By Jessica Bardill

Genomic science has been accelerating since the complete mapping of the human genome, vastly increasing the amount of data concerning both human and non-human genomes. Legislation and public policy have been working to catch up to these advances, including questioning how to protect the interests of the people being studied and how to use DNA to define identity. How indigenous peoples choose to use biotechnology for their own purposes, such as to prove citizenship, presents an important place to explore not only risks and benefits, rights and responsibilities, but also the narrative and understandings underlying these choices.

In short, ancestry testing analyzes sequences in relation to one another and which have clusters for certain population groups. Many of these sequences can be identified in peoples as common, in which case they can become Ancestry Informative Markers, or AIMs. In recent research, these markers have been shown to create clustering maps that mirror some national boundaries, supporting ideas of difference on both sides of these lines.1 In famous examples of ancestry testing, Henry Louis Gates, Oprah, and Chris Rock have had their relationships to African tribes (and European ancestors) determined.2

While these concepts have been simplified, and while blood refers to more than biological ancestry but also stands in literally and metaphorically for other kinds of connections between kin, the movement to try to utilize an aspect of the literal substance to encode identity is worth analyzing. DNA testing has already become a possible tool for determining tribal identity and ancestry, and tribes have come down on both sides of the issue, for and against its use for helping to determine citizenship and recognition. This use predicates itself upon an unquestioned use over time of a story that relies on blood, whether metaphorical or physical, to conceive of identity— here, a determining blood narrative. Some tribes have embraced DNA, a rewriting of blooded connection, to help prove identities of members or of the group itself.3 Other tribes have outright rejected the prospect of utilizing DNA to identify members.4 The choice by a tribe to use or not use blood or DNA in determinations of tribal citizenship has at least these two sides. Many argue that blood as used in blood quantum is a kind of metaphor, as in the phrase “Indian by Blood” from various census rolls. However, DNA concretizes that idea and removes its ability to be a metaphor and only making it possible to mean the literal substance. This belief in a metaphorical or literal blood relation underpins a blood narrative and our understanding particularly of legal tribal belonging, and it is taken further when that identity is tied to genetics.

So what is behind this desire to use blood in the form of DNA to help standardize tribal citizenship? Most of the 564 federal tribes, as well as many of the state recognized and unrecognized tribes, utilize blood quantum or descendancy from a tribal particular roll to determine membership. For the federal tribes, blood quantum has a connection to the Federal recognition system and the certificate degree of Indian or Alaska Native blood (CDIB), which:

... certifies that an individual possesses a specific degree of Indian blood of a federally recognized Indian tribe(s). ...A CDIB does not establish membership in a federally recognized Indian tribe, and does not prevent an Indian tribe from making a separate and independent determination of blood degree for tribal purposes.5

Individual recognition of Indian peoples, here as determined by blood, is itself caught up in the Federal recognition process: only those whose Indian blood is from “a federally recognized Indian tribe” can have a CDIB, while others would be muted, becoming people who do not belong, at least to the system as set up by blood and knowing (again). In their constitutions, and as an aforementioned exception to CDIB, tribal nations can perform their own computations of blood degree for membership purposes. Of course, this blade can cut both ways and be either more inclusive or more restrictive in both the blood quantum rules and the recalculations, determining Native identity in the form of blood quanta. Census rolls, tabulated by the Federal government over time, serve as base membership rolls for many tribes, further involving the Federal government in tribal determinations of belonging. Many uses of DNA for tribes do not divine Native American ancestry per se, but DNA testing is utilized to prove descendancy from a maternal or paternal line listed on the base roll. Understanding blood quantum and descendancy are important because these methods control understanding of identity before DNA, and are what DNA analysis builds upon for tribes, carrying forward the compounded problems of both concepts.

