Where is my Native American?
September 24, 2014 4:27 PM   Subscribe

For years, I've assumed I was 1/32nd Native American. I've seen a picture of my great-great-grandmother, who's clearly part Native American. The story was always that she was half. That would make my great-grandfather a quarter, my grandmother 1/8th, my mom 1/16th and me 1/32nd. Except that when I look at 23andme results, there's no indication of that in my ancestry composition. Native American comes in at 0.0%. Is there a chance my results could be off?
posted by tallthinone to Technology (36 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Even doing a little family history makes one realize the disparity between official family memories and the actual biological facts. Over four or five generations, a degree of uncertainty comes into play. The woman in the picture might not be your relative. Or she may not be Native American. Or one of the links between you and her could be other than what you think. I don't say this to besmirch your family – all families have these anomalies when you investigate the details.
posted by zadcat at 4:41 PM on September 24, 2014 [9 favorites]


Your 23andme test is a autosomal DNA test going back 7 generations. If I am counting correctly, it is unlikely she is outside the test range. I'd say it's more likely is that somewhere in your family line, someone was not fathered by the person they think fathered them (and if I'm reading your post correctly, the likeliest candidate is your great-grandfather.)
posted by DarlingBri at 4:43 PM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]


How is she clearly part Native American? There are many, many ethnic groups that could be seen as looking similar to Native Americans, especially in old black-and-white pictures.

Lots of people have slightly incorrect family stories that make them seem more exotic than they are.
posted by erst at 4:43 PM on September 24, 2014 [26 favorites]


Best answer: Revealing American Indian and Minority Heritage using Y-line, Mitochondrial, Autosomal and X Chromosomal Testing Data Combined with Pedigree Analysis (pdf):
Autosomal DNA is the DNA contributed by both parents to each child which excludes the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. A female child receives an X chromosome from each parent and in this circumstance, the X chromosome is recombined the same fashion as autosomal DNA. The X chromosome will be discussed in a later section.

Everyone knows that you inherit half of your DNA from your mother and half from your father. While this is true, it does not mean that you receive 25% of your DNA from each grandparent. While each child does on the average receive 25% from each grandparent, the actual inheritance pattern varies much more than that and each sibling may receive far more, or less, than 25% of their markers from any grandparent.

We don't understand today how inheritance traits are selected to be passed to children. Each parent receives 50% from each of his or her parents, but how this is combined and reduced to the “half” that is passed to each child is unknown. Every individual has 2 chromosomes in each pair, one from each parent, but their DNA recombines to create one “new” chromosome to be passed to each of their children.

Some “groups” of genetic material are inherited together, and you may wind up with more or less genetic material from one of your grandparents. In time, certain genetic “traits” will be lost in some descendants, while not in others. Therefore, you can't figure actual inheritance percentages by using the 50% rule. This means that if your father was 50% Native American, you are not necessarily 25%, genetically speaking. You may receive 10% of his Native genes and your sibling may receive 40%.
posted by jaguar at 4:47 PM on September 24, 2014 [33 favorites]


The game of telephone across generations is remarkably fuzzy. "She looks like she could be Native American or part Native American..." "Aunt Jo said that she was likely part Native American..." "Cousin Rob said that Great-grandmother was 1/4 Native American..." "You're great-great-grandmother was Native American!"
posted by amanda at 4:48 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


23andMe has the potential to upset family applecarts. This Vox post, for example, tells the story of a 23andMe test resulting in a divorce.
posted by easement1 at 4:51 PM on September 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


Even if all the paternities are correct, it is possible that the woman in the photo is your relative by marriage only, and that someone along the line misremembered or misinterpreted this. E.g. She could have been your great great grandfather's second wife after the first one died, or something, and your great grandfather could have been the son of the first wife, who was brought up as the second wife's own child.
posted by lollusc at 5:01 PM on September 24, 2014 [5 favorites]


I feel like every white family in the US (especially if you're from the midwest or the south) has some great-great somebody who was conveniently Native American. Unless you have specific details about this person, what tribe they were a member of, how they came to marry into your family, etc. I would just assume it's family lore.
posted by Sara C. at 5:02 PM on September 24, 2014 [28 favorites]


Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. To clarify one point, my great-grandfather, who I knew as a child, looked very similar to the woman in the picture who was identified as my great-great-grandmother. And when I say she was clearly Native American, I mean if you showed her photograph to 100 people, 98 would say Native American. In the hills and hollers of southern West Virginia in the late 1800s, it would be hard to identify another possible ethnic group.

