This week, a woman in North Carolina revealed that she descends from the extinct Beothuk tribe in Canada as a result of a DNA test from a Canadian DNA testing company. This has caused quite an uproar, in both genetic genealogy and Native American research communities, and has been resoundingly discredited by geneticists.
People’s motivation for wanting to know if they have Native heritage generally falls into the following categories:
- Curiosity and a desire to confirm a family story
- Desire to recover lost heritage
- Desire to identify or join a tribe
- Desire to obtain services provided to eligible tribal members, such as educational benefits
- Desire to obtain benefits provided to eligible tribal members, such as a share of casino profits
Questions about DNA testing to reveal Native ancestry are the most common questions I receive and my Native DNA articles are the most visited on my website and blog.
Legitimate DNA Tests for Native Heritage
There are completely legitimate tests for Native ancestry, including the Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA tests for direct paternal (blue box genealogy line, below) and direct matrilineal lines (red circle genealogy line, below). Both Y and mitochondrial DNA have scientifically identified and confirmed haplogroups found only in Native Americans, as discussed in this article. Both Y and mitochondrial DNA at appropriate testing levels can identify a Native ancestor back in time thousands of years.
However, if the Native ancestor does not descend from the direct paternal or direct matrilineal lines, the only DNA test left is an autosomal test which tests all of your ancestral lines, but which can only reliably identify ancestral heritage for the past 5 or 6 generations in any of those lines due to recombination of DNA with the other parent in each generation. Autosomal tests provide you with percentage estimates of your ethnicity although they can vary widely between companies for various reasons. All three of these tests are available from Family Tree DNA as part of their normal product offering.
If you’d like to see an example of genealogy research combined with all three types of DNA testing for a Native Sioux man, please read about John Iron Moccasin.
Less Than Ethical DNA Tests for Native Heritage
Because of the desire within the consuming public to know more about their Native heritage, several specialty testing services have emerged to offer “Native American” tests. Recently, one, Accu-Metrics out of Canada has been highly criticized in the media for informing a woman that she was related to or descended from the extinct Beothuk tribe based on a match to a partial, damaged, mitochondrial sample from skeletal remains, now in housed in Scotland.
When you look at some of these sites, they spend a lot of time convincing you about the qualifications of the lab they use, but the real problem is not with the laboratory, but their interpretation of what those results mean to their clients – e.g. Beothuk.
Those of us who focus on Native American ancestry know unequivocally that “matching” someone with Native ancestry does NOT equate to being from that same tribe. In fact, we have people in the American Indian Project and various Native haplogroup projects who match each other with either Native Y or mitochondrial results who are tribally enrolled or descended from tribes from very different parts of the Americas, as far distant as Canada and South America.
Based on this 2007 paper, A Preliminary Analysis of the DNA and Diet of the Extinct Beothuk: A Systematic Approach to Ancient Human DNA, describing the analysis of the Beothuk remains, it appears that only the HVR1 region of the Beothuk skeletal remains were able to be partially sequenced. An HVR1 level only match between two people could be from thousands to tens of thousands of years ago.
According to Dr. Doron Behar’s paper, A ‘‘Copernican’’ Reassessment of the Human Mitochondrial DNA Tree from its Root, dating haplogroup formation, haplogroup C was formed about 24,000 years ago, give or take 5,000 years in either direction, and haplogroup X was formed about 32,000 years ago, give or take 12,000 years in either direction. There are individuals living in Europe and Asia, as well as the Americans who fall into various subgroups of haplogroup C and X, which are impossible to differentiate without testing beyond the HVR1 region. A match at the HVR1 level which only indicates C or X, without subgroups, could be from a very ancient common ancestor, back in Asia and does not necessarily indicate Native American heritage without additional testing. What this means is that someone whose ancestors have never lived outside of China, for example, would at the basic haplogroup level, C, match to the Beothuk remains because they shared a common ancestor 24,000 years ago.
Furthermore, many people are tribally enrolled whose mitochondrial or Y DNA would not be historically Native, because their tribal membership is not based on that ancestral line. Therefore, tribal membership alone is not predictive of a Native American Y or mitochondrial haplogroup. Matching someone who is tribally enrolled does not mean that your DNA is from that tribe, because their DNA from that line may not be historically Native either.