The tribes who utilize DNA believe it provides a scientific way to prove blood quantum or other relation to the tribe, thereby moving past the known errors of census rolls taken by the Federal government or blood quantum calculations. By this thinking, if you can prove blood through DNA, you are of the tribe. However, the whole use of blood is predicated upon a European notion of identity that does not conform to Indian notions of relations. While some tribes confirm maternity and others use DNA to claim relation to remains, such as in the case of the Kennewick Man, these uses of science and biotechnology to confirm knowledge already had belies a risk of that use: the loss of our own ways to determine relations, to determine belonging and tribal citizenship. Some tribal peoples determine their identity not on legal recognition of citizenship, but instead on belonging to the community; others claim that their tribal identity exists only because of citizenship. Tribal identities can exist inside and outside of the line of citizenship, but allowing science to draw that line is dangerous. Even keeping with the enemy we know, the errors of tribal census rolls and their command over identity provides limits, which can be both helpful and harmful, especially when DNA concretizes those relations. To better understand these concepts, I turn now to a current use of genetics to determine tribal identity, here confirming parentage to prove descent from a certain census roll.

Recently the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) contracted the Falmouth Group “to determine the condition, status, completeness and accuracy of the enrollment records of the tribe.”6 This audit produced third-party evaluations of record maintenance but also evaluations of the basis of the enrollment records and recommendations for the future. A major finding of the report is that the Baker Roll, the foundation of EBCI membership and legal identity, has discrepancies throughout:

Though the Baker Roll information is considered unimpeachable, there are a significant number of inconsistencies between the information found in the Baker Roll and the corresponding record information in the Enrollment Department’s database. Most critically, a number of members indicated to be Baker Roll enrollees show a differing blood degree on the roll than in the Enrollment department data.7

By referencing “inconsistencies” the Group does not call these errors—as the Roll is “unimpeachable”—but does find a multitude of unverified information in the membership records. In attempts to remedy these concerns, the Group makes many recommendations to the tribe. One recommendation, intended to address inconsistencies in birth certificates (missing, multiple, incomplete) is that the tribe can try “requesting or accepting other corroborating documentation.” 8 Throughout the whole report, this statement is as close as the Group comes to recommending DNA testing. Instead, the call for blood in the form of genetics comes from within the tribe as a way to find corroborating evidence of parentage.

Passed by the Tribal Council on June 3, 2010, Tribal Ordinance 277 requires members of the tribe whose eligibility is in question and particularly new applicants for membership to produce DNA tests, at their own expense, to prove their claims of both maternity and paternity. Specifically, within the enrollment application requirements, it now allows “results of a DNA test, from a lab acceptable to the Enrollment Committee, establishing the probability of paternity and/or maternity by the parent(s) through whom lineage is claimed for an applicant.”9 Further, this testing is required of all potential members, without exception: “DNA testing [is] required for all applicants, including adoptees.”10 This move essentializes identity into the genetics of maternity and paternity; even with adoptions, the biological parent’s status as tribal member(s) or not comes into question and, of course, affects the fate of the child, regardless of the adopted parents’ status. While this ancestry test does not divine a Native American identity, it does open the door to relying on genetics to determine tribal identity. Chief Michell Hicks has not yet signed the law yet, but was a major supporter of using DNA for reducing inconsistencies in the Rolls. While tribal members have stated that this move will cause skeletons to be let out of the closet,11 many still support the move. This “skeletons in the closet” concern should not be overlooked, as not only might that new knowledge change how a person understands his family, it will also change how he understands himself and his identity, genetic and otherwise.

The bigger concern here though is that a DNA test should be required of those seeking recognition from their tribe, and particularly the notion that DNA can determine tribal identity or not. If tribal nations are nations like others in the world, they have to have a way to allow for both immigration and change. I am not saying that tribal nations should start allowing anyone who wants to be Native in to the tribe; however, many tribes do have provisions for adopting outsiders, a move akin to immigration and naturalization as it emphasizes having cultural knowledge and respect, as well as a sponsoring family.12 Change, in the form of exogamy as well as diaspora, has to be taken into account when determining who constitutes the citizenry of the nation, and who might identify as Indian without belonging to a nation. This latter change calls into question who can really determine one’s identity: DNA tests, tribal governments, legislation, policy, community, or self?

