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TallBear: Can DNA determine who is American Indian? ^

Posted on 12/09/2003 5:40:45 AM PST by chance33_98

TallBear: Can DNA determine who is American Indian?

Posted: December 03, 2003 - 8:07am EST by: Kim TallBear / Associate / Red Nation Consulting

There is talk in Indian country about how DNA can decide tribal enrollment and prove American Indian ancestry. Some of this is coming from DNA testing companies anxious to sell costly services to tribes. Self-determined tribes struggling to control identities and resources must make decisions about the risks and benefits of DNA testing. Some tribal decision-makers display healthy skepticism as they talk about the complicated nature of identity, family, and community. Biological connection is not the sole important factor in determining who belongs. Cultural knowledge and connection to a land base are also valued. Many Indian people are also concerned about loss of privacy and control if outsiders hold biological samples. Other tribal decision-makers have expressed interest in DNA testing and still others need more information.

Do Not Rely on DNA Testing Companies for Information

DNA testing companies are not in business to provide accessible and balanced information on DNA technologies. Their brochures generally contain shallow scientific detail. I suspect this is partly because these scientist-entrepreneurs do not know enough about the cultural politics of tribal membership to apply science to such questions.

At a recent "tribal enrollment workshop" (that played out like a three-day sales pitch for DNA testing) a company representative claimed that DNA technology is "100 percent reliable in terms of creating accurate answers" to questions of tribal enrollment. But tribes should ask "which questions can this technology provide answers to?"

Sometimes the biological connection of an enrollment applicant is in question. In this case, a tribe might call for a DNA test of the individual to prove relation to an enrolled member. More often, tribal enrollment and identity questions center around two issues that DNA cannot inform: cultural affiliation and the distribution of money and services. Like "blood quantum" DNA is an imperfect answer to the cultural question. Neither a higher blood quantum nor DNA can guarantee greater cultural attachment. In addition, casino tribes issuing per capita payments want to distribute money to as few people as possible; they often impose non-biological barriers to enrollment. What does DNA matter in these cases?

Overview of DNA Testing

In general, two types of tests are offered to help American Indians prove ancestry: "DNA fingerprinting" and tests for "Native American haplotypes" or lines of descent.

The DNA fingerprint is the type of test used in criminal cases to prove, for example, that a bodily fluid found on a crime victim belongs to an individual suspect. This test is also used to establish paternity and maternity when the DNA of parent and offspring are compared.

One company sells this test as a paternity and maternity test and claims that it will ensure that "only Native Americans that deserve to be members of your tribe will be." However, most tribes do not decide enrollment solely based on simple biological connection. For example, blood quantum attempts to quantify one’s Indian-ness; it is not used to prove parentage. And parentage is not usually in question.

Another company promises to help individuals establish their "identity as a Native American" by testing for Native American DNA. But what is "Native American DNA" and is it relevant to tribal enrollment?" A paper by the Nevada-based Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism (IPCB) explains why DNA is not a valid test of Native American identity:

Scientists have found … "markers" in human genes that they call Native American markers because they believe all "original" Native Americans had these genetic traits … On the mitochondrial DNA, there are a total of five different "haplotypes" … which are increasingly called "Native American markers," and are believed to be a genetic signature of the founding ancestors. As for the Y-chromosome, there are two primary lineages or "haplogroups" that are seen in modern Native American groups …

IPCB points out that "Native American markers" are not found solely among Native Americans. While they occur more frequently among Native Americans they are also found in people in other parts of the world.

A second problem with tying markers to Native American identity is that mitochondrial DNA and Y marker testing show only one line of ancestry each. Therefore, Native American ancestors on other lines are invisible.

IPCB addresses a third crucial problem with DNA testing for identity: Genetics cannot help determine specific tribal affiliations for living people or ancient human remains. This is because "[n]eighboring tribes have long-standing complex relationships involving intermarriage, raiding, adoption, splitting and joining. These social historical forces insure that there cannot be any clear-cut genetic variants differentiating all the members of one tribe from those of nearby tribes."

So "Native American markers" can tell something about an individual’s biological descendancy along a few ancestral lines over archaeological time. But how does this inform tribal enrollment? Many individuals around the world no doubt possess markers and yet have no close biological, social or cultural attachment to a living tribe. In contrast, individuals with strong connections might not have the markers because their American Indian ancestors are not on the lines of descendancy covered by the tests. DNA testing fails to provide definitive answers on either biological or cultural connections to a tribe.

