“People think there is a DNA test to prove you are Native American. There isn’t”

DNA testing is changing how Native Americans think about tribal membership. Yet anthropologist Kim Tallbear warns that genetic tests are a blunt tool. She tells Linda Geddes why tribal identity is not just a matter of blood ties

Which members of tribal communities are most affected by the use of DNA tests?
We have a lot of adopted children in our communities. That’s a result of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives enrolled tribal members the first right to adopt Native American children. The forcible out-adoption of native children used to be part of US policy, so the Act was a way of keeping children in our communities and close to their culture. I think we should enrol adopted children as well biological children. I would also like to see us go back to enrolling spouses. We should look at it as citizenship. Countries allow for immigration and have laws that deal with naturalisation of new citizens. I think tribes should do that too.

So tribal identity is about culture as well as biology?
I want to be careful with the argument that it’s culture versus biology; it’s also political authority versus biology. We have debates amongst ourselves about whether being Native American is about being a citizen of your tribe – a political designation – or about culture and traditional practice. I tend to come down on the side of political citizenship. It’s true that it’s about much more than blood – culture matters. But our political autonomy matters too, and that helps produce a space in which our cultural traditions can thrive.
Do genetic tests that claim to prove Native American ancestry worry you?
I worry about the way Native American identity gets represented as this purely racial category by some of the companies marketing these tests. The story is so much more complicated than that.
Why do you think the idea of ancestry testing is so seductive?
There’s a great desire by many people in the US to feel like you belong to this land. I recently moved to Texas, and many of the white people I meet say: “I’ve got a Cherokee ancestor.” Lots of non-profit groups have also sprung up calling themselves Cherokee tribes, but they’re more like clubs – they don’t have tribal status in the way that federally recognised tribes do. It’s more like, “Do you identify yourself as Cherokee in your soul and your spirit?” That worries us in a land where we already feel there’s very little understanding about the history of our tribes, our relationships with colonial powers, and the conditions of our lives now.
Has ancestry testing thrown up any surprises?
The Seaconke Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts is one of the few I know of that have used genetic-ancestry testing. They found they had all this African and European genetic lineage mixed in. However, I think anybody who knows Native American history would not be surprised at the way their DNA test results came out. Native people in that part of the country have been intermarrying with descendants of European and African people since the 1600s. What that shows me is that being a member of a Native American tribe cannot be seen as totally biological.
There’s been a lot of interest in trying to trace the migration of people into the Americas. Why has that been so controversial?
I think there is a suspicion by many Native Americans that scientists, who are largely not Native American, want to turn our history into another immigrant narrative that says “We’re all really immigrants, we’re all equal, you have no special claims to anything.”
There are also traditional people who don’t want to have a molecular narrative of history shoved down their throats. They would prefer to privilege the tribal creation stories that root us in the landscapes we come from.
Given recent insights about the extent of genetic mixing between different groups, do tribes still matter?
I think we need to stop conflating the concept of a tribe with a racial group. I and many of my relatives have non-native fathers, yet we have a strong sense of being Dakota because we were raised within an extended Dakota kin group. We have a particular cultural identity, based in a land that we hold to be sacred. That’s what gives our lives meaning. It’s what makes us who we are.