Native American DNA Test | 3 things to know before buying
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Native American DNA tests are a very cool way to connect to history. However, they are slightly different than tests connecting with other ethnicities and they have also caused a bit of controversy. In this post, we summarize things you should know before buying these tests, and give some recommendations of DNA testing kit and DNA upload sites to check if you share DNA with Native Americans!
1. DNA Test vs Tribe Identity
DNA test kits are a powerful tool for understanding where you came from and how your ancestors migrated around the world. For most ethnicity estimates, users are simply seeking to see where their family came from, how their family may have migrated over time, and if they have any living relatives they can connect with.
If these are your only goals when getting a DNA test, that’s great! DNA tests are one of the most informative tools when it comes to your genetic history. They can tell you a huge amount about different groups that contributed to your DNA.
But, don’t fall into the most common trap people find themselves in after taking a DNA test. Just because you have a German ancestry does not make you a German Citizen.
Likewise, even if your DNA test says that you share some genes with Native Americans, this test result does not seal your tribal enrollment. Tribal Identity - and membership to the many different Native American tribes - is not determined by a person’s DNA. It is determined by a sovereign tribal council based on your participation in and contributions to Native American culture. In other words, a DNA test cannot give you tribal membership.
However, the United States has already seen the beginnings of this conundrum play out in national politics such as the infamous Elizabeth Warren DNA testing story. So, what can Native American DNA testing actually tell you?
What a “Native American” DNA test actually tells you…
If you take a Native American DNA test, they are not going to tell you if you are related to the Cherokee Nation, the Apaches, the Navajo, or any other specific tribal group. In fact, most companies simply make the broad declaration of “American Indian” or “Indigenous American” - which cover all Native American identities and is non-specific. DNA matches to tribe members may help you trace your genetic ancestry, though genomics alone is never enough to prove a tribal membership.
Most DNA tests currently available are sampled from a very small number of Native American populations. Because Native American groups all descend from populations that expanded out of Asia tens of thousands of years ago, most groups still retain some shared genetic material (sometimes seen as "Asian ancestry" or "Indian ancestry"). However, each individual tribe has also been evolving on its own course since then. So, with a Native American DNA test, it is nearly impossible to narrow down your relationship beyond this broad, millennium-long history to specific Native American ancestors.
The main reason for this is that DNA testing companies have very few DNA samples from members of actual Native American tribes. Most ancestry DNA test results consider Native Americans as a subpopulation that has recently expanded from Asia. Further, regardless of the number of users a company has, it is unlikely to have a good sample population from specific tribes. The reason behind this is simple.
Native Americans, after centuries of exploitation, are more than a little reluctant to give their DNA to large testing companies. With this DNA, the companies would no-doubt begin offering “tribe-specific” DNA tests - and make a ton of money in the process. None of this money would go back to the tribe, and tribal identities would be greatly confused and complicated in the process as white people all over the country started claiming “Native American heritage.” Since tribal membership is regulated by each tribe and separate from the federal government, there are no federally mandated rules for tribal membership.
What DNA Testing Companies Say about Native American Ancestry
While Native American ancestry testing is still being offered by most genetic testing companies, there has been a large shift in the language they use to describe these tests.
For example, AncestryDNA tries to clarify the distinction between heritage and ancestry. Heritage is something your practice and are a part of, while your ancestry is simply the genes that you inherited. Specifically, the Ancestry.com site states:
“Over generations, the randomness of inheritance results in DNA from some ethnicities being passed down more than others and in some ethnicities being lost entirely.”
Likewise, 23andMe has this language on their site:
“Currently 23andMe has several features that can reveal genetic evidence of Native American ancestry, although they are not considered a confirmatory test or proof of such ancestry in a legal context.”
While most people simply want to figure out how they came to be, these sites are clearly trying to discourage users from trying to claim Native American heritage based solely on a DNA test.
2. Best DNA Test Kits for Native American Ancestry
If you understand the ethical and legal limitations of Native American DNA tests, you should definitely still consider getting tested. While the test will not admit you into a specific tribe and should not be used to “claim Native American heritage,” they can definitely be a great way to explore your past and see how your family was involved in the colonization of North America.
Of all the DNA test kits that include Native American Ancestry, we recommend FamilyTreeDNA!
FamilyTreeDNA Tests for Native American Ancestry
FamilyTreeDNA (FTDNA) has several tests that can help you narrow down if you have Native American ancestry, and can even help you find which side of your family those genes come from!
Using the basic FTDNA autosomal test, you can find out whether or not your genes can be correlated with Indigenous American populations. The autosomal test analyzes a large majority of your DNA, and can find genetic variants that originated in indigenous populations. While this test cannot tell you which side of your family the genes came from, it is a great first step to explore your ancestry.
If you want to go even further, FTDNA offers a number of tests that can help. Using the Y-DNA test, you can directly analyze your father’s genetic line in specific detail using the Y-chromosome. Not only will this test tell you exactly which surnames you are related to, but it can give you a clearer picture of where Native American genes were introduced into your family. Y-DNA is only passed from father to son, so if you are a woman you can have a male relative take this test to discover your paternal lineage.
To analyze your mother’s line, you can take the FTDNA mtDNA test. This test analyzes mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on only from a mother to her children. An mtDNA test goes back thousands of years and can show how your family expanded out of Africa and which haplogroups - or ancient radiations of humans - you are related to. People with Native American and European ancestry may find that they are related to several different haplogroups that had previously been separated by tens of thousands of years!
3. Best Upload Sites for Native American Ancestry
If you have already taken a test with 23andMe, Ancestry, MyHeritage, or FTDNA, you should check out the Genomelink Ancient Ancestry reports and GEDmatch.
Not only do these reports show you how you are related to ancient Native American populations, but they can also match your genes to ancient populations of nomads, farmers, and migratory African populations. You’ll be surprised by how many of these groups you are related to. Unlike typical ethnicity estimates, these reports look much deeper into your genome - going back thousands of years!
These super detailed reports include what fraction of your genome comes from these populations, as well as detailed information about these populations, how they migrated over time, and historical events that may have affected your ancient family members.
The data used for the report algorithm came from research labs across the world that focus on ancient DNA data analysis. In general, sample data are obtained from some modern native Americans like Pima, Yakut, Eskimo, plus data from fossils of ancient native Americans unearthed from South America! Plus, the test is only $39!
GEDmatch.com is a website for amateur genetic genealogists to explore their family history using powerful, professional-level tools. GEDmatch is free to use, though there is a significant learning curve involved.
Some commonly used tools are the One-to-Many match tool, which will connect you with thousands of genetic matches and tell you how closely you are related and which genetic markers you share. You can also use specialized tools to parse your DNA into a maternal line and paternal line and see exactly which side of your family your Native American genes come from!
If you are interested and have time to do this research yourself, check out our posts on how to use GEDmatch to parse out Native American ancestry!