What does it Cost and who’s in Control?

DNA testing by a private company is expensive. Depending on the type, tests range from $150 to $600 per individual.

One DNA testing company offers DNA fingerprinting for two to three individuals (an individual plus one or both biological parents) for $500. They advocate tribal-wide DNA testing. To estimate cost, the number of tests for a tribe of 10,000 members might be 4,000 (an average of 2.5 people per test). At $500 per test the cost to test all members would be $2 million. This same company advertises a more costly "individual DNA identity system" to accompany tribal-wide testing. This is a programmable identification card that stores a tribal member’s information (i.e. enrollment number, health services, voter registration, and a DNA profile). This company charges $320 to produce each individual card totaling $3.2 million for a 10,000-member tribe.

A tribe determines information to be included on the card and maintains the database. However, the tribe sends (often confidential) data to the company and they generate the cards. The company notes that they purge the data after producing the card. Yet tribes relinquish a good deal of sovereignty by sending confidential data to be consolidated by a private company. No doubt, many tribal members would object to the invasion of privacy.

Tribes should also consider the logistical nightmare of doing DNA tests on all members, especially those living off reservations. In summary, DNA testing does not seem to provide cost-efficient, politically tenable, or substantive solutions to most cases of tribal enrollment.

Seek Reliable Advice

Unfortunately, there is no single source for information on DNA technologies and tribes. Nonprofit organizations and academic resources used in conjunction are a good start. The Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) located in Cambridge, Mass. can provide general information about genetics ( The Genetics and Identity Project at the University of Minnesota Center for Bioethics has on-line information on genetics and American Indian Identity available at IPCB’s paper on DNA and Native American identity and other documents on genetics are available at IPCB is well-networked on genetics issues affecting indigenous peoples and can help tribes find technical assistance.

Kim TallBear is an associate with Red Nation Consulting and a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota. She specializes in tribal program development and strategic planning and has worked with many U.S. tribes, tribal organizations, and federal agencies. She is a Ph.D. student in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on racial formation among American Indians, specifically how DNA and blood influence identity and community belonging. She is a 2003 recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Miscellaneous
KEYWORDS: tribalmembership

1 posted on 12/09/2003 5:40:46 AM PST by chance33_98
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To: chance33_98
There is no DNA marker for race.

Race is a sociological attribute, not a biological one.

That's why I always call myself "Black" on all government forms.

The dirty little secret is that nobody can prove otherwise.
2 posted on 12/09/2003 5:52:19 AM PST by E. Pluribus Unum (Drug prohibition laws help fund terrorism.)
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To: chance33_98
3 posted on 12/09/2003 5:54:38 AM PST by Chad Fairbanks ( All indicators show that the human race is selectively breeding itself for stupidity.)
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To: chance33_98
My family is already listed in the Cherokee register in about five different places as far back as the eighteen hundreds. Does this article mean they are going through the list and making a cull or what?
4 posted on 12/09/2003 6:04:50 AM PST by MissAmericanPie
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To: MissAmericanPie
Most Indians I have talked to on this issue not only expressed a "healthy skepticism" about DNA testing, but also a lack of trust as to what would be done with these DNA samples when testing is complete - too many eugenics memories from the 20s and 30s, I guess...
5 posted on 12/09/2003 6:07:42 AM PST by Chad Fairbanks ( All indicators show that the human race is selectively breeding itself for stupidity.)
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To: E. Pluribus Unum
Race is a sociological attribute, not a biological one.

so a guy with black skin, a guy with olive skin and eastern facial charachteristics, and a white guy with blonde hair would all look the same if they were raised in the same sociological conditions? I havent observed this in multi racial adoptive families.

6 posted on 12/09/2003 6:13:41 AM PST by templar
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To: chance33_98
So how much "red" blood do you need to get all the college...monthly stipends...gambling payoffs...
Granny told us we have some in our family...
But if you have white blood shouldnt you be taxed based upon how much.....? The more white you are the more of a burden you should bear...not fair to tax us part innuns as much as pure breds...imo
7 posted on 12/09/2003 6:19:54 AM PST by joesnuffy (Moderate Islam Is For Dilettantes)
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To: joesnuffy
Oh, as usual, Europe can lead the way of this difficult issue. The best set of guidelines were written over 60 years ago. They were called The Nuremburg Laws. I guess some people want to impose them here.
8 posted on 12/09/2003 6:22:23 AM PST by ClearCase_guy (France delenda est)
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To: templar
Being an American Indian is, for all intents and purposes, a "political" issue. It has very little to do with having an American Indian ancestor as many African-American members of various recognized Indian tribes can tell you.
9 posted on 12/09/2003 6:26:25 AM PST by muawiyah
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To: Chad Fairbanks
Good because I don't want to have to give a dna sample for the same reasons.
10 posted on 12/09/2003 6:40:40 AM PST by MissAmericanPie
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To: NRA2BFree
Tribal membership ping.

