Harlan McKosato

The Money-Making Machine Known as DNA Testing

Genealogy sites thrive on our curiosity to know where we came from through our DNA

What if you thought you were practically full-blood Native and took a DNA test and found out you were 34 percent white and/or 15 percent black? Would it be demoralizing? Would you demand a re-test and plop down another 100 bucks? DNA/ancestry testing is a gigantic money-making machine. It’s based on our own curiosity to find out who we are and where we come from – it’s an interesting thing.

My mother was my ancestry.com. When I was younger, she was always telling stories about who was part of our family tree (and who wasn’t), and how we were related to this family and who my great grandparents were – and just on and on and on. I always wondered “why is she telling me all this? What good is this going to do me?”

I look at all the advertisements for these DNA testing/ancestry/genealogy sites and now I know why mom told me all those stories – she was instilling in me a sense of identity and purpose. I did absorb everything she was telling me, at least subconsciously. Therefore, I don’t have any questions about who I am and where I come from, and who my ancestors are; although there are gaps in the equation.

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“I had no idea (that I was Native American). I absolutely want to know more about my Native American heritage. It’s opened up a whole new world for me,” says the spokeswoman in the Ancestry.com commercial, who states that after her DNA test she found out she was 26 percent Native American. How in the heck do you get to be 26 percent of anything? I know it’s mathematically possible, but that just goes to show you something about these tests.

They’re not that accurate. They are based on what they have in their database, which are massive, and they look for similarities from you with people who are already in their database. Let me quote the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), who have developed their own American Indian and Alaska Native Genetics Resource Center:

“Genetic information (i.e., DNA) collected from individuals, families, and communities can be used in many different ways and it is becoming more of a discussion topic in tribal communities. While research is one possible use of genetic information, this information can also be used to examine how people are related to one another by comparing the similarity of their DNA sequences. In almost all genetic testing, information is expressed in terms of probability or a chance of something.

“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.”

I’ve always wanted to find out that I was part white and had a big inheritance from my European ancestors that needed to be claimed. I haven’t found a relative in Europe yet (I haven’t looked) but I’m pretty sure I’m either 1/32 or 1/64 French. Maybe I can become a citizen of France if I can authenticate my French bloodline.

Natives are strong and we are proud. Other people want to be part of that – they want to think they are justified for what happened to the Indigenous Peoples here in the so-called Americas. And there are many people who are looking to prove their Native American ancestry so they can become enrolled tribal members who are looking to cash in on our casino per capita (good luck with that). I was very proud of Snoop Dogg when he found out he was something like 28 percent Native American.

From what I’ve discovered, he never tried to enroll in a tribe. Why would he? Why should he? Now I know there are those Natives who were adopted by non-Native parents who didn’t hear the stories growing up. That’s the exception to the rule. If you want to find out the truth about who you are and where you come from don’t take a DNA test; don’t go to an ancestral lineage website. Do your research and find out what is your most likely tribe. Seek out one of the elders of the tribe. They know the story and they may know the real history of your family.

Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.

  • Jean P.

    Thank you so much for this article. I identify as African American, but because my mother told me so many stories handed down through the generations of our intermingling with the Choctaw of Mississippi I felt compelled to tell my daughter and granddaughters. My sisters wanted to take these DNA tests to “prove” if we truly had Native connections or if mom was just “twirly”. Well one of the six of us, and came up with all kinds of weird concoctions including Neanderthal. I laughed myself silly. I told them to just stick to what mom told us – she knew who our kinfolk were.

  • Richards B.

    I had a blood test to be a bone marrow donor. The nurse said I showed all the markers for NE Native American. I did an autosomal DNA test and an MtDNA test. Both showed no Native American. My paper trail and family history indicates possible Native American on both sides of my family but it is a long time ago. Ancestry totally screwed up my father’s DNA test. First they “lost” it twice. Then they came up with results that were impossible according to DNA experts. Then my brother tested with Family Tree DNA and so did our 3rd cousin once removed. They matched exactly but had NO matching markers with my dad’s test. Of course, this is impossible as my dad had to match if my brother did. So much for all this bologna that someone is 26% Native American according to their DNA.

  • Hors G.

    I took the cheap DNA and it didn’t tell me anymore than I already knew. To me it was a waist of
    money. I think Ancestry did a poor job at it anyway. I just wanted to find out more than I already
    knew, but it didn’t show me more.

  • Susan M.

    I am an Ancestry.com member, and I am constantly berating them for that TV ad. They don’t mention that Native American DNA covers all of North, Central, and South Americas. They know that having a North American NA ancestor is one of the greatest fantasies for the Americans dabbling in genealogy. I am continually telling people on the Ancestry.com message boards to document it in more than one way before you claim a tribal affiliation. You wouldn’t believe how many people write in to that message board, wondering why no NA DNA came up on their test results, when grandma told them stories about their Cherokee great grandmother. DNA testing is a nice way to add to your documentation about your genealogical roots, but Ancestry is being deceptive about what the test actually represents. Thank you for bringing this up in the press.

  • David R.

    Good write-up. I agree with most of it, but my own case is a little different. I have to know about everything, and the more information the better. DNA was one of those curiosity that needed to be relieved. It’s kind of like “home is where the heart is.” I can be informed that I have ancestors from multiple places worldwide, and still know who and where I am. For less than $100, there’s no harm in that.

  • Brandon M.

    Interesting article, and I completely agree with the substance of the larger argument. Looking into the issue with DNA testing, there are Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups that are strictly Native American – but DNA does not narrow that down to any specific tribe. As Kim Tallbear and others have argued this is a deal breaker because genetic makeup does not grant one claim to ethnic and cultural membership. Native Americans are such an incredibly diverse group of peoples, spanning across whole language families, varied ways of life, and even continents, that the term “Native American” itself is practically meaningless on its own. It makes sense then that Native American tribes are not just seeking to maintain genetic makeup – but also group cohesion through their particular cultural heritage because without that cultural knowledge the notion of being “Native American” is about as meaningless as the term itself.

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The Money-Making Machine Known as DNA Testing

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