There's another possible break in the chain that I'm aware of that's probably more likely.

easement1, that post is what reminded me to ask the question.

jaguar, that's very helpful. Is it possible then for that percentage to be zero?
posted by tallthinone at 5:05 PM on September 24, 2014


In the genealogy community, the "Cherokee princess" grandmother is a bit of a joke. Just about *every* family that has more than a handful of generations in America has this story. (I know that you're not claiming she was Cherokee or a princess, but it's a variation on the same theme). So, first, you need to accept that it's very unlikely that she was in fact Native American.

However. It's not really possible at this time to prove Native American ancestry with DNA testing. Any company that tells you otherwise is selling snake oil.

Just for funsies, here's the picture of my "Native American" great-great-great grandmother. Look at those high cheekbones! She totally has dark skin, amirite? The trouble is, I've been researching my family history for almost 10 years now and there's not a shred of proof that she was Native American.
posted by donajo at 5:06 PM on September 24, 2014 [10 favorites]


I think dismissing it as family lore is a bit off and I think that jaguar is on the right path. I haven't had a 23andme done yet, but even if my genes showed 0% American Indian, I'm on my tribal rolls because the genealogy and research has been done (and done and done a hundred times over, and no, I don't think there are any skeletons waiting in the wigwam).

And that may be why my two maternal aunts have pale complexions and one is blonde, yet my mom and my uncle are both very tan and have the stereotypical aquiline nose. Oh, and we all have blue eyes, although that's not really very odd, considering how... friendly the Anishinaabe have been with the French (on and off) for the past 400 years. But despite my mom's appearance, I seem to have got most of my genetic input from my Norwegian grandfather. Uff da, etc.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:08 PM on September 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


Iron Eyes Cody turned his Native American look into a career. He played the role in many movies, TV westerns, and a quite famous "Keep America Beautiful" PSA. I'm sure that even today people would say he looks Native American.

Actual ancestory: 100% Italian.

You just can't tell from looks.
posted by sbutler at 5:12 PM on September 24, 2014 [18 favorites]


Also, I wouldn't make any assumptions based on the region of the country you hail from and what ethnic groups are predominant where. My mom's family are just as Swedish despite being from Mississippi and not Minnesota.
posted by Sara C. at 5:16 PM on September 24, 2014


Are there any unexpected ethnic groups that show up on your ancestry?
posted by ckape at 5:21 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: ckape, no.

My composition is 97.9% European, mostly northern, mostly British and Irish. 2.1% is unassigned.

I did find out that I'm 2.9% Neanderthal, though, which is slightly higher than average but less than my girlfriend predicted.
posted by tallthinone at 5:30 PM on September 24, 2014 [35 favorites]


As sbutler says, there are plenty of people who are mistaken for native americans who have no documented native ancestry. Another famous fraud was Grey Owl, aka Archibald Belaney.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:38 PM on September 24, 2014


Anecdata: My grandfather (one of them anyway) had one father listed on his birth certificate, and a different name for his father on his death certificate, with a complicated story in between which involved a servant (the mother), servant's husband (birth certificate 'father'), servant's boss and second husband (death certificate 'father'). DNA might help resolve this question (if I cared enough), but I can find no obvious descendants of the 'birth father' or his family to compare.

Family history is fun, but the records can and do lie, at least sometimes. Best not to take it too seriously.
posted by GeeEmm at 5:48 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Just a possibility . . . Native American groups had been living with and intermarrying with other groups for some hundreds of years by the time your great-great-grandmother came along. Tribal affiliation is far more cultural than genetic.

So just as a thought experiment, it is quite possible that your great-greant-grandmother was the child of someone who fully identified as Native American and someone else--so in her mind and in the mind of everyone else she knew, 50% Native American.

But genetically speaking it's quite possible she was 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32 or some other proportion rather than the 50% that everyone (including possibly she herself) assumed.

Just assume for the sake of argument that she was genetically 1/32 Native American. Now that makes you just 1/512 Native American. That is about 0.2%. As mentioned above, that exact percentage can be higher or lower depending on a number of random factors. Let's say you lucked out in the wrong direction and it is only 0.05%.

I don't know the exact genetic markers that 23andme tests for when looking for Native American ancestry but it is just possible that with such a small percentage of Native American ancestry in your genome that all or the vast majority of the markers the 23andme tests for were dropped, leading to a finding of "0.0%" when actually you did have a small amount of Native American ancestry.
posted by flug at 6:14 PM on September 24, 2014 [14 favorites]


I don't know the exact genetic markers that 23andme tests for when looking for Native American ancestry

Presumably it is based at least partially on the presence of mtDNA haplogroups A, B, C, D, or X, although I will fully admit I have little idea what the hell that all means. But something like 90% or so of all indigenous american mtDNA comes from a half dozen or so subtypes of those groups.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:26 PM on September 24, 2014


According to 23&me, I'm 6.3% Native American. I mostly did the test to put to rest an old family myth.

