DNA AND NATIVE AMERICAN IDENTITY

S65040_TXT.indd 68 9/29/09 12:16:12 69 K I M B E R LY T A L L B E A R DNA AND NATIVE AMERICAN IDENTITY Since the early 1960s, genetic techniqu...
Author: Brice Powers
0 downloads 2 Views 302KB Size
S65040_TXT.indd

68

9/29/09

12:16:12

69

K I M B E R LY T A L L B E A R

DNA AND NATIVE AMERICAN IDENTITY

Since the early 1960s, genetic techniques have been applied to traditional anthropological questions, including those concerning ancient human migrations and the biological and cultural relationships between human populations. By drawing blood from people around the world, geneticists and anthropologists investigate the “origins” of and genetic relationships between geographically disparate populations. Native American (Amerindian) peoples are heavily studied, and in their genomes researchers search for molecular sequences—or genetic signatures—of the first peoples of the Americas. In the last decade, these types of molecular sequences, also called ancestry DNA, have become salient beyond the lab and now feed a commercial phenomenon. Since 2000, nearly half a million people have purchased genetic ancestry tests, and public interest continues to grow.1 So-called Native American DNA markers are now detectable through self-administered cheek-swab tests marketed by more than a dozen companies. In the U.S., those interested in Native American genetic ancestry include genealogists, applicants to Ivy League and other competitive schools, and former citizens of Native American tribes (such as Seminole Freedmen descendants) whose ejection is usually related at least in part to the financial stakes of membership. While no tribes or First Nations currently use DNA fingerprint tests to confer citizenship, these tests are reconfiguring concepts of Native American race and identity in the twenty-first century. Blake-Scott family (Assonet Wampanoag), Mashpee, Massachusetts, 2008. From left: Lascelles Scott, Eva Blake, and Qunônuw Scott (child).

S65040_TXT.indd

69

9/29/09

12:16:14

70

K I M B E R LY TA L L B E A R

A map from a DNA Fingerprint Ancestry Report showing populations around the world. Red dots indicate absence of a match, green dots presence of a match, and brown dots weak or ambiguous matches. This pattern means the individual has a combination of European, African, and Native American ancestry. Genetic assessments can be disappointing, however, as they sometimes disprove family oral traditions of Native ancestry. Positive genetic presence of Native American ancestry does not necessarily confer tribal membership.

In narrow circumstances, some genetic ancestry tests are highly reliable, but they examine only about 1 percent of the user’s DNA. These tests fall into two categories: mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), passed from the mother, and the mother’s mother, and so on, and Y-chromosome tests (which reveal only the DNA passed from the father, and the father’s father, and so on). The results of these tests—while helpful to genealogists seeking verifiable biological links between specific individuals or information about the deep geographical history of a genetic line—are limited to strict matrilineal or patrilineal progressions and do not adequately account for gene flow between populations or the highgenetic variation present within human populations. A third type of test attempts to account for overall ancestry by surveying for 175 autosomal markers (inherited from both parents) from across all 23 chro-

