Saturday, January 26, 2008

Genealogy and DNA testing

I attended a women's conference today, sponsored by the DAR, and one of the breakout sessions was about DNA testing and genealogy. I'm afraid that much of it went over my head. The speaker used a lot of biological terms that I've forgotten since high school. But I did come away from the session with the concept that DNA testing can be helpful in genealogy research. It's in ways that I don't really understand, but I did learn that it can be helpful.

There are lots of different kinds of DNA tests, and they don't all tell you the same things. So you might need to ask the same family member to take different kinds of tests. There's Y-Chromosome tests, mitochondrial tests, familial tests (like paternity tests, for close family), and tests to tell you what continents your DNA came from. I think that last one is the kind that Oprah did. When she found out she wasn't really part of some royal African tribe or whatever it was she felt in her bones that she was part of.

Here comes my rant.

Just as Oprah was sure she came from some fancy African tribe, it annoys me that all white people think they are descended from some Native American tribe. Oh, don't roll your eyes. You know you've thought it at least once. My family does it too.

Today was no different. The room started buzzing with glee when our speaker told us that many of the smaller tribes now accept DNA evidence to allow new white people to become card-carrying Indians. The larger tribes (Cherokee, Sioux) do not accept DNA evidence. They aren't accepting new members at this time. They know what you want.

On the other hand, I happen to know that some groups now require DNA evidence as a means of keeping people OUT. The Descendants of Pocahontas, for example. Because as I said before, everyone seems to think they are descended from an Indian Princess. The Pocahontas group discovered that DNA proved a lot of people wrong.

Our speaker today told us that you should only take a DNA-genealogy test if you are mentally prepared for what you might find out. I didn't think it should be so dramatic, but she gave several examples from her own family. 1) A cousin of hers discovered that he was descended from a great-great-great-etc grandfather who was ADOPTED. (Gasp!) Evidently he is truly upset by this and feels he can no longer attend family reunions. That's right, because someone 300 years ago was adopted, he says this makes him no longer part of the family. His attitude has upset the rest of his living family. 2) The speaker said her son's DNA tested to be 92% Caucasian and 8% Asian. (Gasp! again!) After the initial reaction of insisting that Asian DNA must really be an indicator of Native American descent (I'm not joking), her research found more realistic evidence of Asian blood in the quite distant past. 3) The speaker said her mother said their family was Irish. DNA showed that her family's true origin was Italy. The Italians had immigrated through Ireland to the US, so they were not entirely un-Irish, but neither were they originally Irish.

This led to an interesting discussion on a topic that has been on my mind for the last 10+ years. At what point may Italian immigrants to Ireland call themselves "Irish"? Or the question that has been on my mind for the last decade, at what point can I say that I am American? My ancestors (multiple lines) came here in the 1600s. How long before I can say that I too, am a native? For in reality, aren't we all "native" to Pangea? So, for anyone to say they are native to anyplace else...well, at what point did they earn that right?

1 comment:

Dad said...

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr said in his I have a dream speach, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." If he was alive today to read your Blog, he would support your position. He might paraphrase his great speach and say that ..."they will not be judged by the placement of markers in their DNA, but by the content of their character." Finding out where you came from is cureous. Understanding where you are going is important. It is the diversity of our genes that makes us strong and able to adapt to new environments and new opportunities. The monoculture and the inbred are easily overcome with a simple disease.

Those who will attribute any future value to what occurred, or failed to occur in the past are really shallow and not worth worrying about.

If one of our forefathers was a Pirate, that will be neat. If he was a meager ship captain, that's OK too. If he was the lowest mate who cut the bait, that's just as good. Somehow his DNA infused the tenacity and perseverance we needed to survive and pass on our genes.

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