GENEWATCH
 
WIINDIGO INCARNATE: CONSUMING 'NATIVE AMERICAN DNA'
By Jessica Kolopenuk
 

from GeneWatch 27-2 | May-July 2014

"For while the wetiko is a legendary terror and demon of the woods with many forms, it is also an affliction well known to Indigenous peoples: a sickness often born of hunger, cold, and the long darkness which can bring not only madness - but a hunger for human flesh..."
- Val Napolean, et. al. in Mikomosis and the Wetiko[1]

"Wiindigo had diffused their political power since the old days, their system of replication had become more complex and they'd hired public relations experts...they were brilliant instead of just scary, and they found a way to convince people to buy disconnection."
- Leanne Simpson inIslands of Decolonial Love[2]

"My experience has been an eye-opener. I was amazed to find out I have some Native American ancestors."
- Bradford Gove Crandall in his customer testimonial for dnaconsultants.com

 

In the last decade, direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing has become readily available for interested consumers. Through mitochondrial, Y-chromosome, and autosomal DNA testing, anyone with the financial means can discover their "genetic history," their "deep roots," and their "ethnic origins."[3,4,5] With a self-administered swab of the inner cheek, customers are told that they can not only "unlock [their] family history" but also, discover how "the great empires of history [left] their genetic marks on [their] DNA" - all for a competitive price of $99 or more.[6,7] Just click "add to cart."

Genetic ancestry websites tend to promise consumers that they will learn about their maternal and paternal lineages, their possible DNA relatives, and their composition of ancestry, including their embodied percentages of, for instance, Neanderthal, Denisovan, European, East Asian, African, Jewish, and Native American DNA.

The industry of genetic ancestry testing operates like a wiindigo.[8] According to Nehiyaw, Anishinaabe, and other Indigenous tribal beliefs, the wiindigo or wetiko is understood to be a figure that personifies cannibalistic greed and hunger and, when left unstopped, is perpetually driven by its emptiness caused by disconnection. There never seems to be a shortage of "lost" people trying to find out their "TRUE ancestry," and there is never enough profit made from such desirous craving.[9] Corporations, science labs, creative marketers, and driven consumers have conspired (consciously or not) to form a genetic-genealogical machine influenced by and through capitalist voracity.

Many people, including over half a million reported by National Geographic's Genographic Project, have become invested in knowing what the results of genetic ancestry testing are able to tell them.[10] Despite whatever complexities actually exist with respect to one's ancestry, the apparent truth of it is perceived to lie solely in one's DNA. The wiindigo preys on the longing of individuals and families who perhaps feel as if they have nowhere else to turn for connection, or who have a connection that is incompletely understood, or who may just be curious. They feel like something is missing - they need to understand "where they came from."[11] Suddenly, they are told that for a recently reduced price, they can find out everything they want and need to know. In this way, genetic ancestry testing websites help bring forth mysterious truths about humanity that, conveniently for their own bottom line, only they can provide answers to. The answers lie deep in your DNA, they say - rather than, for instance, in any communal relationships that might shape your everyday life. Genetic ancestry testing websites, therefore, tend to erase the importance of social, political, cultural, economic, spiritual and any other realities of life, in exchange for the limited knowledge that can be scientifically deciphered from human DNA.

Some scholars have referred to consumer attraction to genetic ancestry testing as a fetishization of DNA, and of "Native American DNA" in particular.[12,13] By referencing fetishization, these scholars suggest that, in some instances, DNA has become privileged as the most important, and often only, indicator of family history, ancestry, and individual identity. Fetishized genetic genealogy gives the impression that nothing else matters when it comes to knowing "who you are."

When genetic ancestry testing is fetishized - invested in by consumers - the genetic-genealogical machine has succeeded in creating demand for the product that it seeks to profit from. Consumers can now send their tissue sample to some far off lab that they might never see, to a scientist who they might never meet, so that they can learn their "true ancestry" - they can now feast on the genetic contents of their own flesh. They have themselves become host to the wiindigo.

Within the industry of genetic ancestry testing, "Native American DNA" has become a commodity to be consumed. This consumption must take place before the product vanishes, just like the "real" Indians who once "roamed the Americas." Similar to the symbolism of the old Indian's headdress and war cries, his biology is also ancient. He lives today in (some of) us; however, concealed within and as molecular markers, he lives in our DNA - or so the genetic-genealogical machine will have you believe. After all, its profit margin depends on this romanticized and colonizing depiction of Native Americanness.

The technical and methodological limitations of autosomal, mitochondrial DNA, and Y-chromosome tests have been documented.[14] I offer one more. Scientists have named mitochondrial haplogroups A, B, C, D, and X and Y-chromosome haplogroups C and Q, as being uniquely "Native American." Native American haplogroups are meant to demarcate genetic mutations that have descended from the original inhabitants of "New World" geographies. Genetic ancestry testing companies market mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome tests as being able to tell you if (genetically) you are Native American or not, while autosomal testing is charged with the ability to provide consumers with knowledge of their possible percentage of "Native American ancestry". However, mitochondrial and Y-chromosome haplogroups reflect single genetic lineages and account for less than one percent of an individual's total genetic makeup.[15] Consequently, if tested, an Indigenous (Native American) person might not show that they have "Native American DNA" per scientific classification, while a person who might not have any connection to an Indigenous community (social or otherwise) could indeed have "Native American DNA." With reliance on genetic markers alone to define Native Americanness, genetic ancestry testing companies are, therefore, further complicating what are already contentious pre-existing boundaries around and practices of being Native American.

