Genetic Genealogy and Native American DNA

[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:

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.

Regarding Comments

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.

54 Responses

  1. Peggy Jude 29 June 2016 / 11:04 pm

    Very helpful and illuminating. My husband’s maternal line has specific stories of Native American ancestors (like every family but yours 😉 ). However, the Ancestry DNA test results for him and his mother came back with no Native American at all. I thought that ended the discussion. I now find they might be right after all. Lots more digging to do!

    • Andrew 19 August 2016 / 2:45 pm

      Do not believe the Misinformation. they drop DNA from your mother or grandmother side of the family; the European generally take DNA from your father side of the family! Instead of using both sides. Tell them to redo, the DNA test using both sides of your family together.

  2. Beth Long 29 June 2016 / 11:08 pm

    I’m sorry Blaine, but this is really disjointed. This is why I *hate* Twitter; it’s just a bunch of sound bytes. I would rather that she produce an actual article rather than 47 simplistic “Tweets”.

    • Alberta 30 June 2016 / 2:38 am

      You’re in luck! Not only is there her book, “Native American DNA”, but there are also these excellent articles. I recommend the top one first.

      Reardon, Jenny, and Kim TallBear. “Your DNA is our history.” Current Anthropology 53.S5 (2012): S233-S245.

      TallBear, Kim. “Narratives of race and indigeneity in the Genographic Project.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35.3 (2007): 412-424.

      TallBear, Kim. “Genomic articulations of indigeneity.” Social Studies of Science (2013): 0306312713483893.

      TallBear, Kim, Deborah A. Bolnick, and D. N. A. Does. ““Native American DNA” Tests: What are the Risks to Tribes?.” The Native Voice (3-17 December 2004) D 2 (2013).

      • Lorraine Escobar 10 January 2017 / 2:32 pm

        I’m glad someone is writing about the risk to the tribes in using DNA. The tests do not say enough about where people are from or where they get their DNA (with the usual exceptions such as Y and mtDNA). I heard of some tribes considering it in response to membership issues and there is just nothing that replaces good genealogy.

  3. Douglas Lloyd Buchholz 30 June 2016 / 2:42 am

    “Trust me, this whole ‘debate’ surrounding one person’s ancestry is so unbelievably unimportant.” Really? I would beg to differ. This dynamic of appropriation of Native Indigenous identity here in this country, is a huge important matter to most Native Peoples. We have witnessed and seen the appropriation of theft of American Indian identity go on and on and on from Hollywood actors, through the 1970’s right into present with Rachel Dolezal and Ward Churchill, to name just a few Native Identity Thieves and Appropriators. Culture Vultures and Want-To-Be’s of the Cherokee and Abenakis abound, etc. both in southern states as well the Northeast. Blaine, while you are excellent genetic researcher, I respectfully disagree with your assessment that this matter is “hugely unimportant.” Anyone can do a DNA genetic test and find they allegedly have a genetic contribution of (for example) o.02% percent “Native American” designation … I would ask, WHAT COMMUNITY?, WHAT LANGUAGE? etc. I do not see these same “Native American ancestor” Seekers, jumping up and down about their 0.02% German ancestry. Or what about that 5% African genetic contribution they didn’t know about, that’s in their genetic results? After 1975, it was “cool” to be Native American. Well, its also important to realize that there is a responsibility and connection to community, to taking on that identity. It’s doesn’t come gift wrapped when one gets an incorporation Indian-ist Membership Card, attending Pow-wow’s, or doing Native-ish artwork, nor when one gets their genetic results back and it says 0.02% NA and all of sudden that DNA tester is suddenly an Instant Shake and Bake Indian/Native American. Identity theft and appropriation of Native American Culture, Heritage, and Native American Arts has happened at the detriment of Native Communities across this land. It is a HUGE problem for the Cherokees, and it is problem within the Northeast with the Abenaki as well.

    • Blaine T. Bettinger 30 June 2016 / 6:25 am

      Yes, the overall issue of Native American DNA and what it means or doesn’t mean is important, and your comment is an excellent summary of the many, many issues that are currently being discussed.

      I completely agree (and stated in my article) that finding Native American DNA does not and should not provide instant Native American identity, although it can provide instant Native American ancestry. What people do with the discovery of Native American ancestry, I think is the issue. Genealogists, I contend, are far less likely to misuse that information.

