DNA Validity and Capability in Ethnic Identification

DNA Validity and Capability
in Ethnic Identification

by Nokwisa Yona
April/May 2001

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

    I checked out the Vermont bill and it’s outrageous. It demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about genetics. It’s impossible to determine race by studying either DNA or HLA haplotypes. This demonstrates the potential misuse of genetic research for political/racial motivations. – Debra Harry, Director Indigenous Peoples’ Council on Biocolonialism

The Quest for Identity

In this new century with its new horizons of medicine and technology, an old, never-ending quest for racial or more appropriately ethnic and cultural identity continues. For many who lack the necessary formal documentation to establish their heritage, the hope and allure of being qualified or quantified as Indian is a strong draw. 

Recently, in Vermont, a legislator proposed a means that would appeal to that hope and, perhaps, provide “proof” of their affiliations. Thus, the government body in Vermont is considering a new means to define the lines of demarcation to allow those, who would so desire, a method to enjoin themselves legally (in the eyes of the state) as Indian.

Vermont Bill H.809

Bill H.809 could lead to a new option for state definition of Indian identity. Proposing to utilize DNA-HLA evidence, strictly on a voluntary basis, the outcome of testing will allegedly certify (or not) that one is of Native heritage.

But will current DNAHLA testing actually provide such a determination for any individual seeking it? Does current technology and science agree that there is a viable means for determining race or ethnicity?

Science and Determination of Identity

Debra Harry commented on the venture, “Native peoples are not like some kind of purebred cattle or dog. Almost every tribe I’m familiar with has strict laws against in-breeding. This bill attempts to define cultural/social identity through biology. If implemented, there would be many people, who are known to have native identity culturally and socially though descendancy, yet may not not carry certain HLA haplotypes. Yet, they could be denied their very identity, and inherent collective rights as Native peoples.”

A heavy handed search on the Internet will turn what seem to be, a few likely prospects for genetic testing in relation to Native American. A closer look at the sites and their purpose though, reveals that the testing and results are linked directly to parentage (and thus their tribal affiliation.)

One site, DNA Diagnostics notes, “DNA paternity testing can also assist with…someone seeking to establish Native American Tribal Rights.”

The Center, in response to my question about establishing one’s Native heritage said:

    “To date there is no test which can determine a person’s race or heritage. We can perform DNA testing to determine parentage, but not whether someone is of a particular racial or ethnic origin. If there is a match or biological relationship within the Native American population between two or more persons, to my knowledge there must also be supporting documents to provide the proof of all facts and then must to be considered by the Native American counsel. DNA testing is the most conclusive and widely accepted method to test for paternity to date (over the use/method of HLA testing.)”

Cellmark Diagnostics indicated that racial typing is not done nor were they aware of a test that would provide that information.

In reviewing available information on HLA testing it is quite apparent that HLA gene types are common though in varying frequency among the typical racial/ethnic groupings of Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American and Native American.

No HLA Marker Unique to Natives

Dr. Patrick Beatty, Division of Hemotology at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center and a member of the team studying HLA gene and haplotype frequencies in the North American Population for the National Marrow Donor Program, notes, “All I can speak to is HLA, not other genetic tests: I know of no HLA markers which are unique to Native Americans, or for that matter, any other major racial/ethnic category.”

In addition, the American Anthropological Association has gone on record as saying:

    “..it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94%, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic “racial” groupings differ from one another only in about 6% of their genes. This means that there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.” 

Races Do Not Exist

But, can we take this as a hint that science is leaning away from classifying by race?

Highlights and observations from the President’s Cancer Panel Meeting, Concerns of Special Populations in April 9,1997 indicate:

    “all disciplines present, it was agreed that the biological concept of race is no longer tenable; rather, race is a social construct-a product of the Nation’s social and political history.”

This concept does not deter from Native identity but reflects a trend that reinforces affiliation and appears to recognize the unique cultural identities that bond various ethnic groups.

The panel further states in conclusions:

    “Races in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past. Generally traits used to characterize populations are either independently inherited or show only varying degrees of association with one another within a population. Therefore the combination of these traits in an individual commonly deviates from the average combination in the population, a fact that renders untenable the idea of discrete races made up chiefly of typical representatives.”

Latter observations note that racial classification by genes have no basis. 

The standard, familiar (and antiquated) categories of race utilize definition by external traits such as skin, hair, or eye color, skull size and more but account for only a minute portion of an individual’s 100,000 genes. They are inherited individually, not passed on relative to group.

The panel goes on to say, “While the frequency in genetic variation may differ across classically defined racial groupings, race is neither defined by any collection of genetic variations nor does an individual’s self identification according to race, predict genetic characteristics of that individual.” 

The Human Genome Diversity Project

The Human Genome Diversity Project (a separate endeavor from the NIH, National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI)) is quite specific in defining the ability of genetics to define ethnicity as well as clarifying the capability and limits of current science:

“Any one Native American may have the same alleles as any one European. When one looks at a number of alleles in a number of Native Americans and Europeans, however, it becomes clear that the two groups of people often differ in their variant genes. Thus, for example, the blood groups O, A, B, and AB, all genetically determined, may appear in all human populations, but often in very different proportions reflecting the frequencies of the underlying alleles.

