Searching for Native American Ancestry

In many ancient cultures, the ancestors were the gods themselves. In most, the ancestors held a sacred space in a person’s spiritual life, and were essential to fashioning personal identity. As a remnant of those ancient cultures, we still share today a fairly strong desire to know something of our ancestors. Americans are largely cut off from deep connections to ancestry, but we aren’t cut off from the longing to know the stories of the people who came before us. Maybe that’s why so many people are now interested in using DNA to trace Native American ancestry. We all have family stories, but we don’t really know which parts are true, or how much they might mean to us and who we are now.

We’ve seen controversies over this very matter in the news recently in which one politician resorted to a DNA test in order to rebut the mockery of another politician. When she did this, she stepped into a whole new controversy. Native American tribes didn’t want her to claim to be Native American based on a DNA test. This is understandable. Obviously, if you aren’t culturally Native American, you aren’t Native American no matter what your DNA says.

Lots of American like me, though, know that we aren’t culturally Irish, yet every year we go nuts over St. Patrick’s Day and celebrate the Irish in us even though we know we have no claim to Irish citizenship.

We understand that we are not our DNA, especially our distant DNA, yet we still long for stories of ancestors. That’s human nature. It’s built into who we are.

The problem with applying the Irish comparison to Native American DNA, though, is that some people have tried to use DNA in order to claim membership in a tribe and thus collect tribal benefits. Since this might include casino revenues or other monetary benefits in some cases, it’s a real problem. That’s why Native American tribes in the United States in particular have been reluctant to participate in DNA studies. That’s their right, and I believe they are in the right to do so. (See Genetic Research in Native Communities for more information about problems Indigenous people have experienced with DNA studies)

The shortage of extensive ancestry DNA studies on Native American tribes within the United States, though, does it make it more complicated to verify whether your family stories of Native American ancestry are true. I’ve heard a number of people say that they have taken DNA tests, and no Native American ancestry showed up, despite having family lore that includes Native Americans.

I am one of those people. We have more than lore in my family. We have a paper trail. I know that there are Mississippi Choctaws on my family tree. My DNA test did not reflect this, however, and my brother’s did not either. That’s no big surprise. We took tests from companies that did not claim to trace for Native American ancestry.

I think there are some companies now that do test for Native American ancestry–witness our current politician as an example of someone who has made use of one. Also, I think that some tribes are more likely to show up than others, and Native heritage from Latin American countries is also more likely to show up. Mayans have not had the same motivations to avoid DNA studies that tribes specifically rooted within the United States have had.

Lack of participation in DNA studies is only one complication, though. There are actually several reasons you might have family lore of Native ancestry but not have Native DNA show up is an ancestry test.

1. The family might be wrong. Maybe the connection never existed, or maybe it was in your family tree, but not in your direct line of ancestry. Maybe Grandpa’s second wife was Choctaw, but you are actually descended from his first wife. Maybe there was an NPE, which either means “non-paternal event” or “not paternity expected” in DNA terms depending on who you talk to. Anything along those lines could have happened, especially if the connection is far enough back that you do not have anyone’s living memory to rely on.

2. You could have Native American ancestry and not have Native American DNA. If you go back enough generations so that you have hundreds or even thousands of ancestors at that level on your family tree, all of those people are your ancestors, but you did not retain DNA from all of them. (See Unexpected Ethnicity Results)

3.  Your family could be right, but the person who is your Native American ancestor was not 100% genetically Native American, so even if this person appears within the past five generations on your family tree, you don’t really know how much Native American DNA he/she contributed to your overall makeup. It might seem to you like it should be enough to be statistically relevant, but maybe it isn’t even if your family lore is correct. Let’s face it, Native American women have been giving birth to the children of European men and raising them within their own tribes ever since European men first arrived on this continent. Whether as a result of intermarriage, consenting relationships, or rape, these things happened. If your paper trail ends with your Choctaw Great-Great Grandmother, as mine does, you might know for certain that your ancestor was culturally 100% Choctaw, but you don’t know for certain that she was genetically 100% Choctaw.

It’s complicated. People who look for Native Ancestry and don’t find it tend to be dismissed as nothing more than “typical.” It is very common for people to start out looking for Native American ancestry because of family stories, but not get the results they are looking for from DNA tests. It’s also very common for people to take the wrong test for the results they are looking for or to use a company that doesn’t offer the results they are looking for.

Family myths do pop up without any real evidence. In my family, I read a story in my genealogy searches that said I was descended from people who came over on the Mayflower. Later, I discovered in more extensive searches that I was not. I was descended from people with similar names who lived roughly during the same time period but who definitely could not have been the same people.

In the case of Native American DNA, though, your testing may or may not disprove your family stories. It may or may not be possible to prove anything with DNA. The best you can do is to educate yourself about the process and try not to be fleeced by companies charging high prices to promise you more than they can deliver. Also, if possible, work on chasing the paper trail. Old fashioned genealogy research can tell you more than DNA if you want to know who your ancestors were. If that fails and DNA testing fails, it might be time to simply let the mystery be.