Every day, I receive e-mails very similar to this one.
“My family has always said that we were part Native American. I want to prove this so that I can receive help with money for college.”
The reasons vary, and not everyone wants to prove their heritage in order to qualify for some type of assistance. Some want to find their tribe and join to reclaim their lost heritage. Some want to honor their persecuted and hidden ancestors, undoing some of the wickedness of the past, and some simply seek the truth. Regardless of why, they are all searching for information lost to them.
I’d like to talk about three topics in proving Native Ancestry. First, I’d like to do some myth-busting. Second, I’d like to talk a little about conventional research and third, I’d like to discuss what DNA can, and can’t, do for you.
As you read this blog, please click on the links. I’m not going to repeat something I’ve already covered elsewhere.
Myth 1 – Free College
There is no free college for Native Americans. There are sometimes scholarships and grants available, mostly by the individual tribes themselves, for their official members.
Myth 2 – Joining a Tribe
Many people think that if they can only figure out which tribe their ancestor descends from, they can join. This is untrue. Each tribe is a sovereign nation, and they get to determine their criteria for membership. Most tribes require a specific percentage of Native “blood,” called blood quantum, in addition to being able to document which tribal member you descend from. Some tribes require as much as 25% Native heritage, and most require at least 1/16th Native heritage, which is one great-great grandparent. If you don’t know who in your family was a tribal member it’s unlikely that you would be able to meet the blood quantum requirement.
Myth 3 – DNA Testing Will Reveal my Tribe
Generally, DNA testing does not provide us with the information needed to determine a tribe, although it can clearly tell, using y-line or mitochondrial DNA testing, whether your direct paternal or maternal line was or was not Native. Sometimes you will be able to infer a tribe based on your matches and their documented history, but the definition of tribes, their names and locations have changed over time. We are working on improving this ability, but the science simply isn’t there yet and the number of Native people who have tested remains small.
Simply put, most federally recognized tribes aren’t interested in more tribal members. More members mean a smaller piece of the pie for existing members. The pot of resources, whatever resources you’re discussing, is only so large and it must be shared by all tribal members.
What is a Tribe?
Tribes in the US fall into two categories. When most people think about tribes they are talking about federally recognized tribes. Those are tribes that have some continuity with the past, such as they have always been a tribe, or they still retain tribal lands, etc., and the federal government recognizes them as such. These are the tribes that qualify for government programs and many own casinos. As you might imagine, with the influx of casino money, the desire to join a tribe has increased significantly.
The second category is non-federally recognized tribes. Some are state recognized and others, not at all. State recognition does not in any way guarantee federal or state funding and there are no universal standards for state recognition. In other words, your mileage may vary, widely. Non-federally recognized tribes are often run as non-profit entities. In many cases, these tribes will help people research and document their genealogy and may be more open to tribal membership for those connecting with their Native heritage.
Be aware that some “tribes” that fall into the non-federally recognized category may be less than ethical. Some tend to come and go. In one case, to apply to join, one had to provide information such as social security numbers and a complete family pedigree including your children. In some cases, membership is very expensive, hundreds of dollars, but is available to almost anyone for the right price. When evaluating tribes that are not federally recognized, if something sounds fishy, it probably is. Caution is the watchword.
In general, the federally recognized tribes do not feel kindly towards the non-federally recognized tribes and view them as “fake,” interlopers trying to get part of that pie. Of course, the non-federally recognized tribes feel differently; that they are reclaiming their heritage denied them. Native American politics is nothing new and is fraught with landmines.
No federally recognized tribes, to the best of my knowledge, have considered DNA testing as a criteria for membership. No federally recognized tribe has endorsed or participated in DNA testing that I’m aware of. This does not mean that individuals have not privately tested.
Traditional Genealogy Research
Given the criteria for membership in federally recognized tribes, traditional genealogy is the only way to obtain the type of information required. If your family history includes a tribal name, and east of the Mississippi, that most often is Cherokee, contact the various Cherokee tribes to inquire about membership criteria. If the membership criteria is 25% blood quantum, and you must live on the reservation, you’re toast…..no need to continue that line of research if your goal is to join the tribe.
If your goal is simply to find your Native ancestor, that’s another matter entirely. Begin by using the traditional research tools.
First, look at where your ancestor or that family line was located. Did they migrate from elsewhere? How were they listed in the census? Was someone listed as other than white, indicating mixed race? Check the records where they lived, tax records and others to see if there is any indication of non-European heritage. Remember that your non-white ancestor would have retained their “darker” countenance for at least 2 generations after being admixed. Many Native people were admixed very early.