Tribes historically adopted non-Native people into the tribe, so finding a non-Native, meaning a European or African haplogroup in a tribal member is not unusual, even if the tribal member’s enrollment is based on that particular genealogical line. European or African DNA does not delegitimize their Native heritage or status, but finding a European or African haplogroup in a tribal member also does NOT mean that those haplogroups were historically Native, meaning pre-Columbian contact.
Worse yet, one company is taking this scenario a step further and is informing their clients that carry non-Native haplogroups that they have Native heritage because a group of their clients who “self-identified” as “Native,” meaning they believe their ancestor is Native, carry that haplogroup. The American myth of the “Indian Princess” is legendary and seldom do those stories pan out as accurate with DNA testing and traditional genealogical research. Basing one client’s identification as Native on another client’s family myth without corroboration is a mind-boggling stretch of logic. Most consumers who receive these reports never go any further, because they have achieved what they sought; “confirmation” of their Native heritage through DNA.
A match, even in the best of circumstances where the match does fall into the proven Native haplogroups does not automatically equal to tribal affiliation, and any company who suggests or says it does is substantially misleading their customers.
From the Accu-Metric site, the company that identified the woman as Beothuk:
Native American linkage is based on a sample comparison to a proven member of the group, which identifies specific tribal linkage.
New for 2016: We can also determine if you belong to the 56 Native tribes from Mexico.
The DNA results can be used in enrollment, disenrollment, claiming social benefits, or simply for a peace of mind. We understand the impact that this testing service has on the First Nation and Native American community and we try to use our expertise for the community’s overall interests.
From Dr. Steven Carr, a geneticist at Memorial University in St. John’s (Canada) who has studied the Beothuk:
We do not have enough of a database to identify somebody as being Beothuk, so if somebody is told [that] by a company, I think we call that being lied to.
I would certainly agree with Dr. Carr’s statement.
According to the 2007 Beothuk paper, the Beothuk mitochondrial DNA fell into two of the 5 typical haplogroups for Native American mitochondrial DNA, C and X. However, only portions or subgroups of those 5 haplogroups are Native, and all Native people fall someplace in those 5 haplogroup subgroups, as documented here.
The Beothuk remains would match, at the basic haplogroup level, every other Native person in haplogroup C or X across all of North and South America. In fact, the Beothuk remains match every other person world-wide at the basic haplogroup level that fall into haplogroups C or X. It would take testing of the Beothuk remains at the full sequence level, which was not possible due to degradation of the remains, to be more specific. So telling a woman that she matches the Beothuk was irresponsible at best, because those Beothuk remains match every other person in haplogroup C or X, Native or not. Certainly, a DNA testing company knows this.
Accu-Metrics isn’t the only company stretching or twisting the truth for their own benefit, exploiting their clients. Dr Jennifer Raff, a geneticist who studies Native American DNA, discusses debunking what she terms pseudogenetics, when genetic information is twisted or otherwise misused to delude the unsuspecting. You can view her video here. About minute 48 or 49, she references another unethical company in the Native American DNA testing space.
Unfortunately, unethical companies are trying to exploit and take advantage of the Native people, of our ancestors, and ultimate of us, the consumers in our quest to find those ancestors.
Reputable DNA Testing
If you want to test for your Native heritage, be sure you understand what various tests can and cannot legitimately tell you, which tests are right for you based on your gender and known genealogy, and stay with a reputable testing company. I recommend Family Tree DNA for several reasons.
- Family Tree DNA is the founding company in genetic genealogy
- They have been in business 16 years
- They are reputable
- They are the only company to offer all three types of DNA tests
- They offer matching between their clients whose DNA matches each other, giving you the opportunity to work together to identify your common link
- They sponsor various free projects for customers to join to collaborate with other researchers with common interests
When evaluating tests from any other companies, if it sounds too good to be true, and no other company can seem to provide that same level of specificity, it probably is too good to be true. No company can identify your tribe through DNA testing. Don’t be a victim.
These three articles explain about DNA testing, and specifically Native DNA testing, and what can and cannot be accomplished.
For other articles about Native American DNA testing, this blog is fully key-word searchable by utilizing the search box in the upper right hand corner.