Features Print Editor, Olly DeHerrera, explores the dangerous constraints of science on culture

The rise in popularity of home ‘DNA kits’ has shifted the way in which we understand ourselves, blurring the lines between science and identity within the concept of race and ethnicity. A typical commercial DNA test kit can be used at home to obtain certain genetic information, most commonly the paternity of a child, the sex of an unborn baby, or the presence of certain genetic factors. Increasingly, DNA kits are being marketed as a way to obtain data on one’s own supposed ethnicity through genetic heritage.  

Most of the popular on-the-market DNA kits look to autosomal chromosomes to collect their data. The average person is born with 23 pairs of chromosomes of two broad categories – autosomal and sex chromosomes. Sex chromosomes are made up of X and Y chromosomes and people typically have either a pair of X chromosomes or X and Y chromosomes. Autosomal chromosomes make up the other 22 pairs and mostly everyone has a complete set of these. An autosomal DNA test only looks at the DNA from these 22 chromosome pairs.

Ancestry – the UK’s most popular DNA testing service, explains their methods:

“Scientists can use this information to look for large areas of shared DNA between you and other people in a database to find close relatives. The more DNA shared between you and another person, the more closely you are related.

Scientists can also compare your DNA to DNA from people with deep roots in various parts of the world. For example, if part of your DNA is similar to the DNA of people from France, that part of your DNA is said to be from France. This is how we learn where your ancestors lived hundreds or even a thousand or more years ago”.

This new phenomenon of commercialised DNA science is also helping reinvent old forms of racism, specially towards Indigenous groups. The Tribal Advisory Committee for the National Institution of Health in North America (NIH) has expressed concerns regarding “the use of human genetic material in research and its implication for American Indian identity”, specifically referring to how DNA testing kits are “marketed and interpreted to characterize tribal identity”.

NIH Fellow, Hina Walajahi, found upon investigation that 25 of the most popular DNA testing services measure Native American ancestry as a distinct category; however, crucially, of those 25 sites only three explicitly distinguish between genetic ancestry and concepts of ethnicity and identity. This is significant as DNA is not used as a qualifying mark for any federally recognised tribe within the USA; instead, community engagement, lineage and traditions are more important aspects of claiming a Native American identity.

This commercialisation of identity through DNA testing kits is problematized in Walajahi’s research: 

“eight companies claimed their test would help customers discover who they were, using language such as “Reinvent the way you see yourself” and “Discover Yourself.” Two other companies advertised that their tests could confirm culture and traditions”. 

Such proposition erases the complex and historic ways in which individual tribes conceive of a Native identity, suggesting that someone may access Native American culture purely by a DNA result that they may not have even been expecting. Such forms of testing also notably exclude Native American Tribe members of Black African descent- of which many came to exist during the period of Black enslavement in the US. What this reveals is the inevitable clash between science and culture that occurs when we try to apply method and data to complex notions of identity. 

The notion that ancestral percentage is at the core of Native American existence has previously – and continues to – cause significant damage and limitations to Native American people. Native Americans are the only US ethnic group who’re required to show ‘proof’ of their supposed ‘blood’ status: putting us among horses and dogs as the only 3 US groups for which such limits are applied. The historic ‘Blood Quantum’ system was designed by the US government as a sort of ‘race science’ that attempted to quantify who could be Native American based on ‘blood’ percentage by parentage. Under such requirements it was supposed that Native Americans would eventually breed themselves out of existence and release the US government of treaty obligations to protect land or provide reparations. This is one of many genocidal methods the European settlers opposed on the Native Americans. 

Because of historic and present racisms, many tribal leaders are sceptical about genetic research. In 2003, Carletta Tilousi, a member of northern Arizona’s tiny Havasupai Tribe, took part in a supposed doctoral research study on diabetes conducted in part with her DNA. However, when attending a presentation on the research Tilousi and other members of the Havasupai Nation learnt their DNA had been used for other studies, too. Some of the studies sought to challenge her tribe’s traditional stories by suggesting the Havasupai people did not originate in Arizona. That genetic analysis, tribe members worried, could potentially pose a threat to their claims to their traditional lands. In 2003, the largest tribe in the US, the Hopi (Navajo) Nation, banned genetic research into the tribe over similar concerns. 

Furthermore, the accuracy of DNA kit testing in relation to ethnicity also comes into question. Samantha Ancona Esselmann, Ph.D, product scientist for the popular DNA testing company 23andme, writes “many of our customers expect to see evidence of Indigenous American ancestry in their DNA, but don’t. This is among the most common customer complaints we receive”. She explains a likely reason behind this as “a result of genetic recombination — the process through which DNA is randomly shuffled between generation[s]. This means that you can be directly descended from someone indigenous to the Americas without having any DNA evidence of that ancestry”. 

What pervades is that falsely claiming a romanticized Native identity based only on DNA evidence can be deeply offensive and limiting to people whose identities, experiences, worldviews, and cultures are shaped by being Native American. Whilst such testing services offer an exciting opportunity to form new ideas about one’s identity- they do not provide insight into the suffrage associated with the Native American peoples. Whilst there are very valid reasons someone may not know of their Native American ancestry (separation and forced adoption are commonly afflicted on tribes), such a service as DNA testing erases the nuances and fought-for traditions by which a person embodies their Native American identity. Part of respecting the culture is understanding how scientific ideas have been politically weaponised against us.

Native Americans are a modern people, not just an ancestry; our existence has been fought for and transcends many European constructions of race, family and belonging.

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