Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Native American Tribal Enrollment and DNA Testing -- Part One

Quoting from the US Department of the Interior website:
Tribal enrollment requirements preserve the unique character and traditions of each tribe. The tribes establish membership criteria based on shared customs, traditions, language and tribal blood.
For genealogists, the term "tribal blood" opens up a whole collection of related topics. Regularly, I received questions from individuals pursuing a traditional family connection to a Native American ancestor. This is one of those "tip of the iceberg" issues. While I was working at the Mesa, Arizona FamilySearch Library, we had frequent requests for help with Native American research with the objective of the researchers to obtain enrollment in a particular tribe. The United States government recognizes 566 American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes.

Here I need to write a bit about the terms "Indian," "American Indian," and "Native American." The issue of which of these terms, if any, is politically correct is an ongoing and unsettled issue. Many websites, even those maintained by the tribes, use all three terms interchangeably, even though there are those who are not Native Americans who believe that it is more politically correct to use the term "Native American." From my own standpoint, my ancestors have been in America since 1620 and I am not sure how long we would have to be here to qualify as Native Americans. All three terms imply some sort of racial or ethnic uniformity among the tribes, which does not, in reality, exist. The terms also only seem to apply to those people living in the United States; Indians who live in Latin American countries are subject to their own cultural and ethnic classifications and our artificially imposed national boundaries do not reflect any real cultural or ethnic differences.

As I mentioned above, membership in a tribe has been traditionally based on blood quantum laws. One convenient explanation of blood quantum laws can be found in a Wikipedia article entitled "Blood quantum laws." Here is a quote:
Blood quantum laws or Indian blood laws are those enacted in the United States and the former colonies to define qualification by ancestry as Native American, sometimes in relation to tribal membership. These laws were developed by Euro-Americans and thus did necessarily not reflect how Native Americans had traditionally identified themselves or members of their in-group, and thus ignored the Native American practices of absorbing other peoples by adoption, beginning with other Native Americans, and extending to children and young adults of European and African ancestry. Blood quantum laws also ignored tribal cultural continuity after tribes had absorbed such adoptees and multiracial children.
Here is a further explanation from the same article:
A person's blood quantum (aka BQ) is defined as the percentage of their ancestors, out of their total ancestors, who are documented as full-blood Native Americans. For instance, a person who has one parent who is a full-blood Native American, and one who has no Native ancestry, has a blood quantum of 1/2. Since re-establishing self-government and asserting sovereignty, some tribes may use blood quantum as part of their requirements for membership or enrollment, often in combination with other criteria. For instance, the Omaha Nation requires a blood quantum of 1/4 Native American and descent from a registered ancestor for enrollment.
Now, from a genealogical perspective, you can see why people might be interested in making a genealogical connection to an American Indian ancestor. These connections became more interesting as the tribes began to create income from casinos and related commercial activities.

Originally, the blood quantum laws were exclusionary rather than inclusionary. The laws were designed to deny those with Native American "blood" from becoming citizens or participating in elections. Native Americans were not granted voting rights or citizenship until June 2, 1924, but some states still barred Native Americans from voting until 1957.

Despite the qualifications and definitions imposed by the U.S. government, the tribes began their own processes of qualifying membership. In fact, this process is ongoing and recent developments in some tribes have resulted in excluding members who were previously recognized. Here is a further statement from the Wikipedia article about the history of the blood quantum laws.
Many Native American tribes did not use blood quantum law until the government introduced the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Some tribes, such as the Navajo Nation, did not adopt the type of written constitution suggested in that law until the 1950s. given intermarriage among tribes, particularly those that are closely related and have settled near each other, critics object to the federal requirement that individuals identify as belonging to only one tribe when defining blood quantum. They believe this reduces individual's valid membership in more than one tribe, as well as costing some persons qualification as Native American, because of having ancestry from more than one tribe, but not 1/4 or more from one tribe. Overall, the numbers of registered members of many Native American tribes have been reduced because of federal laws. 
"The U.S. census decennial enumerations indicate a Native American population growth for the United States that has been nearly continuous since 1900 (except for an influenza epidemic in 1918 that caused serious losses), to 1.42 million by 1980 and to over 1.9 million by 1990." In the 2000 census, there were 2.5 million American Indians. Since 1960, people may self-identify their ancestry on the US Census. Indian activism and a rising interest in Native American history appear to have resulted in more individuals identifying as having Native American ancestry on the census.
The recent popularity of DNA testing for genealogical purposes has opened up an entirely new discussion among those who are concerned about their ancestral ethnicity or racial composition. The entire subject is fraught with political and social overtones. The whole concept of "race" is beginning to be questioned. As noted by the Wikipedia article, "No federally recognized tribe enrolls members solely based on DNA testing, as it generally cannot distinguish among tribes.[18] " In addition, the article states: 
Many researchers have published articles that caution that genetic ancestry DNA testing has limitations and should not be depended on by individuals to answer all their questions about heritage.[19][20]
The issues raised as a consequence of tribal membership limitations ultimately have far reaching impact on the overall results presented by the various artificial designations imposed by the DNA testing companies. For example, my own DNA tests have assigned me a certain percentage of "English" ancestry. Is being English a tribe or a race? What does it mean to be English? Historically, the British Islands have been overrun by several different ethnic groups from across Europe and elsewhere. The question of defining what it means to be English is not trivial. See "What does it mean to be English?" the Queen Mary University of London. Do we define being English by DNA, politics, ethnicity, or merely because some or all of our ancestors were born within a certain politically defined area?

Again referring to my own DNA testing results, I am said to be a certain percentage Italian and Baltic. However, extensive genealogical research going back as far as reliable records exist do not indicate any ancestors from either area. So do I get to join the Italian tribe? Can I claim to be Italian? These are real questions, not sarcastic ones.

Many of the "DNA matches" I am receiving from the test results are based on less than 2% shared DNA. What does this mean? Could someone establish a Native American connection with those results?

During the next few posts in this series, I will continue to explore these and many other questions that should be asked and answered in conjunction with the popularization of DNA testing as it applies to Native Americans and the rest of us who do not claim to be members of an identifiable group.


  1. Nice post. Your thoughts and questions are aligning with my own. My recent DNA results yield 16% Native (North American Indian, or as we say north of the 49th parallel, Indigenous peoples or aboriginal Canadians). My father is half Aboriginal (his mother was British, father Ojibwa--I found his lineage linked to Potawatomi [Chicago area]).

    Apparently, that should label me as quarter Native--but what is this 16% value really mean?

  2. Thank you! I was adopted at the age of 7. I am now 68. I found my biological mother who was a member of the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians. She has passed but told me I should research to see if I can be accepted by the tribe. I contacted the tribe but they said a moratorium was placed on enrollment since a law suit that threw 60 members out of the tribe. Those members were adopted into the tribe but did not have the required 1/8 blood. I am just the opposite. I was adopted out of the tribe and according to 23andMe I have over 20% Native American blood all from my mother.
    I have contacted the Bureau of Indian Affairs, The Children Home Society (my adoption agency in Jacksonville, FL), the governor, both senators, the tribe, the San Diego newspaper that covered the law suit, 23andMe, etc. Everyone responded to let me know that they received my data except the BofIA. But none has responded to give me advice or direction.
    So I, a 20% Native American, have no voice! I have no rights!