What makes you Native American (or African, or Hawaiian or European, or…), DNA or culture?

Jun 22nd, 2011 | By | Category: Ancestry, Social & Ethics

From my family genealogy, I am positive most of my genetic ancestry is Anglo with small contributions from German, African and Native American ancestors.

My cultural genealogy is something substantially different. I grew up in Virginia in the last half of the 20th century United States, where the African contributions on music, food, politics and more was great both in the larger culture and in my personal experience. Though I am genetically only a few percentage points African, by virtue of being an American, growing up in the South, my thought processes, tastes and worldview were substantially influenced by the African-American experience. It goes without saying the same is true about Anglo culture contributions to music, food, politics and more.

Additionally, my grandmother was deeply proud of her maternal Native American (Mattaponi) heritage. She considered herself, as did her mother, a Mattaponi. She related stories and culture to me. I felt nearly as Mattaponi as a kid sometimes as anything else (even so far that I attempted to conduct my own huskanow at the age of 16). Am I Mattaponi? Was my grandmother? Her mother?

The answers to this for me are “not really, but kind of”, “most likely” and “definitely yes.” Though my own genetics barely registers that heritage,  the genetics of my grandmother would probably only suggest it and that of my great grandmother would still be a mixture, our cultural heritage outsizes the genetic heritage by several orders of magnitude.

So, what makes someone Indian? And when does someone stop being Indian? This is a question brought up in a recent article: Tribal Wars: DNA testing divides American Indians. This is not a new question, as the article begins:

Membership disputes are nothing new in Indian country…. “There are tribes across our country that have terminated a significant portion of their citizens. In California alone, nearly 2500 Indian people have been stripped of their tribal citizenship since the approval and expansion of Indian gaming, stripping them of the right to vote, representation for their allotted tribal lands and healthcare,” said a statement issued by the organisers of the protest.

In many tribes, with the rise of mixed marriages and adoptions, this issue was settled along familial lines which could be genetic or not (adoption, raised in culture). Your father or mother was a member of the tribe, so were you. With the rise of Indian gaming, and the subsequent rise in benefits to be a member of the tribe, the issue became more important.

And now, along comes DNA testing to make the issue all that more striking.

Some tribes have resorted to DNA paternity tests to exclude new member requests, but it is the stories of the paternity tests to expel long-term members of the tribes that is the most troubling. The story of Daria Powess of the Ho-Chunk (also known as Winnebago -wikipedia link) is illustrative, as quoted in the article:

Daria Powless, 20, was brought up by her grandmother within the Ho-Chunk tribe in Wisconsin. So when her right to belong to the tribe was challenged by three other members, she thought nothing of volunteering a DNA sample to prove that she was related to her father, making her 1⁄4 Ho-Chunk blood and eligible for membership.

Her DNA told a different story, revealing that her father was not in fact her father. On top of the emotional trauma this revelation caused, the Ho-Chunk tribe proceeded to try and expel her, as she no longer met the blood quantum for membership.

Blood quantum requires a certain number of ancestral members of the tribe (often two great-grandparents, or a grandparent). The tribe is now moving to expel Daria Powless from the Ho-Chunk nation based on this evidence (see the court proceedings, warning, PDF):

The Committee determined that Ms. Powless, through clear and convincing evidence provided through a DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) test,6 that she was not one-fourth (1/4) Ho- Chunk blood as constitutionally mandated; as a voluntary DNA analysis of the petitioner, Daria M. Powless, and the purported source of her blood quantum, Eldon Powless, revealed that there was a 0.000% chance that the alleged source of the petitioner‟s blood quantum was related to the petitioner.

A lifetime being raised by your Native American grandmother on the ancestral land, immersed in the culture and accepted as one of the community is negated by a single DNA test.

So far these tests can only prove or disprove the parentage of an individual, autosomal testing for general Native American heritage is sketchy, Y or mitochondrial testing will produce false negatives and to determine a specific tribe is currently out of the question. But, lets make the jump and assume these tests too become more used. I’d suspect that there will be a lot of tribal members who will find themselves with a much smaller detectable “Native American” genetic heritage than they ever imagined. This will challenge what it means to be Indian. This holds  even more true for the Eastern US tribes, which have had centuries of population loss and admixture with European and African-American populations.