As a fetishized commodity, genetic ancestry testing companies do not market "Native American ancestry" to recognize the embodied (material and immaterial) connections among Native American peoples, their ancestors, and their spaces and places across time. Instead, "Native American ancestry," in the way that it is deployed by most genetic ancestry websites, is only tied up in a preoccupation with perceived biological origins and lineal inheritance.

This fetishization is about consumption. It is about the consumption of a particular representation of Native Americanness based solely on the limited knowledge that humans have concerning the assemblages of genetic building blocks: adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. The gene-talk used by genetic ancestry testing websites takes the concept of Native Americanness and devours it, consuming the notion of "original people" and constructing its own meaning for it.

The genetic genealogist hunts for relationships to the past through the perceived embodied molecular markers of "ancient" peoples. Paradoxically, this form of connection is about disconnection - it is about exoticizing ancestors rather than engaging in contemporary relationships in ways that respect and relate to the living spirits and people of our pasts and presents as well as the lands that we occupy. In other words, the fetishization and consumption of "Native American DNA" is not about actionable relationships; rather, it is about the distillation of oneself from the social and cultural realities of one's life. Let's say you do the testing and find out that you have what (some) scientists refer to as "Native American DNA." My response would be: "So what?" Drawing on the recent writing of Métis scholar, Chris Andersen, I ask you to consider that tribal belonging is not only about who you claim (to be), but also about who claims you.[16]

The notion that there is some inherent truth about one's identity embedded in his or her genetic material is misleading. It renders the experiences of being human singular and utterly unchangeable. According to the rhetoric of most genetic ancestry testing websites, "who you are" is a scientific certainty that exists outside of the politics imposed on bodies and the choices we make concerning the categories, like Native Americanness, that contribute to the conditions that shape our lives. "Native American DNA," then, is not an objective biological fact; rather, it has been produced out of certain histories of knowledge and practice that have been implicated in the dispossession of Indigenous (Native American) peoples from our lands, sovereignties, and authority to define ourselves and who belongs to our communities.

By conceiving of Native Americanness through genetic markers alone, and outside of the contexts of power like colonialism, the genetic-genealogical machine has the potential to not only leave those structures of power unseen, but also become in and of itself a colonizing force. There are lessons embedded in wiindigo stories like this one. Unlike what dna.ancestry.com asserts - that our history is written in our DNA - lessons are not. What does ancestry look like to you if DNA is decentered?

 

Jessica Kolopenuk, a Nehiyaw (Cree) woman from Peguis First Nation, is in the second year of the PhD program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Napolean, Val, et al. (2013). Mikomosis and the Wetiko. Victoria: Indigenous Law Research Unit, University of Victoria.

2. Simpson, Leanne. (2013). Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs. Winnipeg: ARP Books.

3. DNA Consultants: Home of the DNA Fingerprint Test. (2013). <dnaconsultants.com> accessed on July 8, 2014.

4. 23andMe. (2007-2014). https://www.23andme.com/ accessed on July 8, 2014.

5. ancestryDNATM. (1997-2014). <dna.ancestry.com> accessed on July 8, 2014.

6. Family Tree DNA: A Division of Gene by Gene, Ltd. (2001-2014). <https://www.familytreedna.com/) accessed on July 8, 2014.

7. Genographic Project: About. (2014). <https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/about/> accessed on July 8, 2014.

8. I am a Nehiyaw iskwew (Cree woman) whose family descends from Chief Peguis' people of the Red River region in what is now commonly referred to as Manitoba, Canada. Our nation is made up of both Anishinaabek and Nehiyawak. I have chosen to use two stories of the wiindigo (one Nehiyaw, the other Anishinaabe) to reflect the diversities and similarities within my own community and those of the stories of the wiindigo figure.

9. ancestryDNATM. (1997-2014). <dna.ancestry.com> accessed on July 8, 2014 (emphasis in original).

10. The Genographic Project. (2014). < https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/> accessed on July 8, 2014.

11. DNA Consultants: Home of the DNA Fingerprint Test. (2013). <dnaconsultants.com> accessed on July 8, 2014.

12. Haraway, Donna. (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM. NewYork: Routledge Press.

13. Tallbear, Kim. (2013). Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

14. For discussions concerning the methodological limitations of genetic ancestry testing see, Bolnick, Deborah A. (2003). "Showing Who They Really Are": Commercial Ventures in Genetic Genealogy." Paper presented at the American Anthropological Association, Chicago, Ill.; Tallbear, Kim. (2013). Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

15. Tallbear, Kim. (2013). Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 43.

16. See Chris Andersen. (2013). Metis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood. Vancouver: UBC Press.



 
 
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