      Even so, I still contend that the current debate surrounding this particular person is nothing but politics. As within almost every issue in politics, it does not change anyone’s mind one way or the other, and is nothing but a soundbite or a debate topic used to sling accusations. There is no substance to the issue as far as the politicians are concerned.

    • Lorraine Escobar 10 January 2017 / 2:42 pm

      I totally agree that Native American identity theft is an issue and an important one at that. In California, there are many pretendians who still usurp the rights of real natives. I have been working in concert with the Gabrieleno tribe in exposing the frauds–through genealogy. It is amazing how these impostors continue in their charade even when they learn they are not Native American. I am thinking of publishing on the subject but am not there yet. But, I also agree that the DNA tests are not the means to prove they are frauds–you cannot determine the origin. If someone has the the NA DNA from Mexico, ignorance of the facts only enforce the charade. It’s a battle, for sure, but as long as we remain silent, ignorance will reign–and, I’m not satisfied with that. Yes, it is an important issue that merits a dialogue in the public venue.

  4. Molly Day 30 June 2016 / 3:09 am

    This is VERY INTERESTING! I have tried to find the Cerokee connection for my children. Not because of high cheekbones, however! Their Grandfather on their father’s side told me that his mother was Cherokee with a high percentage. She left him and his brother and two sisters when he was just a kid. He said that my children’s Grandmother on the other side was Native American also but he thought she might be Creek. My ex husband (my children’s dad) and my second son have that deep mahogany skin color and features that make me convinced that the Grandfather was right. I had my daughter do a DNA test and it came up with nothing. I called Ancestry.com and they told me a bunch of gobbledygook that led to the fact that I should have my ex do a test. So this really drove it home. Is there a better way to research the ancestors? I am having such a difficult time tracking the Cerokee grandmother. My children would love to know . Thanks, Molly Day

    • Maureen Painter 30 June 2016 / 11:17 am

      Yes, Molly, you must do genealogy the old fashioned way, find and follow the paper trail your ancestors hopefully left behind. atDNA is only one of the tools that genealogists may use. And it is a fun tool i must admit. But it gives clues for further research that you must then follow up with the paper trail.

  5. Lil Heselton 30 June 2016 / 11:02 am

    Thank you. I learned something today.

  6. Jane Millar 30 June 2016 / 11:29 am

    I agree with Blaine on this. Ancestry has me as “46% Scandinavian.” Ha! While I very likely have some Scandinavian ancestors, they are so far back, it would be completely ridiculous for me to claim to be Scandinavian. I was not reared in any type of Scandinavian culture, nor did I have any known contact with Scandinavians until adulthood. And although there is much I admire about various Scandinavian cultures, I would not vote for a political candidate of Scandinavian origin unless I happened to prefer that person’s political policies to those of the other candidates. In short, for me, the ethnic backgrounds (alone) of politicians and other persons is hardly one of their most important attributes. And, by the way, that 46% figure is nonsense. From what I could determine from Ancestry’s white paper, the actual interpretation is that there is about a 75 % chance that somewhere between 26% and 66% of my dna tested (about 1/4 of 1% of all my dna) matched the dna of those Ancestry identified as Scandinavian. Seems to me that I recall reading all humans share about 95% of their dna with chimps. Does that make us chimps?

    • JAY SON 30 June 2016 / 4:56 pm

      No… it makes you a primate. And although you can self-identify as you choose, you are significantly Scandinavian. I don’t this discussion has anything to do with self-identification… it has to do with factual heritage/pedigree.