Kimberly TallBear13 has shown how ancestry analysis misses entire parts of one’s lineage, but also how the use of blood as a stand in for “race” is problematic for American Indian nations, which are not racial constructs, and their claims to sovereignty, which are not based on race. In the case of American Indians, Rick Kittles proclaims that AIMs have not been identified for Native Americans, so that one would find it hard to test the blood of an individual and consider them ancestrally connected to American Indian tribes, and especially hard to pinpoint the political unit or tribe from which they may have come.14 Further, it definitely cannot discern the total ancestral connections over time between an individual listed on a base roll and a current descendant. These problems help us to question the usefulness of biological genetic ancestry, or blood, for understanding cultural and political affiliations of individuals to tribes, or other forms of belonging.

Inherently, given the lack of evidence supporting the DNA testing, the proof of identity provided by ancestry testing should not be used by tribes to determine membership. However, the desire to use DNA is telling and reinforces a blood narrative of identity utilized in blood quantum determinations and reliance on descendancy. JoAnne Barker, Eric Beckenhauer, and Kimberly TallBear15 have all pointed out the inadequacy of using notions of race and population to understand indigenous peoples, but what other alternatives do we have than continuing down the rabbit hole of blood? If our kinship connection is biological, what ideas do we have that are not blood or DNA to understand identity and belonging? Culture is arguably environmental, and in the classic nature versus nurture argument, both contribute to individual and tribal identity. Even given that race is not biological, but a social construct, tribes need to construct a type of belonging that honors ancestry but also adapts to changing contexts, including nationalism.

In truth, our identities are not determined by our genetics, but both genetics and culture/environment play parts in how we develop identities. This legislation by the EBCI halts the natural evolution of identity and represses those who do not have a connection to an inconsistent census roll, the Baker Roll of 1924 in this case. The identities of the people and community are caught up in one another, and altering the understanding of a person invariably alters the community identity. While each tribe maintains the sovereign right to determine citizenship, the use of genetics should be thought out thoroughly before its limitations are applied. In this case, using genetics and altering the understanding reproduces acts perpetrated on Natives for centuries: acculturation, termination, essentialization, blood quantum rules and eligibility restrictions. Except now, we are doing it to ourselves.

Jessica Bardill is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at Duke University.\


1 Novembre J, Johnson T, Bryc K, Kutalik Z, Boyko AR, Auton A, Indap A, King KS, Bergmann S, Nelson MR, Stephens M, Bustamante CD. 2008. Genes Mirror geography within Europe. Nature 456:98-101.
2 African American Lives I and II, Oprah’s Roots. PBS, 2006-2008.
3 Puyallup Tribe of Puget Sound (2010 amendment to Enrollment; tribe bears cost burden) and Western Mohegan of Connecticut (petition for recognition).
4 In the case of the Cherokee Nation, the issue of DNA testing came up and was rejected as a way to prove descendancy or “Indian by blood” during the recent “Non-Indian Citizenship Issue” (
5 DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR: Bureau of Indian Affairs, 25 CFR Part 70, RIN 1076-AD98.
6 Enrollment Audit for EBCI, reproduced in Cherokee One Feather, 10/26/2009.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ordinance 277, 2010, presented to Cherokee Tribal Council April 6, 2010, passed June 3, 2010.
10 Ibid.
11 Smoky Mountain News:
12 For example, Barack Obama was adopted into the Crow Nation in 2008, with the parents Hartford and
Mary Black Eagle, who were present at his inauguration in 2009. This move also communicates an age-old
effect of adoption (and marriage): tying important families together.
13 “Native American DNA” Tests: What are the Risks to Tribes?” TallBear and Deborah Bolnick, The Native Voice (Dec. 3-17,2004),D2; and “DNA, Blood, and Racializing the Tribe” Wicazo Sa Review - Volume 18, Number 1, Spring
2003, pp. 81-107.
14 March 2010 presentation through the Institute for Genomic Sciences and Policy (IGSP) at Duke University.
15 Barker, “The Human Genome Diversity Project: ‘Peoples’, ‘Populations’, and the Cultural Politics of Identification.” Cultural Studies 18(4) 2004, 578-613. Beckenhauer, “Redefining Race: Can Genetic Testing Provide Biological Proof of Indian Ethnicity?” (2003/2004) 56 Stanford Law Review 161. TallBear, TallBear, Kimberly. “Native-American-DNA.coms: In Search of Native American Race and Tribe.” In Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age. Barbara Koenig, Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, and Sarah Richardson, eds. Piscataway,
NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008: 235-252.

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