Many people of different races were taken into different tribes.Also,some tribes intermixed a lot.(Don't I know) :O)

I don't think DNA is really a good test for this purpose.

N,I've been under the weather and will drop you a FReepmail later.:)

11 posted on 12/09/2003 6:48:43 AM PST by Free Trapper (One with courage is often a majority)
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To: templar
There are in general, however, more genetic differences between members of the same group than there are between members of different groups. That's why the term race is such a crock. It's a subjective distinction.
12 posted on 12/09/2003 6:51:54 AM PST by mewzilla
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To: muawiyah
"Political" is a good word for it that I'd never have thought of. :)

A DNA test has no more to do with a Swedish youngster being adopted into an American Indian family and tribe any more than it would have anything to do with being a citizen of the U.S.

13 posted on 12/09/2003 7:14:03 AM PST by Free Trapper (One with courage is often a majority)
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To: chance33_98
There are a good many scholarships at Universities that are earmarked for Native Americans that go unclaimed every year. According to the university workers I spoke with, any Native American proof is good enough to receive the stipends. This DNA testing will open a big can of worms.
14 posted on 12/09/2003 8:32:52 AM PST by vetvetdoug
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To: chance33_98
I suspect this is partly because these scientist-entrepreneurs do not know enough about the cultural politics of tribal membership to apply science to such questions.

This entire article is a hogan-load of magical thinking.  One of the greatest travesties humanity exercises on itself is the deliberate abandonment of rationality in the face of superstitious longing.  It shows little sign of ever going away.
15 posted on 12/09/2003 9:07:01 AM PST by gcruse (
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To: chance33_98
read later
16 posted on 12/09/2003 9:16:03 AM PST by LiteKeeper
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To: templar
so a guy with black skin, a guy with olive skin and eastern facial charachteristics, and a white guy with blonde hair would all look the same if they were raised in the same sociological conditions? I havent observed this in multi racial adoptive families.

No, but the differences in terms of genetic material are indiscernible.

You can't take a sample of DNA and determine what the "race" of the donor was.


In 1758, botanist Carolus Linnaeus, famous for his system of classifying plants and animals, declared that the human species was made of four sub-categories, which he called red, yellow, black and white. For an arbitrary and scientifically unsound division, this notion of separate human races has deeply ingrained itself in our culture, with devastating consequences for many people throughout the world. The 2000 census still asked people to categorize themselves by Linnaeus' old categories, albeit with new names and adding, by popular demand, several additional "races." But modern science, with the tools of DNA analysis, shows that all humans alive today share a common origin dating a few tens of thousands of years ago, an eye blink in evolutionary time. Superficial changes accumulated as people separated and spread around the world, some through chance and others through the need to adapt to different climates.

"Race is not biologically definable, we are far too similar," said Kenneth Kidd, a geneticist from Yale University who has compared DNA samples from people around the world.

Not that the idea of race is now going to disappear. "Race is a very real social construct," he said. "You ask people if they've been discriminated against because of their race and many Native Americans and African Americans will say yes." And the social reality of race influences many people's everyday lives. Those who marked the "white" box on the census and those who marked "African American" may not really belong to different races, but one will be followed by the police into a store, said University of Pennsylvania sociologist Tukufu Zuberi. One will get a cab to stop while the other will watch it drive by. There is no denying that people's physical appearance changes from one geographic region to the next. Skin color is the most dramatic such variable trait, but hair type, body form and facial features show patterns that coincide with a person's ancestry. It is what University of Michigan anthropologist Loring Brace calls "family resemblance writ large." What science does not find, however, are any sharp divisions between specific groups of people. But what Linnaeus did that was so damaging was not oversimplifying the skin-deep differences between people but attributing personality characteristics to each of his four races. Being a light-skinned Swede, it's not surprising that he attributed the most desirable qualities to "white" people and attributed mostly undesirable ones to the three others.