    • Debi Lee 17 November 2017 / 10:21 pm

      While I see that your comment is older, I have reply and say that your argument is spot on and shows your ability to assess without bias, and point out truths that are what I call “universal” in their application…Wish there were more like you!
      The whole “tolerance,” accept everyone difference movement, can be assessed in kind. Why? because of the fact that they are the most intolerant since one MUST agree with them or else (within their self-appointed narrow morals; much like defining a person by a tiny slice of their DNA!). Last I checked that was how dictatorship works SINCE it what they are doing is DICTATING what others may or may not say, do, think, etc. Does your DNA “dictate” that you are Norwegian? Of course not! I hope any reader can follow my parallel imagery.
      Additionally, when “they” go after a particular individual they find offensive…they myopically define the whole person by [sometimes] one tiny flaw while putting a high-power magnification on that one foible in order to make the whole individual appear they are 100% horribly offensive, just brand a capital “D” on their forehead so for the rest of their lives all who see them know they’re DEPLORABLE! (Referencing the “Scarlett Letter” for those who miss my point)
      All that you pointed out, it’s general truth, is what I call a “universal truth” since it’s principles can be used in a myriad of situations, besides the one I just mentioned.
      When we interact with the population around us, in every day life to whom we choose in the voting booth…IF we keep zeroing in on ONE or TWO, often exploited to the negative, aspects of the whole person, during all their lives, to be able to step back and see the full image of a person…it is injustice at it’s root.
      Imagine looking at a Da Vinci painting, especially one quite large, while standing one foot away and only looking straight ahead…Are you going to know what the whole painting depicts, appreciate all its complexities and beauty by studying only four square inches out of the 1500 square inches of a 30″ x 50″ canvas?
      Anyhow, very well said, I hope your post helps many [truly] see the sum-total (totality) of the bigger picture!

  7. JAY SON 30 June 2016 / 12:55 pm

    While very good points are made by Kim Tallbear concerning thepresent, and possibly ultimate limitations of atDNA, I can’t help but be a little cynical in her motivations. So Blaine, while you dismiss the topic as political and not substantive, you overlook the fact that Ms. Tallbear’s motivations are also political. If she is going to claim that the only thing that makes one “aboriginal” is a bunch of 20th century organizations saying so based on a a very short family history, then the very nature of being of aboriginal origin is lost. I can be born and grow up in PNG, but that does NOT make me ethnically PNG. Why? Because my genetics demonstrate that I am European. I’m not an expert on atDNA, but I am confident that there are markers that could only have originated prior to the times when anyone other than aboriginal peoples lived in the Americas. In fact, there are likely thousands of such markers to be discovered. I would contend that if a human living in the near future claiming aboriginal status cannot demonstrate the presence of some such markers in their DNA, then their ancestors are so dominantly non-aboriginal that they no longer hold the claim. First Nations Peoples who just want to wave a wand and declare aboriginal status will soon be a thing of the past. They were treated horribly by European immigrants no doubt… it is beyond shameful. But no more shameful than how humans have treated each other likely since the beginning of time. I certainly know that my European ancestors survived millennia of persecution and genocide. My DNA is heavily Scottish (with the Scottish definition being ancestors from that country in the past 1000 years.) So do I not get to make special claims on the government of Scotland? American Aboriginals resist being tested because they know their claims are dubious… and they want hold onto a good thing for as long as they can. What peoples did their peoples wipe out 2000, 5000 or 10000 years ago? We all came from somewhere, and in doing so our ancestors have murdered and over-run other peoples. So on what basis does Ms. Tallbear claim aboriginal status if not genetic? Now don’t get me wrong, if we define aboriginal Americans to be those prior to European settlement, then they are real… but so then must there be the markers to prove it. The sooner Aboriginal Americans get around to identifying atDNA markers, the sooner I will change my mind that their claims are dubious and their resistance to science political. It’s like Oil Companies claiming there is no man-made global warming. Smoke screens that are politically motivated.

    I guess what I am saying is that cultural identification is fine, but don’t use it to make some grander claim of aboriginal status. Almost nobody but Aboriginal Americans seem to do this. We are all mutts, it’s only a specific time frame that allows a claim otherwise.

    As for a politician claiming Cherokee ancestry. Well, if he/she can show genetic markers consistent with pre-European peoples of the Americas… then i’m on board. If it’s only because of some oral history, then the claim is as dubious as Ms. Tallbear’s.

    • Michael Hait 30 June 2016 / 10:43 pm

      The criteria that determine whether a tribe can be recognized by the federal government as such are actually quite stringent. See http://www.bia.gov/cs/groups/xofa/documents/text/idc1-031255.pdf . They are not based on DNA or blood quantum, but whether or not evidence shows that a tribe and its current members are lineal descendants of a continuously existing tribe, from historic times until the present. The recommendations are made by teams of historians, anthropologists, and genealogists with expertise in Native American history, etc.

      • JAY SON 1 July 2016 / 12:07 am

        no doubt. But you are referring to the collective “tribe” – no one disputes that aboriginal Americans existed and that their descendants are among us today. But Blaine’s position that they get to define themselves in such a context, and then use that identify for preferential gain, is a different matter. If a member cannot be defined genetically, then are North American residents to take “tribes” on their word? Conversely, if DNA indicates aboriginal markers, that should be denied based on some “cultural identity” test.