S65040_TXT.indd

70

9/29/09

12:16:14

DNA A N D NAT I V E A M E R IC A N I DE N T I T Y

71

mosome pairs. Each marker occurs in higher and lower frequencies in different groups across different parts of the world. Surveying for markers inherited from all of one’s ancestors is an important selling point in a highly racialized society such as the U.S. After analyzing markers in the test taker’s genome, a complicated algorithm compares the results to the frequencies of those markers in populations including Indo-European, East Asian, Native American, and sub-Saharan African, and reveals what percentages of those ancestries they possess. This highlights a big problem, or set of problems, with genetic ancestry tests: despite disclaimers, they suggest a linear, deterministic link between genetics and race that simply does not exist. Genetic ancestry tests involve assumptions of uncomplicated social continuity between present-day ethnic/national/racial groups and groups in the past, even if those groups are genetically related. Genetic sequences, named according to today’s salient racial or ethnic categories, correspond to ideas of continental origins. Companies purport to tell consumers where in the world their genetic ancestors “originated” and which races or cultural and social groups (e.g., “tribes”) they belonged to, with the implication that the test takers themselves originated in those places and can claim affiliation with those groups or tribes. Genetic markers come to stand for the individual and the race, group, or tribe. Patterns of residence today, however, are rarely synonymous with patterns of the past. Human beings move around. Social groups organize themselves and are organized, and name themselves and are named, in different ways from era to era. Genetic databases built from living human beings’ biological samples offer interesting but incomplete genetic views of the deep past and certainly should not be seen as anything approximating a cultural or social snapshot. DNA tests, aside from their use in very specific cases, compel us to conflate genetic ancestry with racial, ethnic, national, tribal, and kinship identity categories, but these categories are embedded in one another, and all have been shaped by colonialism. The twenty-first-century use of genetic markers to weigh in heavily on these categories is a practice not disentangled from colonialism’s, which dates from the sixteenth century. The genetic knowledge that enables us to do this—and our intellectual and emotional receptiveness to doing it—are predicated on the power relations of colonial history. At least two companies have marketed the DNA fingerprint, or parentage, test directly to U.S. tribes and Canadian First Nations for purposes of enrollment. Commonly sold as a paternity test, it is both more and less informative

S65040_TXT.indd

71

9/29/09

12:16:15

72

K I M B E R LY TA L L B E A R

than genetic ancestry tests because it gauges relatedness at a different biological level (e.g., mother, father, siblings) with a very high degree of probability. DNA fingerprints are often used in conjunction with blood requirements and are currently employed by many tribes on a case-by-case basis. The parentage test can help fill gaps in the documentary record—for example, when proof of biological paternity is needed to ascertain blood quantum and process a child’s enrollment application. This situation poses fewer risks to tribal sovereignty, both political and cultural. Another option that accounts for some tribes’ traditional kinship values is found in the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (SWO), for example. It uses affidavits from enrolled relatives who testify about their respective relationships with an enrollment applicant whose biological parentage was in question. SWO reviews both DNA fingerprints and affidavits, thus preventing genetic evidence to trump familial testimony about kinship. Much more risky to the historical and political foundations of contemporary tribal governance is the shift by some U.S. tribes and Canadian First Nations, especially those that distribute financial benefits from gaming and other economic windfalls to members in the form of per-capita payments, to acrossthe-membership DNA fingerprint testing. The research and documentation of biological relationships are time-consuming for applicants and cumbersome for tribal enrollment offices, but it is not only the missing or hard-to-track records that pose problems in tribal enrollment. Critics of blood rules (including wouldbe tribal members) talk about inaccuracies and discrimination in the tribal base rolls constructed many years ago. If ancestor(s) were left off the rolls because they were absent from the reservation during their construction or wrongly judged to be racially other than Native American, the DNA fingerprint test cannot rectify that documentary problem. Speaking in support of using DNA fingerprint tests for purposes of enrollment, a representative from one company says DNA fingerprints ensure that there is “no possibility of incorporating a subjective decision into whether someone becomes a member or not.” But whether or not someone is verifiably a biological kin of the type indicated by a parentage test is not an “objective” enrollment criterion. Allowing a parentage test to trump other means of reckoning kin (e.g., blood quantum as a way of counting relatives, or signed affidavits of family relatedness) for purposes of enrollment gives priority to techno-scientific knowledge of certain kinship relations over other types of knowledge and relationships. Across-the-board testing does not solve every problem related to

S65040_TXT.indd

72

9/29/09

12:16:16

DNA A N D NAT I V E A M E R IC A N I DE N T I T Y

73

Comanche enrollment card. In 1935, the U.S. government established “blood quantum” laws to measure Native ancestry and define who was considered Native. Today, Native tribes use versions of blood quantum to regulate who can be accepted as a member.

