[EDIT (7/6/2016): Razib Khan discusses the same issue here.]
I despise all politics. I suppose someone has to do it, but I always do my best to avoid discussing it either in person or online. I consider it to be a huge success when people don’t know my political leanings (is “away from all politics” a political leaning?).
Currently, however, there is a political figure who potentially has asserted that he or she might have distant Native American ancestors (specifically, Cherokee ancestors). For no real reason other than politics, some have disputed the claim, and the media is actually writing stories about it. Trust me, this whole ‘debate’ surrounding one person’s ancestry is so unbelievably unimportant that you don’t want to waste your time to look it up.
In any event, this week the ‘debate’ resulted in one political figure suggesting that the person claiming to have Native American ancestors should take a DNA test (meaning a genetic genealogy test) to confirm or reject the claim.
A “Native American DNA Twittertorial”
In response to the DNA test challenge, Kim TallBear, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the University of Alberta (Faculty of Native Studies) authored a 47-tweet explanation of why DNA cannot be utilized to prove that the political figure has Cherokee ancestry. Dr. TallBear’s twitter account is here (@KimTallBear).
A storify of the 47-tweet twittertorial is available below (and here: https://storify.com/mattmcfar/kim-tallbear).
The issue and Dr. TallBear’s tweets were also picked up several outlets:
- A DNA Test Won’t Explain Elizabeth Warren’s Ancestry (Slate 6/29)
- Sorry, Scott Brown: A DNA test can’t tell us if Elizabeth Warren has Native American roots (The Washington Post 6/29)
I’ve had the privilege of meeting and speaking with Dr. TallBear several times, and have corresponded with her several times as well. She’s wonderful, and I highly recommend that you read her book if you are interested in learning more (Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science).
What I’m concerned about, however, is that the public and genetic genealogists will read these articles or read about this controversy and make overly broad conclusions that are not correct, namely that it is impossible to detect Native American ancestry using DNA, which is not accurate. And, I’ll note, that is not what Dr. TallBear is stating in her Twittertorial; she makes a much more specific and nuanced argument. Please be sure to read her Twittertorial in full.
What CAN or CAN’T a DNA Test Reveal About Native American Heritage?
I agree completely with just about every tweet that Dr. TallBear authored. There is no test that can determine whether someone is Cherokee, for example, because of the lack of Cherokee- or other group-specific markers. Further, identifying as Native American – either self-identification or group-identification – is not a matter of DNA. The issue is much, much more complicated than that. No DNA test should support or disprove self-identification or group-identification of Native American status except perhaps in extremely limited situations where all parties have agreed to such. In other words, the political figure will not be able to identify as Native American based on the results of the test. Period.
However, there is an important difference, I think, between identifying as Native American and discovering Native American ancestors (either on paper or via DNA testing). There are very few genealogists who are taking DNA tests in order to identify as Native American. There are some people that take tests to find Native American ancestry for specific uses, including perhaps identity, but these are never genealogists. Many genealogists, on the other hand are taking DNA tests in order to analyze the question of whether any of their ancestors were Native American (more on that issue below). This is one of the main misconceptions of [genetic] genealogy and Native American ancestry.
I’ll use myself as an example. Before taking a DNA test, I had no known family story of Native American ancestry, probably the only family in America that didn’t have such a story. But my mtDNA testing revealed that I belong to mtDNA haplogroup A2 (which has since been narrowed down to A2w1b). This mtDNA haplogroup is strictly Native American – it is found only in individuals with Native American maternal ancestry, and is a branch of other similar A2 haplogroups found only in individuals with Native American maternal ancestry. I do not now nor have I ever identified as Native American. However, there is no scientific question that I have Native American ancestors on my maternal line (my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s…mother), and I am constantly researching that line to uncover paper records of those ancestors to add them to my family tree. Just as I’m using DNA testing to break through other brick walls on other lines, like my adopted great-grandmother on my paternal side.
What do you think? Is there a difference between using DNA to identify as Native American, and using DNA to identify Native American ancestors/ancestry? Does the distinction, if it exists, matter?
Identifying Native American Ancestry with DNA is Challenging
It is very, very difficult to identify Native American ancestry with DNA. And it is impossible to disprove Native American ancestry with DNA (other than on the direct patrilineal or matrilineal lines via Y-DNA or mtDNA testing).
There are Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups known to be found only among ancient or current Native American populations, and thus finding one of these haplogroups reveals that the Y-DNA line or mtDNA line is Native American descent. There are many papers devoted to Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups and Native Americans, some of which I’ve discussed on this blog over the past 9+ years. mtDNA haplogroup A2w is one example.
With atDNA, however, the issue is much more complicated. Unlike Y-DNA or mtDNA, only 50% of atDNA is passed down at each generation, meaning that DNA from ancestors just a few generations ago will be in only small quantities in the present generation. Further, it is hard to identify even when it is present because sample sizes in the reference populations utilized for DNA are so small.
Accordingly, while it is NOT impossible to identify Native American ancestry using atDNA, it is extremely hard to verify conclusively. Further, the lack of identified Native American atDNA never proves the complete absence of Native American ancestry.
Please note: ANY comment that mentions or even suggests the name or sex of the political figure, or addresses the political debate surrounding this person in any way, will be immediately deleted. This post is about genetics and science, and I expect the comments to be the same. I normally allow all comments, but on this I will strictly enforce a zero-tolerance policy. I reserve the right to allow or delete comments as I see fit. Don’t like it? Start your own blog.