        • Michael Hait 1 July 2016 / 6:20 pm

          Native American tribes are viewed with the same status as other sovereign nations. Germany, Nigeria, and the Philippines, for example, have the right to decide how they define citizenship. Citizenship is a legal status, not a genetic one. Native American tribes have the same right to decide as all sovereign nations.

  8. Blaine Bettinger 30 June 2016 / 1:06 pm

    Goodness, 95% of your comment is crap. Identity is not and should not be defined by DNA. Native Americans get to define their identity any way they want to, which may or may not include DNA. Sorry, but you don’t get a say in it.

  9. Barbara McAllister Long 30 June 2016 / 1:34 pm

    Thank you so much for the article. I immediately Dr. Tallbear’s book. I totally agree genealogy, ethnic origin or genetics does NOT belong in politics.

  10. Sharon Farmer 30 June 2016 / 2:45 pm

    Hi, Blaine. This discussion makes me think about how one develops his/her identity. Here is how I see it. It starts with one’s family—what values and traditions one is taught, what one is told about ancestors, and what one observes. From there, a person might accept or reject these values and traditions and might embrace or not what one learns about the ancestors. If one is at all open to new information, identity changes over time. I think the results of genealogy research often lead to a person’s revision of his/her identity, whether or not that is justified by science. It certainly is part of my fascination with genealogy.

  11. J. Seymour 1 July 2016 / 2:02 pm

    Odd. I can’t understand and am more confused than ever. Why shouldn’t DNA help prove Native American ancestry? Facts: 23andMe and Gedmatch use DNA to determine ancestral origins, and lawyers in Great Britain recently used DNA as evidence to decide court cases as this article shows in a recent case. In all these cases, identities are distinguished and confirmed by DNA. Are you saying they’re all bogus, and you don’t trust DNA tests because DNA cannot be determined beyond a few generations of ancestry and paper documents are more trustworthy and reliable, or are you more mildly saying there is plenty of room for uncertainty but you do trust DNA tests? Just curious.
    http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-south-scotland-36576672

    • J. Seymour 8 July 2016 / 3:39 pm

      Still hoping for an answer a week or so later…

      • Blaine Bettinger 8 July 2016 / 3:46 pm

        Your question reflects the misunderstandings seen in the many articles and reports on this subject. DNA evidence CAN help prove Native American ancestry. In fact, as I state in the article, my mtDNA and atDNA tests have proven beyond a doubt that I have Native American ancestors.

        But DNA evidence cannot prove a specific tribe. And even more importantly, DNA evidence CANNOT prove that there was never any Native American ancestry. Just because a person tests and does not have any observed NA DNA, does not mean that the person never had NA ancestry.

  12. Debra Osborne Spindle 1 July 2016 / 2:06 pm

    Thanks for this, Blaine. I work with this question nearly every day–I’m the librarian at the Oklahoma Historical Society’s Research Division as well as being an Oklahoma genealogist. Nearly everyone who ever had family in what is now Oklahoma has a family story of Indian ancestry–including my own. I used to say I was the only person to ever walk through those doors who said they had NO American Indian ancestry, but wouldn’t you know, my DNA shows a little. (It’s not the line my family thought–)

    There are no easy answers. It is indeed vital to understand the history and the traditions–

    Your article helps support what we’ve been trying to explain, oh-so-many-times-a-day for oh-so-many-years. 🙂

  13. Douglas 2 July 2016 / 7:42 am

    Blaine you raised this subject and then proceeded to censure my opinions because they differ from your own and what is possibly politically correct… at least from your perspective. Your behaviour is precisely indicative of much of what is wrong in seemingly progressive societies today. You conveniently state that 95% of what I said is crap, but you can’t defend your position nor will you allow me to defend mine.
    I’m sorry but you can’t decide what constitutes the legitimate use of science. You want GG to suit your needs, but want to ignore it when it doesn’t. If I had to guess, you’re probably a lawyer… rig the game before it is played.
    If you’re going to publish support for a 47 tweet political agenda, be man enough to be challenged. Me Tallbear’s position is very politically motivated and dissenting opinions should be welcome.