So first, check the normal genealogy records and look for hints and traces of non-European ancestry.
Second, turn to Native resources that might reflect the Native people in the areas where your family is or was found. The Access Genealogy site is absolutely wonderful and has an amazingly complete set of records including searchable tribal rolls. In addition, I add information almost daily to the Native Heritage Project at www.nativeheritageproject.com, which is searchable. There are many more resources including several collections at Ancestry.com.
Hopefully, these records will help narrow your focus in your family tree to a particular person or two, not just a general branch. Family rumors like “Grandma was a Cherokee Princess” are particularly unuseful. What they more likely mean is that there was indeed some Native ancestry someplace in her line. Cherokee has become a generic word like Kleenex. It may also have meant that Indian heritage was claimed to cover much less desirable African heritage. Institutionalized discrimination existed against any people of color in pre-1967 America, but Indians generally retained some rights that people of African ancestry did not. Laws varied by state and time. Take a look at my blog about Anti-Miscegenation Laws and when they were overturned.
Now, let’s look at DNA testing to see what it can do for you.
DNA Testing to Prove Native Ancestry
There are three types of DNA testing that you can do to prove Native Ancestry. Two are very focused on specific family lines, and one is much more general.
- Mitochondrial for your direct maternal line.
- Y-line for your direct paternal line – if you are a male. Sorry ladies.
- Autosomal to test your ethnic mix and one direct marker test for Native ancestors.
On a pedigree chart, these genealogical lines look like this:
You can see the path that the blue Y chromosome takes down the paternal line to the brother and the path the red mitochondrial DNA takes down the maternal line to both the brother and the sister. Autosomal tests the DNA of all of the 16 ancestral lines shown here, but in a different sort of way.
Let’s look at each type of testing separately.
Y-Line DNA – For Paternal Line Testing for Males
The Y-line testing tests the Y chromosome which is passed intact from father to son with no DNA from the mother. This is the blue square on the pedigree chart. In this way, it remains the same in each generation, allowing us to compare it to others with a similar surname to see if we are from the same “Smith” family, for example, or to others with different surnames, in the case of adoption or Native heritage. Native American genetics isn’t terribly different than adoptees in this situation, because different English surnames were adopted by various family members, into the late 1800s and sometimes into the early 1900s, depending on the location.
Y-line DNA can tell you whether or not you descend from a common male genealogically when compared to another testing participant. Small mutations do take place and accumulate over time, and we depend on those so that we don’t all “look alike” genetically. It can also tell you by identifying your deep ancestral clan, called a haplogroup, whether or not you descend from early Native Americans who were here before contact with Europeans. For that matter, it can also tell you if you descend from those of African, European or Asian ancestry.
Scientists know today that there are only two primary haplogroups indicating deep ancestry that are found among Native American males who were here prior to contact with Indo-Europeans, and those haplogroups are C and Q3. It is not accurate to say that all C and Q3 individuals exist only in the American Native population, but the American Native population is part of the larger group worldwide that comprises C and Q3. We find some haplogroup C and Q3 in Europe but none in African populations, although we do learn more every single day in this infant science.
This sometimes becomes confusing, because the single most common male haplogroup among current Cherokee tribal members who have tested is R1b. How can this be, you ask? Clearly, one of three possibilities exists:
- The Cherokee (or those tribes who were assimilated into the Cherokee) adopted a European male into the tribe or a European male fathered a child that was subsequently raised as Cherokee.
- The R1b ancestor was not adopted into the tribe, maintained their European/American identity but married a Cherokee individual woman and their descendants are recognized as Cherokee today.
- There is some level of R1b admixture in the Native population that preceded contact with Europeans that we have not yet identified.
Because of the unique haplogroups for Native Americans who preceded European contact, Y-line is the only way to positively confirm that a specific line is or is not of Native American descent. This obviously applies to all of the individuals in the pedigree chart who directly descend from the oldest known ancestor in this paternal line.
Y-line testing does not indicate anything about the contributions of the other ancestors in this family tree. In other words, you could be 3/4th Native, with only the direct paternal line being European, and this test would tell you nothing at all about those other three Native lines.
When ordering DNA tests at Family Tree DNA, which is where I recommend that you test, everyone is encouraged to join projects. There are several types of projects, but to begin with, you should join your surname project. Not only does this group you with others whom you are likely to match, but this also assures that you receive the project based discounts. I blogged about how to find and join relevant projects.
