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Genetic Ancestry Tests for Tribal Enrollment

In June 2010, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians “passed a new enrollment ordinance that requires DNA testing for new applicants to the tribe’s rolls,” but it has not been signed into law at the time of this writing (Morris 2010).  If passed, DNA testing would be required of all new applicants for tribal enrollment.  The enrollment ordinance includes a process for disenrolling individuals who do not qualify as Cherokee.  This measure could have unforeseen implications for the tribe and other tribes that seek to utilize genetic ancestry testing for enrollment purposes, such as defining or redefining what it means to be Cherokee (Bardill 2010). A more detailed discussion about the pros and cons of using DNA testing to determine tribal membership is available in another section of this resource guide.

The Cherokee genealogy website offers a way to check if you have a direct lineal ancestor who was listed on the 1924 Baker Roll.  Regarding genetic testing for enrollment purposes, they say:  “DNA testing has not advanced to the point of determining tribal affiliation.  The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians accepts DNA testing only in regards to the parentage of an applicant” (Cherokee 2011).  For example, DNA testing results would be considered from an applicant who wants to prove that they are the child of an enrolled member.  An example of this is paternity tests.

Paternity tests: Paternity tests are another form of genetic tests that check for a DNA match between a father and child.  Paternity tests can only tell someone whether or not an alleged father is the biological father of the child in question.  Because a child inherits half of their genetic information from their mother and the other half from their father, there will be a partial genetic match between a child and a parent.  Paternity tests look for genetic matches between the child and father.  Paternity tests do not reveal any information about ethnic/racial ancestry or about any health information.

Paternity tests are different from DNA ancestry tests.  DNA ancestry tests might be inconclusive or inaccurate, or may not tell a complete story about all of a person’s ancestors.  Imagine a tribal leader who takes a test only to learn that he is not really “Native American” according to the test and what the impact would be on his identity.  As sovereign nations, tribes are allowed to dictate their own membership policies, but should carefully consider the difference in paternity tests and ancestry tests.  They are both genetic tests that require DNA from a person. Paternity tests help determine if a person is the child of a tribal member, proving biological relatedness, but do not specifically give information about tribal or ethnic ancestry. Regardless of whether a tribe will decide to allow some people to enroll based on the results of a DNA ancestry test, a tribe should carefully consider additional reasons for enrollment and not make enrollment decisions that rely solely on DNA ancestry tests, especially as these tests cannot provide data about any one person’s tribal heritage. More information about the basics of genetics and genetics tests is available in another section of this resource guide.

Discussion Questions:

1.       What are the risks and benefits of using DNA for tribal enrollment purposes?

2.       What concerns should be addressed?

3.       Who will make decisions to enroll or disenroll an individual?

It is recommended that tribes seek assistance from genetic experts to help interpret the data. Overall, individual tribal nations will need to weigh the risks and benefits of allowing genetic tests for enrollment purposes. 

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