they showed low percentages of Native American markers. Instead they revealed something unexpected: an unusually high number of European ancestry markers, which coincidently match the high degree found among the Cherokee. Though this ancestry almost certainly did come from the Cherokee, the tests themselves had no way to prove that, and so did little to clarify the situation.

The markers that are used to “determine” Native American ancestry are typically five different haplotypes on the mitochondrial DNA that are thought to have descended from the founding ancestors, which are passed down only through the maternal line. On the paternal side, there are two primary haplogroups seen in modern Native Americans. These markers test only one line of ancestry each and so are necessarily imperfect; furthermore, while these markers appear more frequently in Native Americans, they are also found in people all over the world. The premise that genetic tests can reveal your specific tribe is especially misleading because neighboring tribes have never been completely isolated from each other. Inter-marriage, raids, adoption, displacement, invasion, and changes in delineation mean that there is no clear-cut genetic way to distinguish one tribe from another.

Though DNA testing is not actually able to provide definitive biological answers, it is nonetheless expensive ($150 - $600 per individual). It’s no wonder that DNA ancestry companies market to Native Americans; even if just a fraction of the thousands in a tribe take the test, the profits add up.

Native American poet and novelist Sherman Alexie doesn’t think tribes should succumb to the aggressive marketing of DNA testing. He argues that “DNA is an utterly white thing to do. It’s capitalism, it’s racism, it’s apartheid, it’s colonial.”

Deborah Bolnick asks, “Why should tribes give up authority to a test that can’t reliably affiliate a test-taker with a specific tribe or ensure that tribal members are culturally connected and committed to the tribe’s future?”

As concluded by the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, the notion that a DNA ancestry test could dictate who is and who is not a member of a Native American tribe undercuts tribal sovereignty. Biology is clearly only one factor in Native American membership or identity; cultural experiences often have much greater weight. Even if DNA ancestry tests are only considered for the additional scientific “facts” they bring to bear, the frequency of false positives and false negatives means they are not a reliable way to determine complex ancestral histories. With so much on the line legally, politically, and socially, it seems irresponsible for DNA ancestry testing companies to promise definitive answers about tribal membership.

Jessica Cussins is a researcher at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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