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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Native American Tribal Enrollment and DNA Testing -- Part Two

Over my lifetime, I have often heard the term "blood relative" used to differentiate between a relative who was part of my ancestral line and one that "married" into the family. The technical term for this is "consanguinity" which is defined as the property of being from the same kinship as another person. In that aspect, consanguinity is the quality of being descended from the same ancestor as another person. The idea that relationships were transmitted through the blood dates back into antiquity. Obviously, scientific advancements in DNA testing demonstrate that the relationships between individuals even in the same family are much more complicated than a simple "blood" relationship.

In the series, I am using the example of Native American tribal enrollment to explore the practical uses of DNA testing to establish relationships and a culturally and politically charged environment. In this context, genealogical research, DNA testing, and desires to preserve a cultural heritage can either work together or create irretrievable conflicts. Although I am focusing on Native American tribal enrollment for this example, the discussion applies to the greater issues involved in general genealogical DNA testing.

Let me start with a hypothetical situation. Let's suppose that I take a DNA test supplied by one of the major genealogical DNA testing companies. Let's further suppose that the DNA test shows that I have a certain percentage of Native American ancestry and that I am surprised with the results of the test. For whatever reason, I do not have a family tree associated with the DNA test. In this, I am far from unique. For example, recent news reports indicate that has sold approximately 5 million DNA test packages. However, their latest reports also show that their paid membership is only about 2.6 million. Arguably, there are about 2.4 It's million or so people out there with DNA tests who do not have family trees on See's Company Overview.

Continuing with my hypothetical situation, let's suppose that the report from my DNA test indicating that I have Native American ancestry motivates me to begin some genealogical research. How far back in time would that research have to go to establish the identity of the Native American connection?

My hypothetical connection to a Native American ancestor could date back hundreds of years and depending on the availability of the records, I may never establish a paper connection with a Native American ancestor. Even if I assume that I already had an extensive family tree on the DNA testing program's website, making a connection to a specific ethnic group such as a Native American ancestor would be extremely difficult. The other hand, it could be as simple as finding out that my grandparents were Native Americans.

As I look at the results of my own DNA tests and compare the results to what is already known from my own family tree, I presently see no way to extend the research to account for reports that I have Italian and West Asian ethnicity.

 This is not an abstract topic. It is part of an ongoing discussion in the Native American community about the role of DNA testing in establishing tribal enrollment. Quoting from an article entitled "Tribal Enrollment and Genetic Testing" from the National Congress of American Indians, American Indian and Alaska Native Genetics Resource Center:
When the NCAI Policy Research Center began developing this resource guide, tribal leaders asked many questions such as, “What is genetic testing? What are good sources of information about genetic testing? What kinds of DNA testing can we use for tribal enrollment? How do we respond to individuals claiming tribal membership based on DNA tests?” This paper was developed to provide tribal leaders with more information on genetic testing related to tribal enrollment. Tribes are sovereign nations and so will decide their own views on genetic testing. This paper provides information to assist in those decisions.
This article outlines some of the challenges of bringing genealogical DNA testing into the real world. The following comment from the same article further illustrates the challenges of assuming that DNA testing will solve ancestral relationships in a general way.
DNA testing has become an umbrella term that refers to many different kinds of genetic testing that provides information about an individual’s genes. Genetic information, or DNA, is found in nearly every cell in the human body. DNA testing technology is constantly changing, and so are the efforts to engage tribes in testing on an individual and group basis. One type of DNA testing called DNA fingerprinting can be used to help document close biological relationships, such as those between parents and children, as well as among other close family members. Other kinds of testing for genetic ancestry use markers to see how similar an individual is to a broader population or group, based on probabilities drawn from databases of research on populations and group genetic characteristics. However, no DNA testing can “prove” an individual is American Indian and/or Alaska Native, or has ancestry from a specific tribe. Genetic testing can provide evidence for the biological relationship between two individuals (e.g., paternity testing), but there are no unique genes for individual tribes or American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) ancestry in general. While research scientists have found that some genetic markers are found mostly only in AI/ANs, these markers are neither unique to AI/ANs nor predictive of AI/AN identity. This section will discuss various types of DNA testing as well as considerations for tribal leaders and members when engaging with testing companies.
This article also is linked to a further discussion entitled "Considerations in Using Genetic Testing for Tribal Enrollment."

What is certain is that the situation I outlined above in my hypothetical would not be helpful or useful in determining the type of information necessary to develop a tribal relationship.

 Stay tuned for the next installment.

To see the previous installment of this series click below.

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