My grandmother always says that we are Spanish, like the blonde white actresses in the telenovelas. It's absolutely a class thing to make her European like the rest of America, and not Hispanic. Her ancestors came over to conquer Native Americans, not sleep with them. She was white enough she was able to pass in the South when she moved away from the border in the 50's.

When she spent some time in D.C., she was devastated that people recognized her faded Native American ancestry. But they always thought she was Jewish or Italian. Never could quite tell if she thought that was worse than Hispanic, or just ridiculous. Now she feels embarrassed enough, she pretends she was always proud of her ancestry.

But depending on the biases of the area, Native American could have played better in the community than others. And that story could have started with her parents or grandparents. So you have to think of *that* time frame.
posted by politikitty at 6:29 PM on September 24, 2014 [6 favorites]


> In the hills and hollers of southern West Virginia in the late 1800s, it would be hard to identify another possible ethnic group

Italians. There were a lot of Italians in West Virginia around then, who came to work in the mines.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:30 PM on September 24, 2014 [25 favorites]


Just assume for the sake of argument that she was genetically 1/32 Native American. Now that makes you just 1/512 Native American. That is about 0.2%. As mentioned above, that exact percentage can be higher or lower depending on a number of random factors. Let's say you lucked out in the wrong direction and it is only 0.05%.

I am not a math person, but I think that's still being overly generous with the math. The linked article gave 10% as a reasonable from-your-grandparents' worth of (in this case) Native American DNA. So assuming that, (I think) we can get, as a reasonable possibility:

50% Native American great-great grandmother
10% Native American great grandfather
1% Native American grandmother
.1% Native American mother
.01% Native American tallthinone

even assuming the great-great-great grandparent is 100% genetically Native American, which is very very very unlikely for someone living in the 1800s.
posted by jaguar at 6:44 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just a possibility . . . Native American groups had been living with and intermarrying with other groups for some hundreds of years by the time your great-great-grandmother came along. Tribal affiliation is far more cultural than genetic.

This was my thought, too. You could be raised Native American and dress it and all that but not genetically have much in you. I know at least one pale, red headed, freckled Native American, born and raised on the res, has the card, etc etc. Most of the tribes I'm aware of made more of culture than blood. Even if your great-great-grandma wasn't genetically Indian, at the time she'd've been considered 100% by most people, I think.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:52 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Best answer: Have you considered uploading your raw 23andme data to gedmatch.com? (It's a free service.)

No one on any side of my family came to North America after 1800, and we, too, have heard some "part Indian" lore. There are high cheekbones, certain dental features, and dark, dark brown eyes, to boot. But so do many far northern European groups have such features. When I saw a photo of my great-great-great grandmother (b. 1793 in Connecticut) whom the lore featured, she was not nearly as fair as her husband. But they were farmers.

Anyway, my Ancestry autosomal test picked up no Native American, but gedmatch did find almost 3 percent. It could be actually Native American ancestry, or it could reflect far northern Europe.

But you know your lineage best ... better than we do. I'd try gedmatch.com and see what you find.
posted by jgirl at 6:52 PM on September 24, 2014


jaguar, the 10 percent would be a possible but abnormally large drop off for 2 generations. If it was reasonable for that to happen repeatedly then this whole exercise is bunk because you could be 15 percent Native American with 1 Native American great-grandparent.
posted by leopard at 7:11 PM on September 24, 2014


Response by poster: corpse, fwiw, I'm very familiar with Italians in WV. That's my dad's side of the family, from the northern part of the state.
posted by tallthinone at 7:40 PM on September 24, 2014


This post from a month ago touches on some of the "family myth of Native American ancestry" stuff - not that your family history is a myth, but apparently it is for some families, and it might make for interesting reading. (Plus some reason to think it's sometimes not a myth)

Anyway, the thread includes a few comments (and more in there) about old, questioned family stories, and some links to interesting groups like the Melungeons, just as a representative of how a dark-complected "different"-featured family might have tried on various identities over time, depending what was useful/safe/etc.

