DNA Testing, Vermont H. 809, and the First Nations

DNA Testing, Vermont H. 809,
and the First Nations

by Nokwisa Yona
April/May 2001

(This is a first in a series of articles dealing with Vermont bill H. 809 and
DNA testing as a whole in relation to First People)

The US government successfully terminated numerous tribes of recognizable and authentic Indian people. The Dawes Roll achieved separation of a sizable percentage of People from their right to heritage. Although methods exist to establish formal recognition of tribes at both federal and state levels, the procedures for doing so are complex, tedious, and potentially at the whim of new legislation. In essence, the government has not been highly supportive in the arena of adding new Indians. Nor has it lived up to its obligations and responsibilities for the tribes it does recognize.

For this reason, legislation that is today conceived in secrecy and submitted without fanfare, breeds doubt – often fear – in the eyes of many of the First Nations’ People. And when nebulously worded legislation – that involves Indian affairs and issues -is introduced with no fanfare, many view it rather ominously.

Such a bill now sits in the Health and Welfare Committee of Vermont’s House of Representatives. Submitted and drafted by Vermont Representative, Fred Maslack (R., Poultney), the bill, H. 809, and its author have become the target of Internet-wide concern and reaction.

The text seems worded innocently enough. Yet it leaves doubt in the minds of many as to the reason of its existence and as to the authenticity of its intended and future application.

    Subject: Health; commissioner of health; duties; DNA-HLA testing to identify Native American individuals

    Statement of purpose: This bill proposes to authorize the commissioner of health to develop standards and procedures for DNA-HLA testing to identify individuals who are Native Americans.


    It is hereby enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont:

    Sec. 1. 18 V.S.A. ß 104(j) is added to read:

    (j) The commissioner shall by rule establish standards and procedures for DNA-HLA testing to determine the identity of an individual as a Native American, at the request and the expense of the individual. The results of such testing shall be conclusive proof of the Native American ancestry of the individual.

The intent of the bill according to Maslack, is two-fold:

  • To provide a standardized method for assuring Native Identity;
  • To provide an alternate means for proving one’s heritage

“I just want to help Indian People,” Maslack states. He says his intent is to offer a means – an uncontestable measure – by which the state would be forced to accept the authenticity of one’s claim to Indian ancestry. He sees the DNA testing as providing authoritative proof and evidence.

After all, reminds Maslack, this same science and technology is used now in many areas and is considered proof enough to convict and sentence to death row those accused of certain crimes. And, if a state can sentence a man to death on DNA evidence, could it possibly question the same evidence used in claims of heritage?

The Link Between DNA Testing and Disease among the Nations

Data from the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute have given ammunition to researchers and the health industry for continued efforts in any direction that might lead to means of identifying and searching for a genetically based cure for cancer.

The Department of Health and Human Services reported “cancer an extremely rare disorder among American Indian people” at the beginning of the 1900s. But this is changing rapidly as Native populations are increasingly victim of a wide range of cancers. Cancer has become the leading cause of death for Alaska Native women, and is the second leading cause of death among both American Indian and Native Hawaiian women.

According to the NIH, “American Indian women had higher incidence rates for cancers of the cervix, ovary, and gallbladder than the U.S. white female population, while cervical cancer incidence rates among Alaska Native women were twice as high as the U.S. white population… Lung cancer incidence and mortality ranked highest among Alaska Native and Hawaiian men, while among American Indian men, prostate cancer was the most diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer mortality.”

Prior Use of DNA Testing among First Nations’ Tribes

DNA is being used to examine the prevalence of a range of diseases from rheumatoid arthritis to heart disease and cancer within the Native populations.

The Western Abenaki Tribe of New York validated their ancestry thanks to recent advances in DNA research. Chief Ron Roberts, a self-avowed avid supporter of the methodology and Representative Maslack’s bill, says DNA testing is a method that will allow Native people to affirm their lineage, and will help develop genetic databases that may lead to treatment or cures for critical illnesses that run rampant in Native People. Even Roberts says the bill and purpose is “just to help the Indian People.”

Pima members provided DNA samples for a study on diabetes. This gave researchers valuable leads in identifying and treating this condition which plagues it tribal members. Similarly, the Choctaw participated in a scleroderma and DNA study. And the Navajo (DinÈ) and Apache have provided samples used in a study of genetic based forensics at the University of Arizona.

Geneticist Andrew Merriwether at the University of Pittsburgh leads a team of researchers that has collected samples from some 1300 Native People, representative of 40 populations. From his study, he has conceived of a theory on the peopling of the Americas.

The Dilemma

Certainly the possibility of contributing to a cure for disease might encourage one to consider participation in DNA testing. And if recognition of ancestry came as part of that test all the better, yes? Or is it?

While the current proposal does not contain wording that would negate other acceptable methods of identifying one’s heritage, future application could do just that. We have experience in knowing laws and methods are not always congruent.

Today huge numbers of DNA samples and results exist and numerous facilities have created massive databases and catalogs of genetic information on a range of tribes – but not ALL tribes. Thus tribal identification data is housed in myriad collections.

Without a full and complete database that reflects all tribes, the chance of common markers that would link one individual to others is questionable. If subject A is potentially genetically recognizable as Indian (while keeping odds in mind) if no relation to a tribe of origin has been cataloged, there is no connection to anything except some vague (possibly) Indian ancestry.

