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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Ancestry in a Drop of Blood

Tribes and would-be members are turning to DNA tests. But the hunt for genetic truth has some asking: What does it mean to be Indian?

August 30, 2005|Karen Kaplan | Times Staff Writer

"There's a huge queasiness ... because of the social structure of Indian country," said Laura Wass, a member of the Mountain Maidu tribe near Mt. Lassen in Northern California. "It's going to open a lot of deep closets. A lot of children were raised by other families.... You bring in DNA and now a child finds out, 'Well, I'm not who I thought I was.' "

For some, the idea of analyzing blood to distinguish some Indians from others threatens to undermine the fabric of the community.

"To define someone by blood quantum is the very definition of racism," said David Cornsilk, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Among the Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut, a few tribal members have bristled at the tribe's required genetic testing of all newborns. "They say, 'You've seen me pregnant, and suddenly I have a baby in my arms. Why should I have to take this test?' " said Walker, the enrollment clerk. "We say we're only trying to be consistent."

For all the precision of the technology, sometimes it leaves more questions.

Kay Yellow Horse, who was adopted nearly 50 years ago and raised by white parents, ordered a DNA test from Seattle-based Genelex Corp. after seeing an ad at a powwow last year. The Denver writer hoped the results would tell her if there was a genetic basis for her affinity for Native Americans.

Ten weeks later, a fat enveloped arrived in the mail, confirming her Native American heritage. She burst into tears.

"My entire life I had felt like a mutt from the pound," said Yellow Horse, who changed her last name after a divorce. "After getting those results, now I feel like a pedigreed show dog. It's given me a feeling of authenticity."

Though she was grateful to learn something about her roots, the results have left her wondering about her past.

"Do I have my father's eyes?" she asked. "The hair color from my mom? Am I the product of a rape, the product of an illicit affair, or who knows what?"


Marilyn Vann's genes told her everything she wanted to know about her ancestors.

It turns out that 3% of her genes come from Native Americans. Another 39% are from Europeans, who likely intermarried with Indians over hundreds of years; 58% of her genes originated in Africa.

The numbers roughly matched the facts in her stacks of paper. An 1835 tribal roll shows that Rider Fields, her great-great-great-grandfather, was 25% Cherokee. Other rolls from the 1800s list her great-great-grandmother and great-grandmother with Cherokee blood.

Vann has made the three-hour drive to the Cherokee Nation headquarters in Tahlequah to argue that if only her father had been properly listed on the key 1907 census, she would have her membership card and the right to vote in tribal elections.

Cherokee spokesman Mike Miller acknowledged the 1907 rolls weren't perfect, but said it wasn't practical for the tribe to tinker with it 100 years after the fact. As for her genetic test, Miller said it had nothing to do with the criteria for membership.

Vann has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to compel the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs to enforce her tribal voting rights.

She remains hurt and indignant that the Cherokee Nation will not acknowledge her roots.

On a recent visit to Tahlequah, she stopped by tribal headquarters, a concrete building emblazoned with the words "Welcome to Your Cherokee Nation" in English and Tsalagi. Although it was closed, she was wary.

"I don't want to get spotted by the security camera," she said, shooting glances over her shoulder -- still an outsider in a world she has known all her life.

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