It also has this from vacapinta, pointing out that the reference populations the DNA studies use to say what counts as "European" were from the 1500s, a time when there were plenty of non-white people living in Europe. If that's their reference population, it makes sense that non-white features would be compatible with a DNA result of "European." (I haven't looked into the thing of how they picked their reference group at all, but remembered the thread and thought you might find some of that stuff useful.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:43 PM on September 24, 2014 [7 favorites]


Response by poster: Thanks for that, lobstermitten. I should have prefaced the post with some more context: the idea of having some Native American lineage was always an interesting but mostly irrelevant side note. My 23andme results just kinda made do a "Huh, wonder what that's all about."
posted by tallthinone at 7:59 PM on September 24, 2014


You might want to try getting more family members involved with 23andme--particularly the older generations--to unravel such mysteries. (Then again, you might not. Someone may find out something they didn't want to know.)

Also, as I learned in a basic genetics class, sometimes these genetic markers just don't get handed down. See http://blogs.ancestry.com/ancestry/2014/03/05/understanding-patterns-of-inheirtance-where-did-my-dna-come-from-and-why-it-matters/ for an explanation.
posted by Soliloquy at 8:09 PM on September 24, 2014


jaguar, the 10 percent would be a possible but abnormally large drop off for 2 generations. If it was reasonable for that to happen repeatedly then this whole exercise is bunk because you could be 15 percent Native American with 1 Native American great-grandparent.

But that's the point of the article, that the DNA that gets passed along is unpredictable and bunches up in weird ways. "In time, certain genetic 'traits' will be lost in some descendants, while not in others." Race as genetically based is a fairly shaky concept as it is; there's no reason to think that genetic testing should be able to determine small percentages of "race" from several generations back.
posted by jaguar at 8:59 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's not always detectable. Check out this Radiolab podcast or others in the same episode.
posted by hydra77 at 9:04 PM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


So my 23andme results say that I am 35.6% Native American. If thats not enough, my mtDNA haplogroup is A2.

I also have 7.7% "Broadly East Asian and Native American" and 4.9% Unassigned. (I've also got Northern and Southern European, Ashkenazi, and Sub-Saharan and Northern African - so yeah I'm a big mutt)

If I drill down it tells me why it thinks that. It is because my genes are genes only found in certain reference populations. All of the reference populations are from the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Genome_Diversity_Project

The reference populations they used for Native American are:
Maya
Pima
Karitiana
Surui
Colombian

These are the same reference populations they used for you. Even though these are mostly south american tribes, they believe that the native american populations of the Americas had one or few origins of people that came across the Bering Strait. If you share genomes with these populations, as I do, then that part of your genome almost certainly came from people native to the Americas.

If you don't share any genome, then you still might be descended from people in the Americas but it is less likely (though not impossible by any means) and, if so, it is as others have said, so little that it has disappeared.

LobsterMitten pointed out a comment I made that pointed out that you can be even 100% European and not necessarily look white. That is true even today. People from Italy, Portugal, the Basque country, Serbia and Greece are all used in the construction of the European genome.
posted by vacapinta at 2:25 AM on September 25, 2014 [7 favorites]


We all grew up being told my mother's maternal grandmother was one half or one quarter Native American, and she looked like she could have stepped out of Central Casting. My mother didn't start genealogy in earnest until after she died, but she now has a concrete paper trail tracing both branches of Great-Grandma's family back to England in the 1600's. So, by the time we had the DNA test done, we weren't surprised when it didn't show any Native American ancestry. (Except for those two uncles who just won't let go.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:40 AM on September 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


I thought that all of these home DNA tests were dodgy? See this NYT article.
posted by LarryC at 6:56 AM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


LarryC, that article is referring to the use of 23andMe and similiar tests for medical diagnoses, which the FDA now prohibits. They're perfectly fine for doing paternity testing and to some extent, genealogical research, but as has been pointed out several times in this thread, you should take the results with a grain of salt.
posted by donajo at 7:51 AM on September 25, 2014


My husband is 1/8th Native Alaskan, and is a registered tribe member, based on genealogical history, etc. 23andMe puts him at 4.6% "East Asian & Native American" of which only 1.8% is solely "Native American" (The rest is mostly Mongolian and Yakut, very interesting!) But his mitochondrial haplogroup is A2 which is consistent with Native ancestry.

He was a little surprised at how low a % he got, but we chalked it up mostly to there likely being a Russian or two that mixed in with the Native Alaskan part of the family further back in history. Like was mentioned above, just because his great-grandmother lived and identified as fully Native does not mean we could assume her genetic background was 100% Native.

We did my DNA too, and it was a total snooze. I came out as exactly what we expected.
posted by antimony at 4:02 PM on September 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


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