You can test at 12, 25, 37, 67 or 111 marker “locations” on the Y chromosome. I generally recommend 37 or 67 to begin which gives you enough to work with but isn’t terribly expensive. At Family Tree DNA, you can always upgrade later, but it’s less expensive in total to test more initially.
Family Tree DNA provides significant tools for Y-line DNA as well as Mitochondrial DNA. At Family Tree DNA, for all their tests, you are provided with the e-mail addresses of your matches. At Ancestry and 23andMe, you contact matches through their internal message system. My experience has been that direct e-mails have a better response rate.
The person looking for Native Heritage will be most interested in their haplogroup designation. If your haplogroup is either Q or C, you’ll want to join your haplogroup project, minimally, as well as other relevant Native American projects, and work with the administrators for further testing. Remember, neither haplogroup Q nor C are always Native, so deeper testing may be in order. You may also match others with confirmed Native heritage, including a tribe.
If the haplogroup is not Native, then you’ll have to take a look at possible reasons why.
One can never interpret non-Native haplogroup results of any one line to answer the much broader questions of, “do I have Native heritage”, “how much” and “where?” What you can do at that point is to continue to test other lines in order to discover the identity of your Native American ancestor.
Obviously, the Y-line test is only for males. Ladies, I feel your pain. However, these next tests are for both sexes.
Mitochondrial DNA – For Direct Maternal Line Testing for Both Sexes
Mitochondrial DNA is inherited by all children from their mother only, with no admixture from the father. Women obtain their mitochondrial DNA from their mother, who got it from their mother, on up the line into infinity. This is the red circle on the right hand side of the pedigree chart. Like Y-line DNA, mitochondrial DNA is passed intact from one generation to the next, except for an occasional mutation that allows us to identify family members and family lines.
Unfortunately, it does not follow any surname. In fact the surname changes with every generation when women marry. This makes it more challenging to work with genealogically, but certainly not impossible. Because of the surname changes in every generation, there are no “surname” projects for mitochondrial DNA, per se, but there are other types of projects. For example, the Mothers of Acadia project is using mitochondrial DNA to reconstruct the Acadian families including those of Native American heritage.
There are three levels of testing you can take for mitochondrial DNA at Family Tree DNA, which is where I recommend that you test. The mtDNA, the mtDNAPlus and the Full Sequence. The mtDNA test is a starter test that will provide you with a base haplogroup, but will leave people searching for Native ancestry needing a more complete test for full haplogroup identification confirming Native ancestry. I strongly recommend the full sequence test, but if the budget just won’t allow that, then the mtDNAPlus will do until you can afford to upgrade. Family Tree DNA is the only major lab that tests the full sequence region, plus, they have the largest matching data base in the industry.
To put this in perspective for you, the mtDNA and the mtDNAPlus tests both test about 10% of your mitochondrial DNA and the full sequence test tests all of your 16,569 mitochondrial locations. You can then compare them with other people who have taken any of those 3 tests. Pricing for the mtDNAPlus is currently $139 and the full sequence is $199.
MtDNA testing is not as popular as Y-line testing because it’s more difficult to use genealogically as last names change every generation. When you look at your matches, you have no idea whatsoever if you might be related to these people in a genealogically relevant time frame by looking at their last names. Those who have invested the effort to collaboratively work on their mtDNA matches, assuming a full sequence match and a shared geographical history as well, have been pleasantly surprised by what they’ve found.
A haplogroup assigning deep ancestry is provided through mitochondrial testing, so like the Y-line, depending on the haplogroup assigned, you will know if your ancestors were here before European contact. Maternal haplogroups that indicate Native heritage include A, B, C, D and X. Like Y-line DNA testing, none of these haplogroups are exclusive to Native Americans, so a full sequence level test will be required to confirm a Native American subgroup.
After you receive your results, you can enter the mtDNA and mtDNAPlus portions into public data bases. There are no public data bases for the full sequence segment because there may be medical implications in some of those mutations, so they are not displayed publicly although they are compared privately within the Family Tree DNA data base. You will want to enter your data and check for matches at www.mitosearch.org (upload directly from your matches page at Family Tree DNA), www.smgf.org and www.ancestry.com, although beware of Ancestry’s accuracy issues.
Update: As of 2019, mitosearch and SMGF no longer exist and Ancestry no longer sells Y and mitochondrial DNA tests, having destroyed their database.
