Tracing tribal heritage through DNA questioned
January 20, 2011
Tracing tribal heritage through DNA questioned
While DNA testing can prove paternity, tribal members are skeptical as to whether it can prove Cherokee heritage.
By TEDDYE SNELL Staff Writer The Tahlequah Daily Press Thu Jan 20, 2011, 09:10 AM CST
TAHLEQUAH - Today's sophisticated DNA testing can reveal information in paternity cases and crimes, and one company now claims it's
able to determine if a test subject is Cherokee.
Donald Yates, principal investigator for DNA Consultants in Phoenix, believes through the appropriate DNA testing, Cherokee
descendants can be linked to a large number of Middle Eastern lineages.
On its website, cherokee.dnaconsultants.com, the company states it has been studying Cherokee DNA for 10 years and believes that
with the results of the Central Band of the Cherokee in Lawrence County, Tenn., they have the largest sample collection in the
According to Cherokee Nation tribal law, to be considered a Cherokee citizen, proof of enrollment on the Dawes Rolls is required to
obtain a CDIB card. The Central Band of the Cherokee in Tennessee is not a federally recognized tribe, but is a 501(c)4 nonprofit
One tribal official believes DNA testing does not necessarily make one a Cherokee.
"Cherokee is a cultural, social and political designation," said Julia Coates, at-large Cherokee Nation tribal councilor. "There is
no biological definition of 'Cherokee.' There are several large biological populations in the American hemisphere, but to my
understanding, each contains numerous distinct cultural groups.
Mitochondrial DNA may be able to tell that one is Native American and may be able to pinpoint a general area where the ancestral
population was located, but it can't determine whether one is of a specific cultural and political group such as 'Cherokee.' DNA can
also determine if one is related to specific families, but again, you would have to determine that those families were part of
cultural and political societies identified as Cherokee."
DNA Consultants continues its study of Native American lineage under the Cherokee DNA Project and is currently accepting enrollment
for Phase 2. According to the website, to join the study, participants must purchase a Native American DNA test.
The test determines the subject's mitochondrial DNA haplogroup and specific halotype. Participants in this phase of the project will
have results compared to the original samples of 52 individuals who participated in the original test, who claimed matrilineal
descent from a Native American woman, usually a Cherokee.
"Most subject reveal haplotypes that were unmatched anywhere else except among other participants," states the study. "There proves
to be a high degree of interrelatedness and common ancestral lines. Haplogroup T emerges as the largest lineage, followed by U, X, J
and H. Similar proportions of these haplogroups are noted in the populations of Egypt, Israel and other parts of the East
Coates is an assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of California at Davis, and is a visiting professor in
Cherokee studies at Northeastern State University. She will present "From Cherokee Clan to Cherokee Citizen" next week as part of
the tribe's ongoing history series. The presentation will tackle the issue of Cherokee identity, a fiercely debated subject today,
with many challenges and differing agreement as to who can claim to be Cherokee.
"Ever since the trader James Adair put forth the notion in the mid-1700s that Cherokees were the Lost Tribes of Israel, there have
been efforts on the part of some to make that link," said Coates. "This attempt has been made with many other tribes, as well. The
site appears to be trying to do the same thing. The majority of Cherokees and scholars dismiss this idea, however."
What Coates finds most troublesome about the website is that it is maintained by the Central Band of Cherokees.
"This is one of six 'wannabe' groups that have been seeking Tennessee state recognition, which the Cherokee Nation has been
aggressively opposing, both legislatively and in the courts," said Coates.
"Unable to demonstrate that they have any legitimate political or historic basis to be regarded as a 'tribe,' it may be that there
are political motivations behind these attempts to demonstrate a Cherokee heritage through biological methods."
Cherokee citizen and attorney Kathy Tibbits agreed with Coates' position on DNA testing.
"It must be fascinating to explore one's ancestry with DNA testing, but that's totally irrelevant to Cherokee citizenship, which is
a legal call, based on location and intergenerational history," said Tibbits. "In other words, there are a lot more people with
Indian ancestry than actually are Cherokees. Around here, we tend to assume everyone is always trying to prove entitlement to
Tibbits also thinks Cherokees may be more closely linked to Asian ancestry rather than Mediterranean.
"I think when we look at migration pathways to the New World, Cherokees don't fit the Algonquin migration model that students of DNA
results seem to hypothesize," she said.
"Our origin stories imply we came from the Pacific Rim. Our language sounds Asian. Our textile designs match up with equatorial, not
polar, textile designs except in contemporary influence. I don't know enough about the underlying assumptions to say whether I
could change my view of the world based on those migration pathways. But DNA is useful to genealogists when they have unconfirmed
paternity and issues like that."