DNA Testing for Native Ancestry
Does DNA testing prove Native American ancestry? Well, this is a tricky subject. Modern DNA tests provide information that can be valuable to people who are seeking information about their biological connections and origins… people who may wonder about Native heritage out of curiosity or due to stories handed down through their family.
DNA testing, however, is not an exact science. As with any type of testing, the possibility exists for false positive and false negative results. So, a Native American person might get a test result that they are not Native and someone who is not Native may get results that they are Native. Similarly, genetic markers may identify someone as East Asian versus Native American because these markers are not that precise. Additionally, databases that store genetic information from certain groups such as Native Americans are often inadequate or incomplete; a person is sometimes identified as “other” rather than Native American, which can affect DNA matching.
Genetic markers cannot perfectly predict whether someone is Native and they certainly cannot test or predict a specific tribe. On the question of determining tribal affiliation using DNA testing, Roberta Estes on her DNAeXplained blog states:
“Generally, DNA testing does not provide us with the information needed to determine a tribe, although it can clearly tell, using y-line or mitochondrial DNA testing, whether your direct paternal or maternal line was or was not Native. Sometimes you will be able to infer a tribe based on your matches and their documented history, but the definition of tribes, their names and locations have changed over time. We are working on improving this ability, but the science simply isn’t there yet and the number of Native people who have tested remains small.”
At best, genetic coding information can only offer an idea of ancestry with some percentage of inaccuracy, so interpret DNA testing for Native American ancestry with caution and certainly only consider it one piece of the puzzle.
Not all tribes accept DNA testing for tribal membership status, and many tribes have a blood quantum (percent of Native blood) requirement. Among tribes that consider DNA testing for tribal enrollment, other potential obstacles exist, as noted on the National Congress of American Indians website:
“Recent advances in DNA testing have brought with them possibilities for using DNA testing as criteria for tribal enrollment. Many people have found the prospect that these DNA tests can provide a concrete yes or no answer about biological relationships (parentage and descent) to be an attractive and positive aspect of using these tests. However, using DNA testing may limit the understanding of tribal identity to only a biological understanding if it is not supplemented with other tools or methods of determining tribal identity (or enrollment eligibility). Further, there are concerns that DNA testing within families and communities could reveal information about parents and lineage that contradicts other claims or family stories. More specifically, each kind of testing offers particular positive aspects and some challenges above and beyond these basics.”
This statement explores an even larger question: What is an Indian? Well, for one thing, it means there are many aspects to being a member of a tribe beyond mere genetic makeup. Traditions, family connections, and culture all play a very deep and important role for Native Americans… none of this can be defined or discovered through genetic testing but rather must be lived.
I hope you can see that modern DNA testing can sometimes provide an answer to the question, “am I Native American?” However, it leaves many necessary and related questions unanswered and can even raise conflicts due to test results. Tricky to say the least.