Indigeneity and DNA: 9 Pros and Cons of DNA Testing for Indigenous Communities

Melanie Mohler

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Indigeneity and DNA can be a complex topic. Miya Jensen offers 9 pros and cons of DNA testing for indigenous communities.

 

Thank you to Miya Jensen for writing this guest blog post.

Miyamoto Wilson Jensen is a professional genealogist who specializes in Polynesian genealogy.

 

What is the concept of indigeneity?

Indigeneity is defined as “a quality of a person’s and a group’s identity that links them to specific places with knowledge of and respect for original ways” (1). This also includes multifaceted practices and beliefs that a people encompass to connect them to communities of their indigenous roots. I am proud to descend and be indigenous and know my indigenous roots in Hawai’i and Samoa.

As an indigenous professional genealogist, many in my community have come to me seeking assistance in connecting to their indigeneity. They have deep desires to connect back to their roots in ways they maybe have not been able to because of displacement of their families, immigration, destruction of records, trauma, etc. These are common things that many indigenous groups experience when doing their family history. The greatest curiosity I have seen of all comes from wanting to know if they should take a DNA genealogy test or not.

Indigeneity and DNA

In recent years, the advent of DNA testing for genealogy has sparked both fascination and controversy within indigenous communities worldwide. I have taken the DNA tests to connect with living DNA relatives and to hopefully find answers to questions I have about my genetic genealogy.

The test results have offered insight into the truth about where my ancestors were from based on the ethnicity estimates I received from Ancestry DNA. My results also raised questions about this test’s impact on defining and understanding my own indigeneity.

One example is seeing blood quantum results (a controversial measurement of the amount of “indigenous blood” a person has) for my DNA. Even though I was privileged to grow up in one of my ancestral homelands of Hawaii and had a rich upbringing in my Kanaka Maoli culture, the blood quantum results still made me question if I was indigenous enough or not. I have since then learned that many indigenous people feel this way when they see blood quantum in their results. What do those numbers mean for us indigenous people? If they mean something to us, then what? If they don’t, what really does matter to indigenous communities when it comes to learning about and connecting with their ancestors?

Hawaiian family in front of thatched grass house. Photo taken by J.A. Gonsalves. https://picryl.com/media/hawaiian-family-in-front-of-thatched-grass-house-taken-by-j-a-gonsalves-98d151

In this post, I will examine the pros and cons of DNA genealogy tests in the context of indigeneity, and then provide opinions from my own indigenous community. Their perspectives unveil a nuanced narrative that I hope those in the genealogy community who are non-indigenous can come to better understand. We can and need to be aware of these nuances to work towards a more inclusive and culturally literate world.

Pros of DNA testing for indigenous communities

1. Reconnection with ancestral roots

DNA tests can aid individuals in tracing their genetic heritage, potentially reconnecting them to indigenous lineages obscured by historical events or migration. Included in the disconnect of Indigenous communities feel to their ancestors is colonization. Colonization has violently displaced many peoples from their homelands and culture, which includes their records. Destruction of records happened a lot, so DNA can be a means of connection where there is very little to none written or oral documentation.

2. Reconnection to lost family

Many people have shared how DNA tests have helped them to reconnect with lost family members they never knew existed. This is no exception to indigenous communities.

3. Cultural revitalization and identity

For some indigenous peoples, these tests can reinforce cultural identity by validating oral traditions and providing a scientific basis for historical narratives. I know of many oral traditions in families that were verified by DNA test results, which brought a lot of joy to these families. The confirmation of identity through both DNA tests and oral traditions can help to paint the bigger picture of a person’s identity.

4. Legal and political recognition

DNA evidence may support land claims, tribal membership, and legal recognition, aiding in the assertion of rights and access to resources for indigenous communities.

5. Health insights and research

Genetic testing can offer valuable health information, allowing for tailored healthcare strategies and contributing to medical research beneficial to indigenous populations.

Cons of DNA testing for indigenous communities

1. Reductionism and oversimplification

DNA tests oversimplify complex identities, reducing diverse cultural heritages to genetic markers and disregarding the richness of indigenous cultures and histories.

2. Ethical concerns and informed consent

There are ethical dilemmas regarding the commercialization of DNA data and the potential exploitation of indigenous knowledge without proper informed consent or benefit sharing.

3. Disruption of cultural beliefs

The reliance on genetic testing can challenge traditional kinship systems and cultural beliefs, potentially causing internal discord within indigenous communities. For example, historically, there have been many disputes between Tongans and Samoans in the Pacific Islands. This has led many modern-day Tongans and Samoans to have great pride that can sometimes clash in communities where both cultures are present. But in doing DNA tests, it is prevalent that many belong to both communities rather than only one. For some people, this can be cause for shame or even a stab at their singular cultural pride making one wonder who they really are.

4. Inaccuracies and limitations

DNA tests have limitations in accuracy and interpretation, often failing to consider cultural adoptions, intermarriages, and the diverse ways in which indigeneity is defined beyond genetic markers.

Conclusion

The intersection of indigeneity and DNA genealogy tests presents a complex landscape that intertwines historical, cultural, and scientific dimensions. While these tests offer opportunities for reconnection, identity validation, and legal recognition, they also raise significant ethical, cultural, and identity-related concerns within indigenous communities.

Balancing the benefits and drawbacks requires a sensitive approach that respects the diverse perspectives and acknowledges the complexities of defining indigeneity beyond genetic ancestry. Collaborative efforts, including informed consent, cultural sensitivity, and community engagement, are crucial to navigating the complexities inherent in the use of DNA genealogy tests in understanding and preserving indigeneity.

All in all, taking a genealogical DNA test is a personal choice. No one group of people is a monolith. There are bound to be differences between individuals and families in indigenous cultures. So when going around asking multiple indigenous people what their thoughts are on DNA tests, their answers will vary because no one person, experience, or history is the same. At the same time, it is vital for us to know the pros and cons for DNA tests for indigenous communities to be aware and sensitive to the needs of one another on our journey of knowing who we really are.

Want to read more on indigeneity and DNA testing? Check out these two books that focus on Native American DNA: Kim Tallbear’s Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science and Roberta Estes’ DNA for Native American Genealogy

Are you trying to make sense of your own ethnicity results from a DNA test? Download our free guide to better understand what they mean and what you can learn from them.

Get the FREE guide to ethnicity results

 

1. “What is Indigeneity?” Emory University, https://native.emory.edu/about/about.html, accessed April 1, 2024.

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