    • Blaine Bettinger 2 July 2016 / 9:22 am

      Sorry, but it’s completely my prerogative about what to allow or not allow. As I said above, if you don’t like it, start your own blog. Feel free to respond, but I’m only interested in science, not more of your rhetoric and arguments. If your comment isn’t about science, it will be deleted.

  14. Ponto 4 July 2016 / 10:26 pm

    You are not the only person in America with Native American atDNA with no family stories or history of Native American ancestry. Just about every Latin American, Mexican, Colombian and many Caribbean islanders have no knowledge at all about their considerable Native American ancestry or for that matter their lesser sub Saharan African ancestry.

    The problem I see as a foreigner is that most Americans go by their stories and do not bother to prove their allegations using censuses, birth/marriage/death records, newspaper references, public documents, asking Native American groups if they know of their family and so on. And why is it always the great grandmother on their mother’s side that was the full on Native American? The story does not vary from one person to another. “I have pictures of this granny and she is dark, black haired, high check bones….” The story as I said is always the same. The least they could do is hire a professional genealogist to look up the records for them.

    This oddly reminds me of the woman Susie Guillory Phipps, a woman of Louisiana Creole ancestry who tried to change her birth certificate to remove Colored and replace it with White as she claimed she, her parents were White and recognized as such by others. There self identity did not match birth and census records and the facts. Either way, dna or self identity will always clash, and the claimant will always stick with their story.

    • Blaine Bettinger 6 July 2016 / 9:02 am

      Thank you Debbie! I’ve edited my blog post to add the link.

  15. Dr. Kathryn W. Kemp 12 July 2016 / 2:41 pm

    As a historian, I want to add a bitt of useful information. Many Native American groups practiced adult adoption that permanently changed the identity of the adoptee, so far as the adopting group cared. They adopted white traders into their groups to facilitate commercial relationships. Furthermore, white men married Indians, and in matrilineal groups, this meant that the child was a full member. Period. No “mixed-breed” or other derogatory exceptions. Among the Cherokee and Creeks of Georgia, a number of prominent individuals had this background. So who is an Indian? As far as I see, that’s up to the Indians. Politicians should drop this non-issue.

  16. anthony 12 July 2016 / 4:34 pm

    Blaine, I completely understand that there will never be a way to break down Native Americans by tribe, but do you think that there ever will be a way to at least split North and South America from one another?
    I’ve asked 23andme and they said that Native American DNA is just too genetically similar to even try, but then I’d seen Dr. Carlos Bustamante on Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ PBS special “Finding Your Roots” with actress Jessica Alba, and they said differently.

    Supposedly, Dr. Bustamante obtained samples from several Indigenous tribes in Mexico and he said that there WAS genetic diversity between them, and Jessica Alba was able to see a breakdown (the accuracy of which, I don’t know) of Mexican Indigenous groups. If THIS can be done, then there should be a way to at least split the continents. Also, more people of Mexican descent aside from Jessica Alba should at least be able to see this.

    If you don’t want to give an opinion, that’s fine, but who do you believe? Do you believe that all Indigenous peoples from Alaska down to the southern tip of South America have no genetic diversity so it would be pointless to even try to study them even if more samples were available, or do you believe Dr. Carlos Bustamante’s claims of genetic diversity among Indigenous American peoples are legitimate?

  17. Jean E. 13 July 2016 / 11:13 pm

    I find this very interesting. I read Dr. Kim Tallbear’s twittertorial and also listened to an interview that she did on a native radio station about this subject.
    I think that I understand the issues of tribal and native identity. A person’s identity as a member of an individual tribe is different from learning that you have a Native American ancestor.

    I knew almost no family history up until about 1998. My mother was adopted and my father pretty much estranged from his family. I did meet my fathers parents one time and it turns out that ours was one of the many families who claimed to have native heritage and have roots in the southeast U.S.
    In 1998 I began researching my family on both sides and it was a revelation to find some extended family. I began searching for Native American ancestors but quickly became discouraged.
    Lately, I am thinking of doing a mtDNA to see if there is any trace of Native American ancestors since the purported ancestry comes from my grandmother’s side. If it’s there, It would be pretty far back and I don’t think it would show on atDNA. If I find none, I will probably give up on it and write it off as a family legend. I don’t want my family descendants to believe an untruth.
    If I have a positive match on mtDNA, I may begin again my research of my ancestors the old paper trail way. However, I don’t think I will ever say that I am such and such tribe. I would only say the I had a (fill in the blank) ancestor if I am lucky enough to find a definite match in the records.
    I respect Native Americans and have always had a huge place in my heart for them. I would not want to disrespect anyone by claiming heritage that is not mine, much less identity.