This kind of thinking continues today, said Zuberi, whose book Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie will soon be published. One big way racial statistics lie, Zuberi said, is by promoting the belief that someone's race causes him or her to act in a certain way - to drop out of school or commit a crime, for example. Linnaeus, of course, should not alone be blamed for racism. Since the beginning of history, people have used physical or cultural differences to justify murder, slavery and plunder. They can deem their closest cousins to be of a different race if it proves politically expedient.

Over the last several years anthropologists have engaged in dozens of debates over whether race exists, pitting a "race-reality" camp against "race-denial" one. Most of the debate centers on the use of the term race. Beyond that, they almost universally agree that there are no subspecies of humans alive today.

That wasn't always the case. Until about 30,000 years ago, modern humans lived alongside the more primitive Neanderthal Man, and the two groups may have had contact or warfare. Before that, often two, three, or more groups of proto-humans occupied the planet simultaneously. Though we sprang from a confusing array of humanoid creatures, DNA analyses done in the late 20th century show that all humans stem from a small group living in Africa 100,000 years ago. It was a story that backed, in spirit at least, the biblical version of our origins from a common ancestry. And since the research initially used DNA passed down the female lines, the theory became known as "African Eve." Unlike the biblical Eve, however, this African Eve was not the first woman, only the most recent common ancestor of modern humanity. At the time she lived, Africa, Europe and Asia had long ago been colonized by various proto-humans, human subspecies, and perhaps other tribes of modern humans. The Human Genome Project, which used DNA from donors of different ethnic origins, showed that there are no genetic boundaries between people that would correspond to anything like separate races. There are only statistical differences in the ways genes are distributed. There are no exclusively black genes, or white genes, or Pacific Islander genes, for that matter. If there is a genetic variant common in Africans, it will show up in Asians, Europeans and native Australians.

So what makes people from different parts of the world look so different? One factor is evolution by natural selection, which continues to alter all living species over time. As people migrated northward, the danger of Vitamin D deficiency gave an advantage to the light-skinned. As groups moved to more-equatorial locales, the dangers of sunburn and skin cancer favored darker individuals. Many genetic varieties that seem disadvantageous today carried some advantage in the past: a single copy of the sickle-cell gene confers protection against malaria. The other factor is genetic drift. It happens when populations become isolated and narrowed down to a small number of survivors - sometimes called a genetic bottleneck. Then, any trait that happens to be common among those people, say red hair and freckles or type O blood, will become common in their offspring as their population rebounds. Sometimes those particular characteristics show up as higher disease rates in some groups. African American men, for example, get prostate cancer at more than twice the rate of Caucasian men, and when African Americans are diagnosed, they are more likely to die from the disease. Reasons abound for higher disease rates among minority populations. There are dietary differences, differences in access to health care, different environmental exposures. In the case of prostate cancer, said Timothy Rebeck, an epidemiologist at Penn, the number suggests something beyond these environmental factors. What he has found is a variant of a particular gene that seems to increase risk. The gene isn't exclusive to African Americans - it shows up in all populations - but about 50 percent of African Americans carry this version of the gene, while 5 percent of Caucasian men do. It could be genetic drift that accounts for the difference, or the gene could confer some subtle advantage that is not yet understood.

A few scientists, including the authors of the infamous 1995 book The Bell Curve, persist in promoting a belief in race and its ability to predict intellectual abilities. But a more recent best-seller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, makes the point that intellectual gifts are distributed evenly among all ethnic groups and that differences in technological advancement between peoples have nothing to do with innate ability and everything to do with the plant, animal and mineral resources available in any given place. As long as racism lives, we can't just do away with those race boxes on the census, said Penn sociologist Zuberi. Right now it's too dangerous, he said, "to eliminate racial classification before you deal with the impact of racial stratification." We may all be one race, but those who are seen as racial minorities have to stand up and be counted, at least for the time being.

Faye Flam's e-mail address is

17 posted on 12/09/2003 9:37:10 AM PST by E. Pluribus Unum (Drug prohibition laws help fund terrorism.)
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To: templar
An analog to race is the fact that domestic dogs are genetically indistuinguishable from wolves.

Even chihuahuas.
18 posted on 12/09/2003 9:39:08 AM PST by E. Pluribus Unum (Drug prohibition laws help fund terrorism.)
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To: Free Trapper
Thanks for the ping! It's an interesting article. I'm sorry You've been sick. I hope you're feeling better soon. Whenever you get time is fine. :)
19 posted on 12/09/2003 2:01:29 PM PST by NRA2BFree (If I told you Hillary Clinton is a bwitch, would you know what two words I used to make bwitch?)
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