Which brings us back to the Mattaponis and the Virginian tribes. These tribes are highly mixed genetically, but culturally cohesive. Several are recognized by the state of Virginia (there are two-Mattaponi & Pumunkey- state-recognized reservations that are hundreds of years old). These tribes have been attempting to obtain federal recognition for years. DNA tests of the tribes members could conceivably thwart those attempts. Currently federal recognition is granted by several criteria. Yet, DNA testing would bring a crisis to the Virginian tribes if they decided it was genetic heritage that determined membership to the Mattaponi, Chickahominy or other groups.

Needless to say, this issue resonates with me and not just because I have a grandmother who could legitimately claim both genetic and cultural heritage to the Mattaponi, where mine is much more tenuous.

But also because this issue dovetails neatly into transracial adoption and mixed race identity. As the adoptive father of an African-American daughter and a mixed-race daughter, the issue of what they will consider their identity is in the forefront on my consciousness, as I am certain it will be for them in a way I can only barely imagine. But I find it interesting, even in our language we use to describe them. Recently we obtained our 23andMe data. Our older daughter, the one that is marked on forms and viewed by most as “African-American,” is genetically about 70% African and 25% European (with a bit of Native American). The younger daughter, the one who people label “Arabic” or “Indian” or “undetermined” is of about 40% African heritage and nearly 40% European, with nearly 20% Native American (actually, her parentage is probably part Latino.. yet another cultural/genetic issue).

From their genetic heritage they both are differing amounts of African, European and Native American. But is this their identity? Their cultural heritage? Like mine, their cultural heritage comes from their parents (that would be me and my husband’s) and the surrounding culture in which they are raised. Their cultural heritage will be ours and more. It will be influenced by what we bring to it, what milieu they are raised in and how people perceive them. It will overlap, and be different from, their genetic heritage, as mine. Our daughters will surely identify with an African-American cultural heritage. It is part of our own and we enhance it through extended family, friendships, celebrations and education. People will perceive her to be African-American and it will be part of her identity. But there is more, my older daughter (3rd grade) researched and gave a presentation on Utah recently. My husband is of old maternal Mormon pioneer stock (and Spanish settlers of California). In her presentation to the class, she apparently announced she was “part Mormon.” Along with her strong African-American cultural identity, comes Mormon, Anglo and more.

Which is more “real?” Our genetic heritage, or our cultural one? I would strongly side with the cultural one being the one that is most important to our identity. Our genetic heritages can inform and illustrate, but they are tangential to who we are. So we return to the issue of Native American tribes, will they strengthen their cultural identities as an arbiter of who is a member, or will they use genetic heritage to eliminate people from their communities who are culturally, and all rights, a members.

This issue is not exclusive to Native Americans, adoptees or mixed raced individuals. African-Americans confront the issue (Obama?). European-American Southerners will find they have African genetic heritage. Hawaiians have been confronting the issue in many ways. This became a small issue for us when we had considered staying permanently on the Big Island of Hawaii and looking for schools for our daughters.  The Kamehameha schools focus on Hawaiian culture and language and only allow those of Hawaiian descent in the schools (excellent schools by the way):

The schools’ controversial admissions policy prefers applicants with Native Hawaiian ancestry and has excluded all but two non-Hawaiians from attending since 1965. A lawsuit challenging the school’s admission policy resulted in a narrow victory for Kamehameha in the Ninth Circuit Court; however, Kamehameha ultimately settled, paying the plaintiff $7 million.

One could predict that in the not distant future Kamehameha schools and other institutions will start using DNA as a test of heritage. This might affect the self-identity of many Hawaiians. Is being Hawaiian a genetic heritage or one of culture and language?

As DNA testing becomes more inexpensive and prevalent, this issue of who we are and this difference between our cultural selves and our genetics selves will become even more pronounced, and perhaps even, hopefully, bring some more introspection.

As I explained to another adoptive parent the information and feelings I was gleaning from looking at our genetic heritage her comment was: “This is going to be a paradigm shift for a lot of people.” And, as a good friend, who is mixed-race himself (Indian/Anglo) with a mixed race adopted child (Arabic/Anglo), said to me recently as we discussed the issues of DNA testing and identity…

“this changes everything.”


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4 Comments to “What makes you Native American (or African, or Hawaiian or European, or…), DNA or culture?”

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  3. [...] native american heritage, my heritage and my daughters’ heritage in a post titled “What makes you Native American (or African or Hawaiian or European) DNA or culture?“. And I’ve come to the same conclusion: Which is more “real?” Our genetic [...]

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