  18. John 14 July 2016 / 10:11 pm

    We are only stating scientific fact to support historical evidence when people such as myself state our cultural ancestry. And that scientific research that is proving those facts that we are correct in our claims is only getting more accurate and faster.

    None of us doing the facts of our genealogical ancestral research is in the words of bigots that have posted above trying to steal identity, cultural or personal, whether it be Amerindian or Scandinavian. And someone that states I’m x% Scandinavian, x% Amerindian is known to be stating ancestral genetic inheritance so please don’t embarrass yourself by being bigoted enough to pretend that they are trying to open their own casino or get a Swedish passport. Yes, it is that obvious that is what you are doing.

    One almost gets the feeling the bigots of the world are falsely trying to claim a chosen and inherited genetic purity on those they are attacking such as myself as fodder to fuel and justify their own bigotry. Sorry bigots: history and science prove that ‘you good, me bad’ is a ridiculous lie.

    You have to use a bit of sense really. We know for a fact that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. We also know for a fact I did and do not own slaves. You can’t punish Thomas Jefferson, he’s dead. And you can’t punish me either, I’m innocent, even if I did descend from Thomas Jefferson, which I don’t. The law already states you can’t attack me or attempt to incite others to attack me. So stop with the bigotry.

  19. Mj 22 July 2016 / 4:50 pm

    As a scientist, I would like to point out that ancestry.com and 23andme use a small reference group for Native American genetics, and therefore, many descendants of Native Americans will show up as pacific rim or Russian (I believe). This is especially true for descendants of the eastern and North American indigenous populations. I would also like to add an aside.

    I come from that region of the Appalachian mountains in which no removal occurred. Most people are unaware of the simple historical fact that there was no collective removal of Native American population in Virginia (which included West Virginia at the time) and Kentucky. For the most, part Virginia and Kentucky used eugenics laws to eliminate indigenous and mixed race people’s from their states in the early twentieth century.

    The state of West Virginia, however, required a full twelve jury panel to use eugenics and except for isolated incidents of forced sterilization in mental hospital (where others authorized the procedure based on familial relations for an incompetent or rogue doctors), and therefore, did not effectively practice eugenics. As a result, during the 19th and 20th centuries, historic Native American tribes, individuals, and mixed race peoples fled to WV to avoid forced removal, and later, to escape eugenics (from all across the US). West Virginia has a large number of people who are descendants of Native Americans that are not on any official rolls. Much of the state of West Virginia has a culture which reflects the original inhabitants’ standard life practices, including, hunting and gathering, and cultural traditions which are widely practiced to this day. I suspect some of those Native American grandmothers are Appalachian women from this region. The dominant tribal identities, other than Appalachian which is shared throughout the region and includes mostly non-indigenous peoples, are Cherokee, Iroquois and Shawnee, although every single historic tribe from Mohican through Susquehannock, Powhatan, Creek, Blackfeet, Mingo, and on and on, are claimed by various groups. Supporting their claims are contemporary (19th Century and prior) census reports indicating tribal groups located in those places, as well as periodic ethnographic studies carried out roughly every fifty to a hundred years which report the groups are still there and really should be further studied. The courthouse in Mercer County West Virginia has a series of reliefs in granite depicting the rescue of tribes throughout the east, and an explicit promise to treat all Peoples equally before the law because it is their right to equality. These are the only people that I know are native Americans but lack any modern tribal membership AND maintain a traditional lifestyle. Other such places may exist that I am unaware of.

    In an effort to confront pretend Native Americans, it is common to accuse West Virginians from these cultural areas of cultural appropriation. I even recall a local artist complaining about West Virginians use of their own cultural traditions as cultural appropriation. It is an Appalachian state that has the third largest wilderness area within a single state in the entire United states (with Alaska being first). Our cultural expressions are almost universally nature based. We have very similar practices to those of modern Native American tribes, but they are not cultural appropriation, and efforts made to stop such cultural expression is inappropriate on so many levels.

    So the next time someone says they have a Native American ancestor ask them if that ancestor was Appalachian, and if they say yes, ask them for details. I do it all the time. You’d be amazed what you might learn.

