Why a DNA Test Can’t Prove That You’re Native American

Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren made headlines on Monday when she revealed that genetic testing suggests she has some Native American ancestry, the latest salvo in an ongoing battle with Donald Trump over this issue.

In the process, Warren has unwittingly highlighted a sensitive subject for Native American and indigenous communities across North America — many of whom are very tired of seeing people claim “native ancestry” when it’s politically convenient, while not being culturally connected to Native communities.

Racial mixing in the United States is extremely common, and many presumably white people grow up hearing that they’re “part Native American,” genetically speaking — some ancestor, perhaps relatively recently, was Native American. But when pressed on the issue, many people can’t name the tribe this ancestor belongs to and don’t know anything about their ancestor’s culture.

This evokes the “blood quantum” approach to culture and ancestry, which suggests that people who have some “blood” must belong to a given community.

Some individuals may be familiar with the use of blood quantum to enslave people, and a similar rule was imposed on Native communities by settlers when it came to developing rules to determine who belonged to given tribes and who did not. Settlers drove tribes from the land they had stewarded for centuries, fractured them with legislation designed to force assimilation into settler culture and then informed them that they needed to come up with methods for determining tribal citizenship and enrolling people who passed muster.

Today, the question of tribal enrollment is very important, identifying people who are culturally and socially part of a tribe as its citizens. Some tribes do consider genetic testing for specific markers, but it isn’t considered definitive. More tribes tend to look at documented genealogy — “my grandmother is on tribal rolls” — and connections to the tribe. After all, being Native American isn’t just about race, and reducing it to such is offensive.

“We have a particular cultural identity, based in a land that we hold to be sacred. That’s what gives our lives meaning. It’s what makes us who we are,” Dr. Kim TallBear told New Scientist when asked about this very issue. TallBear is the author of “Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science,” a fascinating book that goes in-depth on the subject of genetic testing and Native American communities.

This is a conversation with big stakes, because tribal enrollment entitles people to certain rights and benefits — and these include proceeds from the operation of casinos, something many people are very interested in. The idea that you can declare yourself “Native American” and swoop in for a share of the pot may appeal to some people, but that’s not actually how it works. The tribal enrollment process is complex, and it involves a lot more than ticking some genetic boxes.

Okay, but don’t those genetic boxes matter? It depends on who you talk to, but it should be noted that “Native American” is an incredibly broad category.

Citizens of specific Native American tribes may have any number of genetic markers of interest, but those markers aren’t shared across the whole of North and South America — both of which have long indigenous histories — and they evolve over time. Tribes that have consented to participate in genetic research have also learned that in many cases, it’s difficult to genetically distinguish between people from different tribes.

That matters a lot when it comes to DNA testing, which is only as good as the comparison data set and the markers a company chooses to test for. Furthermore, it can only tell you about nucleotides, not sociocultural identity.

Data sets used for comparison in such testing come from a number of different sources. It’s hard to imagine that testing companies have extremely detailed, wide and validated sample sets from every single Native American tribe in North America — in part because some tribes are reticent to hand over this information, fearing that it could be abused. So a test saying someone is “Native American” isn’t very helpful — and in fact, some tribally enrolled Native Americans test as “Asian“!

While the promise of DNA testing is appealing to some people, it reduces complex identities to something more prosaic and inaccurate. Warren’s test didn’t “settle” the debate she’s been having with Donald Trump over her claims to Native American identity; it just shows that some of her genome suggests a distant ancestor might have been Native American.

And in the process, as TallBear commented in a public statement on Twitter, it also undermined tribal sovereignty by reducing citizenship to genetics and nothing more. Native American status is not defined by white people or genetic testing — and TallBear notes that Warren has refused to meet with or apologize to Cherokee representatives regarding her claims, despite the tribe speaking out to call her use of testing “inappropriate.”

This comes at a time when the Indian Child Welfare Act, passed to protect Native children from being wrenched from their communities, was struck down by a judge who called it “unconstitutional.” Meanwhile, Native voting rights activists are fighting policies that make it harder for tribally enrolled people to vote.

Treating citizenship in Native communities as a way to score political points may be in poor taste.

Photo credit: kelly bell photography/Creative Commons

83 comments

Rhoberta E
Rhoberta E27 days ago

david f
Crawl out from underneath the rock or deer carcass you are hiding under and actually read or watch or research what your hero POTUS IS screwing the US citizens out of. .
There are pages of pending law suits for your slimy hero and his swamp dwellers.
BTW, I see yet another Russian woman was charged for interfering in the 2018 upcoming elections. Maybe it IS the 400 lb person in the basement or maybe it's someone like you who seems to think what you do is okay too.

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David F
David F27 days ago

Still, not one shred of evidence from bloviating and lying Russia's Rhoberta.

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Rhoberta E
Rhoberta E27 days ago

david f
That's rich coming from you with your "pet deer"
Let me just check as to how many DIFFERENT law suits are active issued in trump's name or his "corporation"
Clean up your own "house " first david on an animal welfare site.
BTW, as Susanne has said to you , the "fake news" term is old now just like your posts AND your sources.

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David F
David F27 days ago

Roberta, you keep repeating your Fake News Tribe quote: "can support his criminal actions", yet you can't name one shred of evidence that he has done anything wrong.

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Rhoberta E
Rhoberta E28 days ago

david f
Other than your juvenile name calling, usual lack of facts and all around nastiness (just like trump) Why don't you own up to why you are on a liberal site with an emphasis on compassion and ANIMAL WELFARE !!
Tell this group about your "pets" and how they are hunted as trophies in Texas.
Tell them about your favourite food written by YOU on your profile. Venison !!
Tell them why someone like you NEVER comments on the animal welfare articles particularly the new one with the dead giraffe and the good old boy from the US standing with his foot on the beautiful animal. Is that what YOU do too?
Your POTUS is a lying scumbag and YOU just repeat his trash.
You have no conscience if you can support his criminal actions and morals but seem to feel like a "big man" for your posts here. I DO use the term "man" loosely when describing trump and you.

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David F
David F28 days ago

continued: Pinocchiohontas had previously said only that she indicated minority status in an Association of American Law Schools directory used to make diversity-friendly hires beginning in the 1986-87 school year, the year before she was hired at Penn. She stopped listing herself in the directory in 1995, the year she became a tenured professor at Harvard.

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David F
David F28 days ago

Peggy B, Your Fake News network bamboozled you again. Pinocchiohontas says that she did tell the University that she was Native American, however she claims it was after they hired her. She has said she identified herself as a minority in their legal directory.
Documents available show that the university's law school began reporting a Native American female professor in FEDERAL STATISTICS for the 1992-93 school year, the first year Warren worked at Harvard, as a visiting professor.
Harvard's records do not list a Native American during the two years Warren returned to her post at the University of Pennsylvania, but begin to list one again in 1995-96, when she returned to Cambridge as a tenured professor.
Her campaign declined to say whether Warren provided the information to Harvard and Penn verbally or by checking a box on a form.

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Janis K
Janis K29 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Janis K
Janis K29 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

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Leo C
Leo Custer29 days ago

Thank you for posting!

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