establishing membership. Moreover, it often creates new problems for existing families, considering the not-uncommon situation in which false biological parentage is exposed, even when it was not questioned in the first place. It’s been said that we are a nation governed by science.2 Genetic studies carry tremendous cultural weight and seem far more precise and scientifically valid than the old-fashioned ideas of blood quantum still common in tribal enrollment. DNA testing and gene metaphors are now expanding into territory long claimed by blood and blood metaphors. Yet important material differences between blood and genes differentiate the symbolic work that they do in relation to Native American identity. Those differences, in addition to the scientific authority of genetics, make it difficult to see why the science is actually more problematic than blood at this historic juncture. Native American tribes have shown that they are deeply attached to kinship, much of it biological, in determining citizenship.3 Exceptions to biologically based tribal citizenship include the Seminole and Cherokee Freedmen—descendants of freed slaves and not necessarily “blood” relations of the tribe—who have long been eligible for tribal enrollment owing to post–Civil War treaty provi-

S65040_TXT.indd

73

9/29/09

12:16:16

74

K I M B E R LY TA L L B E A R

sions. Nonetheless, Freedmen descendants continue to struggle against blood rules, and their tribal citizenship has recently been put at risk or revoked. Critics of blood quantum recognize the difficulties in completely overcoming biological bases for Native American identity. Even among those who advocate concepts of tribal citizenship that ultimately extend beyond biology (e.g., residency, cultural requirements, adoption, and other allowances for naturalization), many also argue for more inclusive blood rules, especially for lineal descent. By standard tribal lineal-descent regulations, an applicant need only document his or her biological descent from one individual named on the tribe’s base rolls. (In a very few tribes, that ancestor must be strictly maternal or paternal, but descent can usually occur in either line.) Often portrayed as less essentialist because it is more inclusive than blood quantum, lineal descent can also be seen as more essentialist than blood quantum because it traces identity through a single line, basically following the same kinship concept underlying genetic ancestry testing. Genetic ancestry tests gauge linear biological descent along strictly maternal and paternal lines—or bloodlines, in the language of blood—a method of reckoning that is valid in some contexts but culturally narrow. This type of multigenerational lineal blood relationship tends to dominate thinking about family in the U.S., but it can be at odds with the concept of the tribe.4 By privileging such narrow, often distant links to unnamable ancestors whose cultural and political ties are impossible to establish, genetic ancestry tests, ironically, undermine the sovereignty and self-governance of today’s tribes and First Nations. Blood quantum stands for the probabilistic social link between an individual and a land-based group, meaning the higher the blood quantum, the greater the likelihood a person has relatives that are Native American or from a specific tribe, and the greater the probability of actual group affiliation. In short, blood quantum attempts to capture a networked set of social and cultural relations based on biological relatedness. (Again, the DNA fingerprint—unlike genetic ancestry tracing—is intelligible in the context of tribal blood rules and confirms genetic connections between closely related and named individuals.) Clearly there are problems with blood quantum. But ideas other than biological essentialism—that go to the heart of what is unique about the tribe—also ground its use. Blood is unlikely to be redeemed, however, even as a placeholder, until a time when it is not the only way to citizenship but rather one among multiple

S65040_TXT.indd

74

9/29/09

12:16:18

DNA A N D NAT I V E A M E R IC A N I DE N T I T Y

75

ways—when tribes and First Nations enjoy the economic, political, and cultural power to truly remake enrollment as citizenship. In the meantime, genetictesting companies assertively seek out not only private individuals looking for Native American ancestry but also tribal and First Nation governments hoping to “precisely” and “objectively” construct their tribal membership. To be Native American is to be simultaneously categorized according to racial, ethnic, and sometimes citizenship terms. DNA is reconfiguring those categories, and as we consider involvement with genetic testing, we must think carefully about the implications of our understandings of what it is to be Native American. Do we want it to be a genetic category after all? What, then, are the implications for tribes and First Nations as complex governing and kinship entities? What are the risks to the historical and political foundations upon which contemporary tribal governance and land rights are based? We have much at stake.

S65040_TXT.indd

75

9/29/09

12:16:18