  20. Jacob 26 July 2016 / 1:07 pm

    I have a DNA-proven Native American ancestor, through a 3rd cousin’s Y-DNA test with the result of Q1a3a as well as paper trail evidence. However, autosomally I have not even a trace of Native in me, and neither does the third cousin with the Y-DNA test. This is why genetic inheritance and the Y Chromosome (and mitochondria) are so amazing.

  21. Jim 30 July 2016 / 5:37 pm

    Hello Mr. Bettinger,
    I recently got my AncestryDNA results and I have a question about the ethnicity estimate. I have a trace region of 2% Middle Eastern, with a range of 0%-5%. Could this be just a statistical fluke, or is there something to it? I am predominantly Western European (51%), Irish (24%), Scandinavian (7%), Eastern European (6%), and British (5%). I also have traces of Italy/Greece (4%) and Iberian (<1%). Do you think that I in fact have some Middle Eastern ethnicity?
    Regards,
    James P. Kohl

    • Melissa Middleswart 21 September 2016 / 11:17 am

      James P. Kohl: you might like to read Roberta Estes’ blog: DNA Explained, as she has a specific post about “that Middle East” result, which has confused many people.

  22. Skyler Harris 1 October 2016 / 11:05 am

    Hello!
    I have been reading a lot about all about the genetic genealogy controversy concerning proving Native American heritage. I was wondering if you could explain what the ancient DNA results may be proving? I am confused on that end.

  23. Timothy Saenz 5 October 2016 / 4:50 pm

    I think your effort to be nonpolitical may have actually impelled you to be political.

    You want to make a distinction between a human being “identifying” as a Native American and the genetic composition of that human being, what that person is actually made up of based on recognized genetic markers. Such a distinction renders identification and composition as two discrete terms with two discrete significations. Thus, a person who is not, in fact, Native American, can identify as Native American.

    Does the politician in question, Mrs. Warren, I believe, mean to say that she is merely identifying with Native Americans – whatever that means, perhaps in their experiences or religious beliefs or victimization, etc. – or is she claiming that a certain but undetermined amount of her blood is Native American in its origin?

    This latter meaning is the one she intends to convey. She claims she has at least one Native American ancestor, specifically Cherokee.

    Realizing the limits of genetic investigation, such an investigation can still be vital to establishing her claim, especially as more and more specific genetic samples are obtained. Her claim is important because she made it important. She publicly asserted it and drew attention to it on the political and literary landscape, and she continued to maintain it even while she launched several salvos of criticism at an opponent of her party. Is she being truthful?

    Genetic testing may never reveal ancestry to a specific tribe, but, as I understand it, it can reveal general native American ancestry, matches of genetic markers all Native Americans share regardless of tribe or location, when enough samples are gathered. I know Native Americans have often been lumped with Asians, but I read an article recently, in National Geographic, I believe, that said scientists have enough information to distinguish the two groups even from thousands of years ago. I don’t know whether that is correct. I am just relaying what I remember reading.

    Usually people are referring to their ancestry when they say they have such-and-such in them or they are part this or part that. If the senator meant identification in the manner you, Mr. Bettinger, seem to be suggesting, she has had plenty of time to make that clear. Instead, DuckDuckGo for articles on her claims. Here are a couple:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/05/is-elizabeth-warren-native-american-or-what/257415/

    http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2014/04/17/elizabeth-warren-repeats-her-false-claims-of-native-american-ancestry-in-new-book/

    In The Atlantic article, she is quoted as saying on CNN, “I’m proud of my Native American heritage. I’m proud of my family.” She has identified a great-great-great grandmother as being the Cherokee ancestor, but she has also claimed, apparently, Delaware Indian ancestry.

    No one has been able to provide proof for her claims, and what has been provided has been refuted, such as the bogus Indian recipes she submitted for a Cherokee cookbook. On the other hand, no proof exists that she does NOT have Cherokee or other Indian ancestry in her.

    The whole point of this line of discussion is to show what she does, in fact, mean. She isn’t identifying with Cherokees; she’s claiming to be one because of her blood line, and she was touted as such by organizations of which she became a part.

  24. Timothy Saenz 5 October 2016 / 5:03 pm

    I wanted to add that I just saw after posting your admonition to avoid usage of the senator’s name. However, you yourself provide links to your references in the middle of your post that include the senator’s name, and you provided Kim Tallbear’s tweets, which also identified the senator’s name. At any rate, my naming her was not deliberate, and many, regardless of political persuasion, must have already known who was being written about.

