Posted by: Aandeiyeen | June 28, 2011

Genetics- not a strong indicator for Native identity

DNA analysis of the 9600 year old  human remains found in “On Your Knees Cave” on north Prince of Wales Island SE Alaska 15 years ago, and of over 200 present day native volunteers of SE Alaska show no genetic link. It seems pretty clear that the Tlingits, Haidas and Tsimshians were not the first people of SE Alaska.

-excerpt from a June 2011 viewpoint letter in the SITnews.

Putting my views on the Sealaska legislation aside, I am addressing the red herring attack this gentleman used to ‘further’ his argument: genetics- a reductionist science still in its infancy that is not immune to producing false positives and false negatives.  I was not enthused about nor took part in the DNA analysis testing to see if I was related to the human remains found in On Your Knees Cave for I had a feeling it would backfire and end up supposedly ‘proving’ that the Tlingit are not indigenous to this region.  I do not buy into conclusions based entirely on genetics because genetic analysis is not scientifically conclusive and could have negative social and political consequences.

Potential for false positives and false negatives

The genetic markers believed to be highly prevalent amongst Natives are not unique to North America.  Many are found in Japanese and Samoans- hence, a DNA analysis could indicate a false positive for Native ancestry.

Males and females inherit their mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from their mother but this genetic lineage ends with each male.  If I have children, they would inherit the mtDNA that I inherited from my mother, but my brother’s children will not.  If all of your maternal great grandmothers were Native, except one- DNA testing for Native ancestry could result as negative.  Similarly, Y-Chromosomes are only found in males and males inherit a close copy from their fathers.  Testing a male’s y-chromosome has the similar limitations as mtDNA in that it only examines one line of ancestry.  If a man had many Native great grandparents, except one paternal great grandfather, testing could result in a negative.

All it takes is one non-Native in a person’s ancestry to result in a false negative.  More info on fallacies of using genetics as a test for Native identity here.

There are over 27,000 Tlingits in the world today, many of which are not going to be undiluted ‘full-bloods.’  Taking a sample of 200 people will not be an accurate depiction of genetic code supposedly unique to Tlingit.  You are not a total and complete intricate map of your parents’ genes- let alone those more removed from your nuclear blood relations and removed by generations.

Social and political implications 

The argument that Native peoples were not the first peoples on this continent presented by the author of the letter could be expanded and used to further the genocide of Native peoples and erode our sovereignty.  The argument could be used to dismantle tribal governments and the rights that come with them- stating that we do not deserve this political status because we are all ‘immigrants’ like everyone else and don’t deserve ‘special treatment’ and sovereign recognition.  It could be used to take away more indigenous lands because the interpretation of the DNA analysis results say we’re not indigenous after all.  Anything to ignore and/or justify the systematic abuse the First Nations of this continent has been enduring since Euro/American contact.

On a related issue, I loath it when people claim that Natives have a ‘genetic predisposition’ for alcoholism.  This argument simply placing blame on the victim (and also ignores individual accountability) rather than taking a hard look at the environmental and socioeconomic factors that contribute to one’s behavior and life choices.  But let’s ignore the generations of abuse and genocidal policies Indigenous peoples have endured.  Ignore that some of these policies are still around today, just under different pretenses.  It must be their own damned fault because of their faulty DNA.

Blood quantum and biology, genetics and politics- don’t define me as Tlingit and who I can consider myself related to.  It is traditions, protocol, and the environment which I grew up in that created who I am.   Having a history that is documented for the past several thousands of years is enough to consider me and the rest of the Tlingit Nations indigenous to this area.

For more info on genetics and other related issues that impact indigenous peoples- check out the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism.



  1. […] it at Aandeiyeen’s blog. Blood quantum and biology, genetics and politics- don’t define me as Tlingit and who I can […]

  2. A similar argument used against Natives is the “conqueror” argument. In that one tribe invaded another’s territory, drove it out, and therefore has no more right to the territory than the US does because it acquired it through force. But this argument is really just a step backward to a darker time in human history. One would be hard pressed to find a patch of ground in the world that hasn’t been fought over at one point or another. Additionally, this strain of thought could be used to rationalize all sorts of belligerent behavior on both sides.

    Property rights, territorial sovereignty, etc. are all highly complex cultural constructs. There will never be a land conveyance, grant of sovereignty from the US, or any such event that will allow us all to sit back and say: we’re done, we did it. Population shifts, changes in culture, resource depletion and technological advancement all prevent it. As our society evolves (including white society) so will the way we make a living, so will our resource needs, so will our culture. Through this process everyone seeks some kind of equilibrium of “rights” so that all are satisfied in one way or another. This is how I believe our primary societal organization formed: our clans and accompanying clan property and clan sovereignty.

    I am highly critical of the Nation State response to these shifts in culture, needs, crime and property. Too often, the blanket legislation doesn’t match the cultural norm. Which is why you end up with people from different sides of the continent trying to force laws on one another (pro-life vs. pro-choice, prohibitionists vs. drug users, etc.) Similarly, when the US, or even the State of Alaska tries to address Native issues, they miss the mark, because they are entirely out of touch with what is going on in the ground and what people believe in their hearts. In this case, that belief is something like this: “I am a Tlingit. This is my clan. My clan has been on this land and fishing these waters for thousands of years. We are one in the same.” Then the State, or the US, or maybe even a tribal government tries to come up with a piece of legislation that can fit people with that thought process into the context of a Nation State and we end up in bizzarro world with a tribal government or ANCSA corporation that doesn’t quite fit into either world.

  3. Don’t forget that some Tlingits also had slaves- and therefore we are a dishonorable race and don’t deserve any rights!

    Quite true about outside entities trying to govern and address Native issues. Subsistence management is one glaring example of this disconnect- I think David Case articulated this well about subsistence:

    “Alaska Native fishing and hunting has, until relatively recently, been governed solely by indigenous systems of unwritten customs, beliefs, and practices that ensured the survival of families and villages. These unwritten rules were generally effective from a conservation standpoint. Equally important, they dovetail the complex web of social, cultural, and economic activities and personal relationships that define Alaska Native societies. The more recent, formal regulations of the state and national governments have often tom apart this web of relationships. The effect is perhaps unintended because the purpose is not to infringe on subsistence practices, but to protect wild, renewable resources by imposing bag limits, seasons, and other scientifically routine methods. These artificial limitations, however, often clash with the hunting and fishing practices of Native people who generally perceive such limits as unnecessary.”

    The rest of his article can be found here:

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: