Bloody Lies: The Dangerous Frontier of Genetic Ancestry Testing in the Battle to Prove Indigenous Identity

Photo by Rachel Waters


Recent genetic testing carried out among the Lumbee of Robeson County, North Carolina, has led naysayers to conclude that the Lumbee’s claims of indigeneity are invalid and has led still others to assert that Indigenous identity should not rely on the colonial concept of racialization and blood quantum. However, I’ve yet to find any work which critiques the use of genetic testing within the colonial scientific context, itself. Therein to me represents a problem, as between these two stances there is no ideological common ground.

For scholars, politicians, tribes and laypeople who assert that Indigenous identity is absolutely dependent on at least some quantifiable percentage of Indigenous blood, it is unlikely that philosophical rhetoric regarding ethics or tradition is going to convince them otherwise. Similarly, for those who maintain that Indigenous identity is based on kinship, culture, ties to land and/or self-assertion, proof of genetic lineage will hold little relevance. It is thus challenging to pit a philosophical stance against one that regards itself as scientific in a way which presents an effective or compelling case for the latter. After all, one ideology exists within the ephemeral realm of belief while the other is touted by its proponents as hard science. Or so it is assumed.

In this work I will seek to bridge the gap between these ideologies not by arguing for the moral superiority of decolonized concepts of indigeneity, but by illustrating the profound flaws in what is increasingly regarded as the most scientifically sound way to determine Native heritage, yet.


“Lumbee DNA is not Indian, it has proven to be European and African. I would not like to see real Native Americans disenfranchised by posers and wannabees seeking out casino money like the Lumbees have shown to be looking to do. It is not about heritage with this group but casino and free money from the taxpayers. The Lumbees have no Indian language or culture, only fake powwows to fool people.”

– Anonymous (Lewis, 2010)

Over the last three centuries, the people of Robeson County, North Carolina, have been called many things: outlaws, a “mix’t crewe,” Cherokee, Croatan, Tuscarora, Cheraw, Siouan, Lumbee and, most recently, wannabe. In 1936, anthropologist Carl Seltzer was sent by the U.S. government to assess the claims of indigeneity of this group who would later identify as “Lumbee” on account of their long-standing proximity to the Lumber River (Locklear, 2006, p. 42). By documenting their phenotypic characteristics, he concluded there were only 22 “Indians” residing there (p. 42). Twenty years later, the Lumbee nation would be simultaneously recognized as an indigenous entity and terminated because the science of ethnic phenotyping had determined there were too few “legitimate” Indians to warrant funding or entitlement to trust land as a tribe (Wilkins, 1993, p. 128–129).

To the casual observer, the Lumbee might be easily dismissed as little more than a group of unusually determined appropriators of indigenous identity. They have no surviving Native language, no traditions or religious practices that are readily identifiable as Indigenous and their ethnic presentation overall is ambiguous, variously described as “white mixed,” “mulatto” and “gypsy” (Locklear, 2006, p.39).

As someone who grew up only a few hours away in east central Georgia, I attended several Lumbee-hosted powwows as a youth and saw, firsthand, why so many claims of fraud had been leveled against them by Natives and non-Natives, alike. Indeed, the penchant that some Lumbee had for Hollywood-inspired regalia combined with the appearance of others who dyed and straightened their hair or tanned their skin in order to conform to a more stereotypical Native image, quickly convinced me of their inauthenticity.

For Native communities outside the Lumbee, this perception of inauthenticity has often been coupled with outright disdain for a people believed to carelessly appropriate the culture of other nations and who have long-sought to partake in the funding and political legibility that federal recognition confers. In fact, other federally recognized tribes in the Southeast, like the Eastern Band of Cherokee and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, have armed themselves with binders of scholarly and scientific evidence to counter Lumbee claims and have successfully barred the tribe’s attempts at federal recognition (Wilkins, 1993, p. 140–141).

In the case of those who have opposed Lumbee recognition, there’s no shortage of research from which to draw evidence. Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, the controversy surrounding the “Lumbee problem” of authenticity has not gone unnoticed by scholars (Blu, 2001, p. 2). Volumes have been written which speculate on the origins and authenticity of the Lumbee by Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers, alike. These works have interrogated the historical and cultural validity and relevance of evidence both in support of and in opposition to Lumbee claims of indigeneity by drawing from a variety of disciplines which span linguistics, physical anthropology, firsthand oral and written accounts, genealogy and, as of 2002, the emerging science of genetic ancestry testing via DNA sequencing (Lumbee Tribe Regional DNA Project, 2008).

Heralded by journalists, politicians, scholars and laypeople as the definitive solution to the “Lumbee problem,” over the past 14 years, 1,761 self-identified Lumbee have voluntarily submitted to testing as part of the Lumbee Tribe Regional DNA Project in a bid to prove their deeply held identity and to silence critics once and for all (2008). To all but the most scientifically literate, what these tests appeared to reveal was both damning and disheartening. The reported results of the sample group concluded that Lumbee were, on average, 96 percent of African or European lineage with the remaining 4 percent reflecting a combination of West Asian and Indigenous American lineage (Estes, 2009, p. 1). This seemingly scant evidence of Indigenous “blood proof” served not only to embolden Lumbee critics but enabled them to present flawed data as conclusive evidence, thus setting a dangerous precedent with the sweeping potential to strip identities, undermine communities and deny political agency as indigenous persons.

As more and more of the Lumbee nation’s 55,000 members join the project in hopes that the percentage of proven indigenous DNA will rise enough to exonerate them from accusations of ethnic fraud; and as other tribes, both federally recognized and not, begin to adopt DNA testing to determine or confirm membership, it becomes especially pressing to examine this methodology (Reilly, 2015). But in order to understand what led the Lumbee to submit their DNA to a project that, thus far, has given little hope to the founders’ intended wish for genetic validation, we must first summarize the ways in which the Lumbee have historically been identified, recorded and scrutinized by outsiders.

The Colonial Microscope: Early Historical and Scientific Appraisals

The earliest colonial accounts of the indigenous people of Robeson County, North Carolina, emerge around 1725 when John Herbert, Commissioner of Indian Trade for the Wineau Factory, publishes a map identifying enclaves of Cheraw, Pee Dee, Waccamaw and Scavano peoples living along the Lumber River on what is now the border of North Carolina and South Carolina (Cohen, 2007, p.1–2). By 1739, following an outbreak of smallpox, the Cheraw vanish from historical accounts, leading many scholars to believe that their surviving population had been absorbed by neighboring groups like the Catawba and Tuscarora (p. 2–3).

However, by the 1750s, the populations of the Catawba and Tuscarora were also reported to be in decline, and colonial records describe a “mix’d crew” of approximately fifty families living on the Lumber River (then known as Downing Creek) on land held in-common (Lumbee, 2016). Four decades later, the 1790 United States Census would record common Lumbee surnames like Locklear, Oxendine, Lowrie, Hammonds, Brayboy and Kersey, without racial designation as “all other free persons.” It is worth noting that Indians of North Carolina were not enumerated in the census at the time (2016).

As Indian Removal swept the Southeast during the mid-1830s, the government of North Carolina passed laws banning “Free People of Color” from voting or bearing arms and court dockets reveal numerous suits contesting these bans were filed by a people that called themselves Robeson County Indians (2016). Additionally, those classified as Indian lost rights to property even as those classified as black retained these rights, potentially providing some incentive for mixed black and native persons to disavow their indigenous heritage (2016). In 1853 the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of its ban on firearms with the conviction of Noel Locklear for the illegal possession of firearms in the State v. Locklear (2016). During the course of the Civil War, North Carolina added injury to insult by forcibly conscripting Indian men from Robeson County under the guise of the Confederate Home Guard.

In response to this unwanted and often violent conscription, Henry Berry Lowrie founded the Lowrie Gang (Sider, 1976 p 64–65). From 1863 through 1872, the Lowrie Gang would fight the Home Guard and the newborn Ku Klux Klan and generate enough intrigue to inspire historian George A. Townsend’s 1972 book “The Swamp Outlaws,” in which he stated that the Lowrie’s and their neighbors were of mixed black, white and Tuscarora Indian heritage (Lumbee, 2016). It is also crucial to note that at the close of the Civil War, in 1868, the rights of indigenous people were restored by the state as blacks were increasingly marginalized, disenfranchised and hunted and those bearing any visible black ancestry were swiftly classified as black (Blu, 2001, p. 112).

By 1885, the North Carolina General Assembly renamed and recognized the Indians of Robeson County as Croatan (though it is possible that this is the name of a village and not what the people called themselves) and established a school system in which the tribe built the Croatan Normal School in 1887 (p. 116). One year later, the state-named Croatan began the process of petition for Federal Recognition, although it was not until 1912 that The Department of Interior sent Charles F. Pierce, the Supervisor of Indian Schools, to Robeson County to assess the tribe’s claims to recognition and request for federal funding (p. 120). Pierce went on to conclude that recognition was unnecessary, but not because the tribe wasn’t indigenous. In fact, he stated in his report that “one would readily class a large majority (of the Lumbee) as being at least three-fourths Indian,” but asserted that federal funding was of little import since the state and county provided adequate funds to educate the tribe’s 1,976 school-age children (p. 120).

Over the next four decades, the federal government would continue to use science as the primary tool to evaluate the tribe’s claims of indigeneity. Anthropologists like John Swanton and John Seltzer were sent by the Department of the Interior to assess the people of Robeson who — with each unsuccessful attempt at recognition and with new theories regarding their ethnic roots — had sought to bolster their odds of recognition and financial assistance by changing their name from Siouan, then to The Cherokee Indians of Robeson County, before finally settling upon Lumbee in 1956 (p. 119–138).

Using the now-discredited science of physical phenotype, in 1936 Seltzer evaluated skin tone, hair texture, tooth size and skull measurements to ascertain the ethnic “purity” of the people (p. 124). It was this study which would contribute significantly to the present-day Lumbee struggle for political recognition and for acceptance among the broader pan-Indigenous community as Native peoples.

The “Original 22” as they would come to be called, represented the only “half-blood or more” Indigenous people that Selzer claimed to find, and in 1937 these 22 individuals would come to be federally recognized under the Wheeler-Howard-Indian Reorganization Act (Locklear, 2006, p. 41–42). However, this recognition encompassed only those 22 individuals, leaving the remainder of the community to continue the battle for recognition.

Finally, in 1956, during an era in which tribes were rapidly losing federal Indian status, lands held in trust and federal funding due to Termination, the Lumbee Act was passed by Congress. It acknowledged the Lumbee as an indigenous people while simultaneously denying any federal funds or claims to land (Wilkins, 1993, p. 128–129). For the remainder of the 20th century and into the 21st, the Lumbee would continue to lobby for full recognition and the benefits therein, only to be denied due to Termination-era language present within the Lumbee Act or by claims from politicians and other federally recognized tribes who used evidence, much of which was derived from flawed scientific studies, to prove that the Lumbee were little more than a bunch of mixed-race frauds with negligible Indigenous heritage. (p.140–141).

In the decades that followed Seltzer’s study, more and more researchers published works which further diminished Lumbee claims. In 1950, University of California geographer Edward Price did his doctoral dissertation on “mixed-blood” communities in the South and proposed that the Lumbee were simply a group of free blacks who has insulated themselves in Robeson County after the American Revolution (Price, 1950, p. 285–291). It is this theory, set forth by Price, that continues to persist today throughout the South and Indian Country. It posits that the group had tried to escape the stigma of being black and subsequently raise their status by claiming to be Indians (p. 285–291).

It took decades before Price’s theory was challenged by scholars. Most notable among these critics was Robert K. Thomas, a University of North Carolina professor of anthropology and enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, who, in his 1983 report on the prior research of Lumbee origins, pointed out that Price’s hypothesis rested on the far-fetched notion that all of these communities had been uniformly perpetuating a fraud for centuries with no member ever coming forward to expose the truth (Thomas, 1976, p. 15). Moreover, Thomas pointed out that the facile assumption that people would consistently lie in order to conceal their blackness simply because they lived in the South falls apart upon close scrutiny:

“It is true that in most parts of the South after 1900 being an Indian gave you a slight “leg up” over being black. There are some places, however, in which this is not true even modernly; in Mississippi and some parts of Florida and Louisiana. But perhaps in the middle South, at least after 1900, being an Indian was of little higher status than being black. However, this was certainly not the case in the 1700s and not the case in most places in the South before 1850. It was far more advantageous to be black and free in the state of NC in that period than it was to be Indian. Anyone non-white was classified as free colored. This included both free blacks, Indians and people who were mixed white and black. Of course, there were certain disabilities to being classed as free colored. But more than that, if you were also classed as Indian, there were additional legal disabilities. For instance, no Indian could own land in the state of NC before 1866. If you were a free black you had the disabilities of being in the free colored category, but you could own land even though you could not vote and bear arms. In the state of NC at that time and in certain other states in the South, it was legally more advantageous to be a free black than to be an Indian. In order to ‘buy’ Price’s notions you would have to, thus, demonstrate that the ‘Fraudulent’ Indian identification is modern in these communities and we know, in fact, that is it not.” (p. 15)

Additionally, he notes there were very few free blacks in North Carolina in the later part of the 18th Century and early 19th Century, so free black persons would have been unlikely to form the core of such a community (p. 15).

For scholars who avoided claims that the Lumbee were a group of predominantly free blacks, the vast majority have asserted that the Lumbee consist mostly of mixed black and white heritage with limited ties to any Indigenous community through either culture or lineage (Cohen, 2011, p.1–6). They bolster this by citing historical records from the latter half of the 18th century that list many Lumbee families as mulatto (p. 7).

However, during this time in North Carolina, the legal category “mulatto” meant having one white parent and one non-white parent, regardless of whether the parent was Indigenous or black (Thomas, 1983, p.17). Only if it were determined that both parents were full-blood Indigenous would they legally be listed as Indian since at the time, there was no such legal designation as a “mixed-blood Indian” and any persons of mixed ancestry were labeled mulatto (p. 17).

Although this relentless focus on race neglects that North Carolina’s Indigenous groups commonly brought in outsiders as their populations were rapidly decimated by disease — thereby adopting them and rendering them no less Indigenous by tribal standards — the colonial standard for racial purity as the definitive measure of indigeneity continues to prevail (Schmidt, 2011). This is particularly true in cases where a group, subject to the relentless violence of colonial processes and necessary exogamy, have lost their language and the majority of their “intact” Indigenous customs (2011).

Because these American metis are not sufficiently culturally “preserved” or racially pure, the tribe’s long-held assertions, historical and linguistic evidence that would otherwise support their claims, continues to be discarded in the face of what is perceived to be “hard science,” be it physical phenotyping in the 1930s or DNA sequencing in the 21st century.

Indeed, one of the seven mandatory criteria for the U.S. Government’s Federal Acknowledgement Process (FAP), which all tribes who remained unrecognized after its development in 1978 have been required to meet, states that the petitioner must prove itself though unbiased and objective evidence to be a “distinct community from historic times to the present” (Riley, 2010, p. 4–9). For the FAP, one of the components of this criterion is proof that 50 percent or more of a petitioner’s members have a high native “blood quantum” (literally the ratio of native to non-native blood) as determined by outside “experts” such as anthropologists, historians and, supplementing these, genetic evidence (p. 9–13).

Down the Test Tube: The Emerging Use and Abuse of Genetic Testing

Though the government does not regard DNA evidence alone as admissible proof of tribal affiliation, for those like the Lumbee, who outsiders have failed to confirm as Indigenous, the development of The Lumbee Tribe Regional DNA Project in 2002 renewed hopes that their long-standing claims could be objectively validated (Estes, 2009, p. 1–2). By demonstrating their racial indigeneity with DNA proof, many Lumbee believe they can rest their case before the Federal Government as a distinct tribal entity (p. 2). This is grounded in the notion that, since geneticists have found certain “markers” in human genes that tie back to “original” indigenous populations, then if a person’s DNA reveals one of these markers, it can be assumed that the ancestors of said person were Indigenous American (Weiss & Long, 2009).

This has been done by other tribes with some preliminary success, as in the case of the Western Mohegan tribe. The tribe submitted to genetic testing in order to “prove” their entitlement to legal status as a federally recognized tribe in the state of Vermont, as they had little documentation or other supporting ethnographic evidence, such as treaties, and thereby lacked the information necessary to make a case under the FAP (Schmidt, 2011). Through genetic testing, members of the tribe were able to use these markers to establish a connection to an existing tribe in Wisconsin, and legislation is currently pending in Congress with the inclusion of this new genetic information (2011).

Alas, the results of genetic testing on almost 2,000 Lumbee to date have only presented more heartache for the tribe, seeming to confirm claims that they have little racial Indigenous heritage. The figure of 96 percent European and African DNA has been maintained by Lumbee critics, politicians and scholars, as one of the strongest pieces of evidence against what they perceive as a fraudulent tribe (Estes, 2009, p. 2–4). However, this figure is not only numerically inaccurate, but is also deeply misleading from a genetic standpoint. In order to apprehend why, it is crucial to first understand how genetic ancestry is traced through DNA.

Modern-day genetic lineage studies typically use mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) or Y-chromosome DNA as the unit of analysis due to uniparental inheritance (maternal for mtDNA and paternal for Y-chromosome) (Schmidt, 2011). That is, in the case of mtDNA and Y-chromosomes, lineages can easily be traced through the mother or father using either of these two methodologies because of the non-recombining nature of their genetic makeup (2011). Still others at the most cutting edge, like those studies performed by The National Genographic Project, have begun to use whole exome sequencing (WES) which tracks all variations in the parts of our DNA that comprise genes, taking into account all ancestors both male and female, providing a more nuanced and complete picture of lineage (Truong, 2016). Or at least, that is the eventual intent of this technology, because even the most current science has limits, particularly when it comes to indigenous North American populations.

For each of these three genetic testing methods, genetic information from each individual DNA sample is grouped according to specific markers, which on mtDNA and Y-chromosomes are known as haplotypes (Schmidt, 2011). On the mitochondrial DNA, there are a total of five different haplotypes that researchers documenting Indigenous American populations look for: A, B, C, D and X. These have often been called “Native American markers,” as they are believed to be a genetic signature of the founding ancestors (2011). On the Y-chromosome, there are two primary haplogroups that are seen in modern indigenous groups, these are M3 and M45 (2011).

However, none of these markers are exclusive to Indigenous American populations‚ and thus can be found in populations around the world. They’re simply seen more frequently in the Indigenous American populations on whom data have been collected thus far (2011). For WES genetic testing, the markers there are known as Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs), and these track the frequency of mutations at a certain place along the gene of those in various geographic populations (Truong, 2016). For instance, the genetic mutations (SNPs) which cause epicanthic eye folds as well as black hair will be found in the same location along the gene more frequently in East Asian populations than in, say, Northern European populations. Thus, when these markers are found within a person’s DNA, it can be reasonably assumed that the individual is likely to have some East Asian lineage.

In the case of The Lumbee Tribal DNA Project, which uses both mtDNA and Y-chromosome marker testing, it is true that paternal, Y-chromosome ancestry (which, thus far, have been the only results grouped by geographic location) that was of sufficiently matched origin was 96 percent African or European (Lumbee Tribe Regional DNA Project, 2008). However, the oft-cited result that this percentage accounts for all the results of the tested individuals is profoundly misleading.

In a calculation I made of the available data, I discovered that of the 944 Lumbee males whose Y-chromosomes were tested overall, 547 of them showed a result which came back as “Unknown Origin,” meaning that these genetic markers could not be matched to any European, African or other populations accounted for within the database (2008). Thus, the total percentage of Lumbee males whose results came back as either Indigenous American or of Unknown Origin (unlikely European or African) was actually 62 percent, meaning only 38 percent of those men tested were highly likely to have had an African or European paternal ancestor.

Furthermore, it’s essential to remember that this test accounts only for male ancestors. A Lumbee man could have a mother, grandmother and so on who were exclusively Indigenous and this would not be visible using Y-Chromosome testing (Truong, 2016). The opposite is true of women whose mtDNA was analyzed, as no paternal lineage will be accounted for.

To understand just how profoundly this limits the accuracy of mtDNA and Y-chromosome testing for determining total lineage, consider the following: Individuals inherit mtDNA only from their mother with the line of inheritance stopping at each male, so if you consider your 4 great-grandmothers, you and your siblings have inherited mtDNA only from your maternal grandmother’s mother (2016).

This means that your remaining seven great-grandparents (and their lineage) are completely invisible in mtDNA testing. If all your other great grandparents were indigenous, and your mother’s mother’s mother was not, then you are unlikely to carry any of the “Native American” mtDNA haplotypes (2016). In Y-chromosome testing, the limitations are similar in that the test only “sees” one line of ancestry and misses the remainder in a type of genetic tunnel vision. A man might have virtually all indigenous relatives, but if his father’s father’s father’s father was non-Native, the man’s result will come back as non-Native (2016).

Moreover, the reliability of these assumptions of lineage based on markers such as haplotypes and SNPs rests within the size of the sample population against which an individual’s DNA results are compared. Currently, the largest genetic databases against which all DNA tests are evaluated and matched according to patterns in various geographic populations consist of roughly 700,000 individuals, virtually none of whom are indigenous to the United States and Canada (National Genographic Project, 2016). The only statistically significant (and thus easily matched) genetic data from Indigenous American populations currently comes from Mayan, Peruvian and Amazonian peoples (2016). In the US and Canada, very few indigenous groups have submitted their DNA to these databases, meaning that the genetic profiles — which most scientists agree are very regionally diverse — have not been mapped for most North American peoples (2016). Thus, these tests which seek to match haplotypes and SNPs of indigenous peoples without Mayan, Peruvian or Amazonian ancestry will frequently return with a result showing “Unknown Origin” (Truong, 2016).

Even when an origin is shown, this is because the algorithm sought the most similar match (Truong, 2016). Unfortunately, when a sample is either too small or simply does not exist within the database, the accuracy of the match is exceptionally low (2016). Since some of the haplotypes attributed to Indigenous Americans are also found in people from other parts of the world, a database with a larger portion of non-Natives which have perhaps the A or X haplotype will be presumed by the algorithm to be the most probable match (2016). The same is true in the case of WES testing in which the algorithm is matching the position of SNPs along the gene. As such, it is entirely possible that the results of a person who is fully Lakota (or even Lumbee or Cherokee) with no other ethnic admixture might come back as European, Middle Eastern or Central Asian because 90 percent of the markers were in a similar position to those groups or, in a genetic test with higher specificity, the individual’s results might simply show as “Unknown Origin” (2016). Finally, since there is no biological classification of race, even the most sophisticated techniques will never be able to quantify it. Biological differences tend to group geographically, not racially, and in the case of ancestry testing, we see geography become a surrogate for race (Kahn, 2006).


As it stands, current genetic testing cannot account geographically for US and Canadian indigenous populations nor will it ever be able to do so without large groups of Native peoples from various regions around the continent submitting their DNA for analysis. This is not an argument they should do so, either, as for many Indigenous nations, submitting DNA is contrary to traditional practices, customs and beliefs. For any entity to force or coerce them into doing so would represent an egregious violation of their rights as human beings.

Furthermore, the racialization of indigenous groups is itself a colonial construct which undermines and invalidates traditional means of tribal identity and lineage such as clan affiliation, traditional adoption or the use of certain common maternal or paternal ancestors who may or may not share mtDNA or Y-chromosomes with an individual (Schmidt 2011). However, given that we exist within the broader settler-colonial context, it is not enough to disavow lineage-seeking genetic testing on the grounds that it is immoral, unethical and culturally inappropriate.