“Although there are genetic differences between groups, the extent of such difference is small compared with the amount of difference found within a group. People within ethnic groups are genetically more different from each other than their group is from other groups.”

HGDP provides that cultural labels, while identifying groupings, are not genetic identifiers. Cultural groups are more likely to share commonality in alleles, yet no one allele would be found in all members of any one group, and not be found within another typically. There may be rare variations though that occur unique to one population.

Individual Genetics and Identity

When queried on the ability to define an individual genetically according to ethnicity, Professor Henry T. Greely, head of the Ethics Subcommittee for the (North American) Human Genome Diversity Project, “I think it is a bad idea to confuse probabilistic determinations of ancestry with a culturally defined status,” but went on to explain:

“It is a simple ‘no’ in one sense. Ethnic groups are culturally defined units. People can participate or not participate, be adopted in or (in some cases) expelled from, such groups without any regard to their genealogy or family history. It is only the physical ancestry, not the cultural affinities, that could be reflected, however imperfectly, in their genes..

“It is more complicated in a different respect. I believe that, with sufficiently sophisticated testing, a DNA sample could lead to an assignment of the probability that someone had significant ancestry from certain broadly defined ethnic groups. Thus, one might be able to say that the person from whom a particular sample came had x% probability of having substantial Chinese, or Northern European, or African ancestry. The x could never be 0 or 100- where it would fall between those extremes would depend on the circumstances.”

This latter suggestion is bolstered by data that has come out of studies on population migration. Current indications seem to support that there are some unique and common mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) markers that “could” verify one’s inclusion in the Native American populace. The proposed DNA study of Kenniwick Man will look for mitochondrial evidence that would indicate one or some of the migrationally depicted markers. 

Though many of the markers are shared either in Asian populations or small European sub-groups, a few unique mutations have emerged since the Native populace became isolated from the Asian continent (if one buys into the migration theories.). One of the more noted migrationists indicated that there may be as many as 6-10 unique mitochondrial indicators unique and present for up to 99% of the Native populace. The caveat to such a percentage though is the limitation of mitochondrial heritage. If one’s female relations (mother, grandmother, etc.) are not of native ancestry the supporting DNA would not be present as these genetic factors are only passed on through the mother. Unique Y chromosome polymorphisms may be found and identified that would also indicate heritage as the science of genetics evolves.

For now, while there are indeed some unique qualities in and among the Native populations, there is no one rule or one unique test to provide uncontestable measure of Indian that would apply to ALL those of Native descent.

Genetics is by standards of time – new ground. While it seeks to identify origins or the cause of disease, none of the institutional efforts are aimed at cultural identity except as a side-note to purpose. To isolate and legislate a class or group of people has distinct and dangerous implications, some of which will be addressed in further features.


Alleles– Alternative of a gene for a particular characteristic.

Antigen – A substance that induces the production of antibodies.

Blank – Individuals have the ability to express two HLA antigens within each category of antigens (one set being inherited from each biological parent). When an individual has apparently inherited the same antigen type from both
parents, the HLA typing of that individual is designated by the shared HLA antigen followed by a “blank”(-). For example, if one parent contributes an HLA-A2, B7, DR4 set of antigens and the second parent contributes an HLA-A2, B8, DR4 set, the child’s HLA typing will be denoted an HLA-A2,-;B7,8;DR4-.

Chromosome – threads of DNA in a cell’s nucleus that transmit hereditary information

DNA – Deoxyribonucleic acid. The material in a cell nucleus that carries genetic information.

Gene – A physical unit of inheritance occupying a specific locus on a chromosome. 

Genome– The entire genetic makeup of an individual or organism.

Genotype – The genetic constitution of an organism or cell, as distinct from its expressed features or phenotype.

Haploid – A nucleus, cell or organism possessing a single set of unpaired chromosomes. 

Haplotype – A combination of alleles (for different genes) which are located closely together on the same chromosome and which tend to be inherited together.. 

Heredity – The familial phenomenon where biological traits are passed from parent to offspring.

HLA – Human leukocyte antigens. The proteins present on the surface of the white blood cell, and most other cells of the body, which allow the human body to recognize self versus non-self. HLA A, B, and DR are important in BMT. 

HLA Typing – The identification of an individual’s specific HLA A, B, and DR. 

Human Genome Project – National Institutes of Health project to map and sequence all the DNA of a human prototype.

Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) – A study in human diversity involved in worldwide collection of genetic material from selected indigenous populations.

Locus – The spot or position on a chromosome where an allele is located.

Mitochondrial – Pertaining to the small, rod-like components in the cytoplasm of cells, and containing DNA and RNA. 

Phenotype – The total characteristics displayed by an organism under a particular set of environmental factors, regardless of the actual genotype of the organism.


Debra Harry, Director Indigenous Peoples’ Council on Biocolonialism.

American Anthropological Association – Statement on Race – 1998.

DNA Diagnostic Center

Patrick Beatty, M.D. PhD

Human Genome Diversity Project North American Committee – Ethics Subcommittee:
Professor Henry T. Greely, Stanford Law School.

National Cancer Institute – Advisory Boards and Groups
Highlights and Recommendations From the President’s Cancer Panel Meeting, April 9, 1997, New York, New York 
Observations and Conclusions (excerpt).

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.

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