An additional problem concern the “historical evidence” also housed in these databases. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania found its historical genetic evidence in the graves of our Ancestors, from human bone fragments and teeth. Outside of the morality of using historic remnants in this way, one must consider the possibility of error, whether direct or based on inaccurate input. What if some visitor had been interred along with a group of relatives? His or her genetic imprint now adds to misinformation buried in the database along with the ancestral DNA.

The science is not foolproof, nor is the way it is used. A recent article from USA Today addresses Great Britain’s national DNA database, the world’s largest crime-solving computer system, and a mistakenly matched sample that implicated an innocent man in a burglary. The first of its kind error – that anyone has admitted to – has shaken law enforcement communities in both Great Britain and the United States. DNA databases here are based on the British model.

Racial Typecasting

According to one of the leading forensic companies in the country, racial typing is not something that is or should be available. The result of such typing is only accurate to the point that data would indicate that there is a one in some unknown number chance of the sample having come from a Native American or African American or Asian American source. Racial typing is unethical by most standards as is racial profiling.

Identifying a racial or cultural grouping for medical concerns and humanitarian purpose, is one thing, if the information gained is indeed utilized for purposes of good. But historically, racial grouping and typecasting has had negative and sometimes horrendous applications.

We know what it did for our People historically. We are aware of not only Hitler’s practices, but the basis and execution of policies on segregation and ultimately, extermination.

And the U.S. has not been myopic in regards to racial identification or in relation to matters of origins. What if DNA determination could have been used in furthering the policy of Japanese internment during World War II?

While all the right assurances and cozies seem to be ever present in matters of ethics, why are human rights violations still so pervasive in spite of laws and promises of non-discrimination?

Intentions of aid, assistance and wishing well are appreciated. But inadequate definitions, bad laws, poorly implemented policies, and misapplied legislation, can result in serious injury in practice.

The Financial Link to DNA Research

Companies involved in genetic research around the world are spending billions of dollars in research. But trillions are at stake for the ones who win.

For ancestral DNA testing to be anywhere near accurate, the DNA of all tribes – recognized or not – must be included in the database. Thus, more effort and money is needed to continue to identify and catalog new linkages. This is not an inexpensive measure. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania study with only 1300 people and some historic evidence required a Cray computer.

There is also the issue of gene patenting, the rights to previously identified markers and access. Who will get the patent on your genetic makeup? There is money to be made by the company who does.

Then there is the DNA test itself. The typical cost for DNA testing of this sort (according to whom?) is in the tens of thousands of dollars – far beyond the means of most of us – even if we want to have our ancestry proven.

But, there is a way around that fee. If one agrees to allow the DNA sample to be used in research, the cost is reduced to a hundred dollars. And one must wonder why. How can an industry already burdened with debt afford to take such a loss to help us prove that we are who we say we are?

And that is one of the big catches with H. 809. For a hundred or so dollars, you provide a sample, a lab provides a welcome result and the sample goes off to somewhere to become a piece of data in some research.

But where will those DNA samples end up? Will they simply go into a database that attempts to catalogue all of us or a database that attempts to find a cure for cancer? Or will they go somewhere else for some other means? Is the idea of one large database that identifies all people of a given ethnicity or culture a proposition that is comforting in a time when hate groups and racially selective organizations are on the rise?


Being Indian is not about blood tests and lab samples or supercomputers and databases. Those are things of science. Being Indian, Native American or better yet, being Lakota or Dakota, Abenaki or Creek, Chumash or Tulapip, is not about genetics and technology, it is about our relationship with and among each other. It is about our Relations. No blood test or sample, no lab can provide that – not at the quest or direction of the state or any other person.

To Part Two – DNA Validity and Capability in Ethnic Identification

To Part Three – Genetic Classification of Race, A Lack of Class

Nokwisa Yona, a long-time contributing editor at the Native American Village and author of the Biweekly News Analysis, is a member of the Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama. She is a published poet and frequent freelance writer on issues of concern to First People.

Copyright © 2001 Nokwisa Yona and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.

One comment

  1. Growing up I was told that we were Native American. I asked all the questions where do we come from how are we Native American ? I could not get any answers and I really wanted to know what tribe. I have great respect for the Native Americans their ways and customs. I even attended a seminar for better ways to discipline children in the school setting and read and have a three ring binder of the circle based on the Lakota. I had a principal that said he wanted nothing to do with the “tribal method” is was just for “Indians”. I ignored him and talked at length with some of my students and we researched and it turned some around and behavior changed positively. So I did have my DNA tested through Ancestry.com and found a cousin in Texas on my father’s side who he claimed was Native American. She said we do share a Great Grandmother that (was)is Abenaki. My DNA test showed no Native American so what am I to believe? I am hoping that by going deeper down the path I will find my answer. After reading this article it has cast doubt and am doing something wrong wanting to know my heritage. It has nothing to do with money or politics just where do I come from and what paths have they followed. My grandmother on my mother’s side showed me a picture of a Native American woman and her father who were dressed in their native custom but I was and didn’t ask any questions I have regretted to this day. I begged my uncle to try and find that photo graph but to no avail. I knew taking that photo graph to a bureau of Indian Affairs could recognize the bead work and the headdress. SO many dead ends and discouragement have taken me down this path to find my cousin. I read a blog about a Chief and what a terrible person by a blogger who claims the Chief is taking advantage of others and not being Native American at all. Maybe you can shed light on this man, Chief Paul J. Bunnell before I go any further in my quest. I see this article was copyrighted in 2001. I was very curious because I was raised and live in the state of Vermont. So I know how the politics here can be very deceiving and have down right evil behind its fancy words and sweet talk. I hope that I might here back from you.

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