Testing the Y-line and mitochondrial DNA individually gives us a great deal of very specific information about 2 lines in your pedigree chart. The best method of identifying Native American ancestors is indeed to test as many lines on your DNA pedigree chart using this methodology as possible. Let’s take a minute to look at how to create a DNA pedigree chart.
DNA Pedigree Chart
If your Y-line and mitochondrial DNA have proven not to be Native, that doesn’t mean that the rest of your lines aren’t.
Let’s take a look at how to create a DNA pedigree chart so that you can focus your Y-line and mitochondrial DNA testing for other lines.
The purpose of a DNA pedigree chart is to provide guidance in terms of inheritance and also to provide a way of documenting your progress. My chart is shown below, as an example.
You can see the Y-line of my father and the mitochondrial line of my mother, on both ends of the pedigree chart. At the top of each line, I have recorded the haplogroup information for each family. Color coding each line helps in tracking descendants who would carry the DNA of the ancestor of that line. For example, my mother’s father’s mother’s line is the yellow Miller line. I need to find a daughter of my grandfather’s sisters, or their children, or their daughter’s children, to test for that mitochondrial DNA line. Which reminds me, I need to call my cousin. Family reunions, picnics and holidays are great for this type of thing. Sadly, so are funerals.
I blogged about how to put together your own DNA pedigree chart. If you’re Native and adopted, then refer to the adoptee blog instead, or in addition.
But sometimes, we can’t find the right people in order to test, so we move to autosomal testing to help us fill in the blanks.
Autosomal Testing – For Both Sexes – The Rest of the Story
Autosomal DNA testing tests all of your 23 pairs of chromosomes that you inherit from both of your parents. You get half of each chromosome from each parent. You can see this pattern on the pedigree chart, represented by all of the 16 genealogical lines. Therefore, as you move up that tree, you should have inherited about 25% of your DNA from each grandparent, about 12.5% of your DNA from each great-grandparent, as have all of their other great-grandchildren.
Therefore beginning with your parents, you carry the following approximate amount of DNA from each of these ancestors. I say approximate, because while you do receive exactly 50% of your DNA from each parent, there is no guarantee that their parents DNA was admixed in your parents such that you receive exactly 25% from each grandparent, but it’s close. You can see the percentages in the chart below.
||% of Their DNA You Carry
Given this chart, if the Native percentage is back beyond 6 generations and drops below the 1% threshold, it’s extremely difficult to discern today.
Autosomal testing will pick up relationships reliably back to about the 6th or 7th generations, and sporadically beyond that.
Autosomal testing provides you minimally with two things. First, with a list of “cousin matches” by percentage and estimated relationship. Second, percentages of ethnicity. It’s this second part that’s most important for the person seeking to prove Native American heritage.
Percentages of Ethnicity
As the field of genetic genealogy has moved forward, research has begun to indicate that certain autosomal markers are found in higher or lower frequencies in different ethnic populations.
For example, if someone has the Duffy Null allele, or genetic marker, we know they positively have African admixture. We don’t know how much African admixture, or from which line, or when that individual with African admixture entered their family tree, but we know for sure they existed.
Attempting to determine the population frequency of varying markers and what that means relative to other populations is the key to this analysis. Few markers are simply present or absent in populations, but are found in varying frequencies. Some populations are widely studied in the research literature, and others are virtually untouched. Thousands have only been recently discovered as part of the National Geographic, Genographic project.
The process of compiling this information in a meaningful manner so that it can be analyzed is a formidable task, as the information is often found in nearly inaccessible academic and forensic research publications. It’s difficult to determine sometimes if the DNA analysis of 29 individuals in a small village in northern Italy is, for example, representative of that village as a whole, of northern Italy, or more broadly for all of Italy. Is it representative of Italy today or Italy historically? These and other similar questions have to be answered fully before the data from autosomal testing can be useful and reliable.
Let’s take a look at all 3 of the contemporary autosomal tests and what they have to offer.
Note: as of 2019, MyHeritage is also a major player in the autosomal DNA testing space.
Family Tree DNA
Family Tree DNA sells the Family Finder test. Right now it is priced at $79 or bundled with attractive pricing with either the Y-line or mitochondrial DNA tests. I often like to use this tool in conjunction with the Y-line and mitochondrial DNA tests to see, if you match someone closely, whether you are actually related to them in a recent timeframe or if it is further back. Family Tree DNA is the only one of the autosomal testing companies that has the ability to do this type of advanced comparison. Compared to 23andMe and Geno 2.0, they are the only ones to offer traditional Y-line and mitochondrial DNA testing which provides individual marker results and matches.
In addition to a list of autosomal matches, you will receive your breakdown of ethnicity, by percent. The results below are for the same man with Native ancestry whose Geno 2.0 results are shown in the Geno 2.0 – First Peek blog.
You can read more about the Family Tree DNA autosomal product on their FAQ.
Another company that sells autosomal testing is http://www.23andme.com. In addition to a list of cousins, you also receive admixture percentages, and their specialty, health traits. You also receive a paternal and maternal haplogroup, but with no markers for personal comparison. These Y-line and mitochondrial results are not as accurate at the Geno 2.0 nor the Family Tree DNA Y-line and mitochondrial DNA full sequence tests.
Be aware that while people who test at Family Tree DNA are interested in genealogy, the typical person at 23andMe tested for the health portion, not the genealogy portion, and may not answer contact requests or may know very little about their family history.
Right now, their test is $99, and you can download your results and upload them to Family Tree DNA for an additional $89, making the total price similar to the Family Tree DNA test. However, you need to be somewhat technically savvy to complete the download/upload process.
23andMe recently released a new version of their software which added quite a bit of resolution after years of being woefully behind. Native American wasn’t even a category previously.
Ancestry.com recently introduced an autosomal test. You receive matches and ethnicity percentages. However, their ethnicity percentages have significant issues and I would not recommend them at this time. Their cousin matches come with no analysis tools. So for now, just skip Ancestry and concentrate on the other resources.
One Last Autosomal Test
One marker value in particular, known as D9S919 is present in about 30% of the Native people. The value of 9 at this marker is not known to be present in any other ethnic group, so this mutation occurred after the Native people migrated across Beringia into the Americas, but long enough ago to be present in many descendants. You can test this marker individually at Family Tree DNA, which is the only lab that offers this test. If you have the value of 9 at this marker, it confirms Native heritage, but if you don’t carry 9, it does NOT disprove Native heritage. After all, many Native people don’t carry it.
To order this test, for existing Family Tree DNA clients, click on the “Order Upgrade” orange button on the right hand side of your personal page, then on “Advanced Test”, then enter “autosomal” in the drop down box, then you will see the list below. D9S919 is the last one and it costs $15. There may be a $10 one time transfer fee as well if your DNA sample is not in the Houston lab.
Swimming in Many Pools
As you can see there are lots of tools available to you that can be used individually or in conjunction with each other. Like anything else, the more work and effort you are willing to devote to the search, the more likely you are to be successful.
Most people test their Y-line and mitochondrial DNA, not just for Native ancestry, but to learn more about the lines they can test for themselves without reaching out to other family members.
Use your DNA pedigree chart to plan who to ask in your extended family to test for which lines.
Plan to test with multiple autosomal testing companies. Autosomal testing in particular is still in its infancy. I like to use the results of multiple companies, especially when you are dealing with small amounts of admixture. They use different markers, combinations, analysis tools and reference populations, so you can expect slightly different results. One company may pick up slight minority admixture while another may not. This has happened repeatedly with both my Native and African minority admixture.
After you obtain your results from either Family Tree DNA or 23andMe, you’ll want to download your raw data results and then upload the file to www.gedmatch.com. This is a privately run “donation” site, not associated with any of the testing companies, meaning there is no subscription or fee to use the tools, but they do appreciate and are funded by donations.
After uploading your results you can utilize several admixture tools to compare and contrast your results.
If you’re struggling with working through your family possibilities for who to test, I do offer a DNA Test Plan service.
If you would like a Personalized DNA Report for Y-line or mitochondrial results, those are available as well.
If you have what amounts to a quick question that I can answer in less than an hour, including prep, I offer the Quick Consult service.
For more extensive consulting, contact me. You can see my services here.
Finding our Native ancestors is a way to pay homage to their lives and to the culture that was stripped from their descendants, ironically, by using their own DNA that has been gifted from them to us. Native people, after contact with Europeans were marginalized, and that’s the best that can be said. Many were killed, either intentionally or by European diseases, or enslaved. The results are that Native people left few if any individual records and those that might be available often can’t be identified or linked to them personally. For those who cannot unearth their Native ancestry using conventional genealogical means, genetic testing is the last hope left. Fortunately, the tools and our knowledge improve every day. We’re making great strides with what we can do, enlarging what was a pinhole into a keyhole, allowing us to peer into the past. So, click your heels, order your tests and let’s see where your DNA takes you.
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