  25. Lisa 18 November 2016 / 3:27 pm

    Very interesting article, and I completely agree. I recently read an article about Chechnyns responding to Putin saying that Chechnya had been Russian since time immemorial, and they wanted to challenge this claim. The article’s author, whose family lived in the area for as long as they were aware, also said that she got her DNA tested and it showed among other things, that she had about 2% Native American DNA, and this was one of the DNA groups that was being found among other Chechnyans who had their DNA tested as well. She pointed out that this obviously did not mean anybody from Chechnya has a Native American ancestor, but what it possibly does show, is that probably around 20,000 years ago, some of the people who migrated to the Americas came from the same region, and that some Native Americans may have the same ancient ancestors of the people living in Chechnya today. Unlike you, but like many other Americans, I had a similar story of a great great great grandmother who was Native American, who was from the Tennessee area (which is the Cherokees’ native home before the trail of tears), however, when many of my family members got our DNA tested, none of us showed as having Native American. We did, interestingly, all show having a small amount of Melanesian DNA, which was odd, as we have absolutely known ancestry originating from that part of the world. Regardless, because of the lack of any Native American DNA showing up, we just closed the door on the whole Native American ancestry belief, but then in summer of 2015, there was new research findings published saying that Melanesian DNA was found in Native American populations, so that peaked my interest, and conversations such as this began coming to light, which now makes me wonder, and now I have considered the possibility that I just need to do more family digging, because, although these findings don’t necessarily mean, that we do have Native American ancestry, but what it does show, is that the information DNA testing provides, although can be a helpful tool, it is by no means any type of solid evidence alone, and as the research is still very new, and relies on considerations of migration patterns, that could even go back as far as 20,000 years, you have to take all the evidence as a whole, and DNA evidence may be able to show some of your ethnic background of recent ancestors, it cannot really be taken at face value. Thanks for your article!

  26. Sean Morrissey 7 December 2016 / 3:40 pm

    My DNA showed 1.6% Siberian. I share genetic marker or markers with 6 Siberian tribes: Itelmen, Koryak, Chukchi, Naukan, Chaplin, and Chukchi/Reindeer. The rest is European. I have no stories in my family that we have Native American. However, after researching my family history, I found several brick walls in the 1700s and 1800s. Kentucky, Virginia, North and South Carolina. Maybe one day I will identify who my Native American ancestors were.

    • Mel 13 January 2017 / 8:10 pm

      I didn’t read all of the comments to the article, so I apologize in advance if this was already said. DNA can not be used to “prove” a specific ethnicity. My 3rd great grand mother could be full blooded Native American, or African, or anything, yet because none of my other grandmothers are, I most likely will have none of her markers. It’s like playing cards, it’s the luck of the draw, unless it’s the direct male line. I understand many people claim NA, and just about every person who traces back to colonial America has stories of NA ancestors. My question is this, many Indian Reservations are struggling, the Nations are dwindling down because people leave for other opportunities. Many need help. Yet with all of the struggles they have and have had, their are people who had part of their identity stolen. Now, with DNA matches and Internet research, many people are finding out who they really are. They may want to embrace each part of their identity, but because their ancestors left the reservation, or didn’t go west, they do not and can not embrace the culture they’ve missed.

  27. april edwards 30 July 2017 / 3:39 pm

    We added DNA testing to our genealogy research for my mom’s side because we want as complete of a story of the people that came before her as we can get. I don’t know what people get so heated about when it comes to being labeled as Native American…?! It baffles me. All over my mom’s family tree we find links back to people who came to the US in the 17th century; that means so many intermarriages with people from all over the world that no one defining culture stands out. To me, at least, it’s the stories that make genealogy fascinating. What drove certain members to move 28 times (at a time when moving wasn’t exactly convenient) and others to stay rooted to their family land? My mother’s family is full of the Moroccan/Iberian/Berber/Egyptian DNA that apparently upset many people. On paper, supposedly, they came from England, Scotland, and Ireland predominately. According to DNA there is only a speck Irish and the largest portion non-European. And my mother is Haplogroup T, which turns out to be a hotly debated group. I just want the individual stories and if they lied about being White on census records than I’m screwed:(

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