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Native American DNA Testing - Legitimacy and HOW-TO


Published: 10/07/2015


Native American’s opinion when it comes to tribal membership is changing all because of DNA testing. However, Kim Tallbear, an anthropologist, suggests that genetic testing is a blunt tool. She and Linda Geddes sat down to talk about why tribal identity is not all about blood ties.


Tribal membership, how was it back in the day especially since you grew up in a Sioux reservation in South Dakota?

Most Native Americans lived on reservations before the Second World War. As usual, biological children were enrolled as tribal members along with adopted children and spouses as long as they are legally married. However, as people moved to more urban areas, tribes have started to get more difficult when it comes to documentation. That’s when tribe members started to enroll their biological relatives only as they are trying to find ways to keep the tribal population even when everyone is living somewhere far.


How did they know which of which were their rightful biological relatives?

There is this thing called a blood quantum and it is a way of counting family members who were enrolled as Native Americans. Most tribes in the United States have specific blood quantum that is required for enrollment and most of the time, it has to be one-quarter. You have to show proper paper documentation that you have at least one out of four grandparents that are full bloods or two grandparents who are half-bloods as long as the fraction is equal to one-quarter. That means you need to take paternity testing as well.


What has DNA testing changed so far?

In my opinion, the changes were not because of DNA testing but because of gaming. Native Americans don’t really stick with the laws of the state where they are reside instead, they follow gambling laws particularly those who grew up in the 1970s and 80s were most tribes started making gambling joints such as bingo halls and casinos at their land.

Successful gaming tribes even get dividends (individually) on a monthly basis. Some even exceed $1 million yearly. With that much money, you are really going to get serious with DNA testing. In fact, people have a tendency to think that any tribe with a casino shells out huge per capita payments. Now, most tribal enrolment directors throughout the country are overwhelmed with applications.


How do they use DNA testing to verify membership?

Depends. In our tribe, we do DNA tests to determine the trace percentage but we only do it for new applicants. Some tribes are different though, they test all their members. Since some members are not really their biological children, membership can be revoked and this happens in some tribes. Is DNA testing risky for tribal individuality?

In my opinion, it will be risky in the long run especially if they are adopted. It will cause a conflict among its members when it comes to percentage tests and genetic-ancestry tests. It is as if DNA testing can prove that someone is a Native American, which obviously cannot.


Among the tribe members who are most affected of these tests?

Usually it is those that are adopted within the community, the result of the Indian Child Welfare Act. I think it is only right to enroll adopted children along with the biological ones and the spouses. I also think we should consider citizenship like what the US does for immigrants. It is only right that they do.


What worries you when it comes to genetic testing?

I am worried that one day, companies who market such tests will represent Native Americans as a pure racial category. It will be very complicated when that happens. What makes ancestry testing tempting?

Everyone has always wanted to know who really owns this land and with that said, people would always exclaim that they are of Cherokee ancestry but they’re not really Cherokee by spirit and soul and that’s what worries us.


With genetic mixing between groups, do tribes still matter?

A tribe should not be considered as a racial group. Most of my relatives have non-native fathers and yet we are strong because we were raised in an extended Dakota kin group. But we do have a specific cultural identity and it is based in the land that we hold sacred. It is what gives our lives such meaning and it makes us who we truly are.