When laypersons, politicians, lawyers and social scientists who place value on racialized notions of indigeneity take the results of these tests at face value, the implications for granting or denying heritage based on DNA evidence carry far more potential to devastate than to validate. Even as the Lumbee and other unrecognized tribes turn to genetic testing in a desperate bid to supplement their claims for recognition and/or social legitimacy, some leaders of recognized tribes have turned to the simplest form of genetic testing in order to disavow their own people.

Over the last ten years, DNA maternity and paternity tests have been used to disenroll thousands of Native people because they have been unable to meet updated tribal criteria (Taylor, 2011). In California, the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians adopted a DNA-testing ordinance in September 2011 which tribal leaders claimed would streamline their enrollment process (2011). That same year in Wisconsin, a Ho-Chunk woman named Daria Powless was also tested as part of the tribe’s own DNA ordinance (2011). During this process, Powless learned that the man she’d always believed to be her father was, in fact, not. Worse, because this man was not Ho-Chunk, her blood quantum was deemed too low to qualify her for tribal membership (2011). As a result, Powless who had been raised her whole life within Ho-Chunk culture in a Ho-Chunk home, was disenrolled from the only tribal nation she’d ever known (2011).

As more tribes adopt DNA paternity and maternity testing, companies have begun marketing more comprehensive mtDNA, Y-chromosome and WEC tests to tribes with the promise of providing deeper insight into the lineage of their members. One company in particular, DNA Tribes, which markets both parental DNA and genetic ancestry testing states the following on their website under a special section entitled “For Tribal Enrollment Officials:”

“DNA testing can provide enrollment officials with a tool to screen applicants on the basis of genetic kinship to a tribal nation. If tribal data are available, test results can provide a TribeScore that indicates whether a person biologically fits in the tribal population. If a person’s DNA does fit, this indicates a biological kinship that might reflect an ancestor from the tribe. If a person’s DNA does not fit, this indicates their biological ancestry is outside the designated genetic range for the tribal nation.” (DNA Tribes, 2015)

Considering that groups like the Lumbee and Mohegan have already adopted genetic ancestry testing as a way to prove indigeneity and given the growing number of tribes that are turning to genetic testing to determine membership, it is not a stretch to imagine that others might begin to use these in place of or in addition to paternal/maternal DNA tests, expanding their enrollment (and disenrollment) criteria to embrace the dubious practice of ascertaining the social construct of race through the geographical science of population genetics.

If this proves to be the case, it is probable that many more families will be torn apart and more individuals will be left homeless or set adrift as flawed faith in the colonial standard of “objective” science to determine indigeneity infiltrates Native communities in ways the minds behind the concept of blood quantum only dared dream.

Works Cited

Wilkins, D.E. (1993). Breaking into the Intergovernmental Matrix: The Lumbee Tribe’s Efforts to Secure Federal Acknowledgment. Federal Preemption, (23:4), 123–142. Retrieved from

Locklear, E.A. (2006). “What Are You?”: Exploring Racial Categorization in Nowhere Else on Earth. The Southern Literary Journal, (39:1), 33–53. Retrieved from

Blu, K. (2001). The Lumbee Problem: The Making of an American Indian People. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Estes, R. (2009). Where Have All the Indians Gone? Native American Eastern Seaboard Dispersal, Genealogy and DNA in Relation to Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony of Roanoke. Retrieved from

Reilly, K. (2015, April 16). With a new bill, North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe continues to push for federal recognition. The Stanley News and Press. Retrieved from

Cohen, D.S. (2011). The Limits of Advocacy: The Case of the Lumbee“Indians.” Retrieved from

Price, E.T. (1950). Mixed Blood Populations of the Eastern United States as to Origins, Localizations, and Persistence. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

Schmidt, R. (2011). American Indian Identity and Blood Quantum in the 21st Century: A Critical Review. Journal of Anthropology 2011 (1:1), 1–9.

Kahn, J.D. (2006). Genes, Race and Population: Avoiding a Collision of Categorgies. American Journal of Public Health. (96:11), 1965–1970. Retrieved from

Truong, D. Ph.D. (2016, May 5). Understanding Genetic Ancestry Testing. Personal interview conducted by author.

Originally published at Written as part of my M.A. in International Affairs at The New School