Ep #4: Can a DNA test make me Native American?

MATIKA WILBUR: Hi, I'm Matika! I belong to the Swinomish and Tulalip people. I'm a photographer and the creator of Project 562.

ADRIENNE KEENE: And I'm Adrienne, I'm a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a scholar and the writer behind the blog Native Appropriations.

MATIKA: Welcome back to another episode of the All My Relations podcast, we are so grateful to have you with us today. Thank you to all of our relations for joining us on this journey. You have made our hearts so full with your comments, sharing, and liking. Thank you. We love you so much.

ADRIENNE: Yeah, the response to the podcast has been so incredible and overwhelming in the best ways, and we're so grateful for all of you who have listened and let us know what it's meant to hear these conversations on a podcast so apologies to folks that we made laugh and cry in awkward public places, but we're really really grateful you're joining us on this journey. And today for our next episode, we have a really amazing and important conversation with Dr. Kim Tallbear about Native American DNA.

MATIKA: Mm hmm. Can a DNA test make me Native American? Why is this bothersome Adrienne?

ADRIENNE: I mean, like Kim will talk in this episode about how she's been doing this since 2005 was the first time she wrote about Native American DNA. And so this is something we've been dealing with for a long time but right now it feels incredibly relevant given what's going on with Elizabeth Warren and with all the conversations we're seeing online. And this is something that I talk about with my students a lot like trying to break down what it means to be a Native person outside of these kind of biological ideas around race, and as a result I have students who like, send me DNA ads from TV and from subways, or whatever, and so I have this one that sticks out in my mind so much from one of my students that she snapped in the subway in New York. And it's like this phenotypically older white guy. And in big red letters, it says, I am 11.7% Native American, and then underneath it it says, You're more than meets the eye. So it's this whole concept that like discovering Native DNA makes you like exotic and cool and different, and there's so many problems with that ad like we could spend an entire episode talking about that, but I also just think about the 1000s and 1000s of people who ride the New York City subway every day, and are looking at that and the messages that they take away from that. And so that's why I think having this deep important conversation about Native DNA and what that actually means and the dangers to our communities is so important.

MATIKA: I can't tell you how many times I've had people tell me that they've done DNA tests, and have found out that there are some percentage Native American, and I find it like slightly insulting when it happens because, you know, when I think of my traditional understandings of what it means to belong to an Indigenous community. I think of the kinship and the relationships, and I think of me standing with as Kim you talk about later on in this episode, standing with my community. And, though, that being from my place or belonging to these Indigenous communities cannot be defined in a test tube. And we know that there's no such thing as a Native American anyways. So what are we, what is, what are they really saying to me when they say that and. And in that way. When they say make that statement to me, I feel like, in some ways, they're just sort of like re-inserting in that moment their power over me that says that they don't have to know that they don't, because they grew up going through this system the K through 12 system. The education system the system that marginalizes and oppresses Indigenous voices. They don't have to know that what they're saying is problematic and so when they look at me and say that with a straight face, a part of me just sort of cringes on the inside. And then I have to decide whether or not in that moment, I'm going to like take a deep breath and become an auntie and educate their spiritual deficiency or whether or not I'm just going to sort of like fluff off but either way. It's a microaggression, that definitely digs at me. And I think for our children for our people coming up for our kids, they deserve the right to hear from our scholars and to have the conversation that we're going to have today to arm them with the language necessary for for this current political climate.

ADRIENNE: Yeah, definitely. And I mean I think both of us are Dr. Tim Tallbear fangirls, we, when we were thinking about this podcast she was one of the first people who popped up that we wanted to have as a guest. And so I think we're both really excited to get to share this conversation with you because her knowledge is amazing that she is so great to be around. She has fire tweets on Twitter all the time and for me is just a real inspiration, as a fellow Native woman navigating academia, in really unapologetic and amazing ways.

MATIKA: She's so vivacious. She has beautiful red hair with a big blonde streak in the middle and she has a boisterous laugh and she has just like this incredible big beautiful brain that just you know like I could sit and listen to Kim talk for hours and hours and hours and hours and never get tired of anything she had to say because it just like one after the other takes my breath away so I think y'all are in for a treat.

ADRIENNE: So with that, we have a big important episode for you today. And we're going to dive right in with Dr. Kim Tallbear to talk about this concept of Native American DNA, the problems with ancestry DNA tests and the challenges they present for communities moving forward. We'll talk about Elizabeth Warren, and then a little bit about the politics of research and Indigenous communities and potential alternatives for thinking about kinship as markers of Native belonging rather than biology.

ADRIENNE: Dr. Kimberly Tallbear is Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate and also descendant from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma. She's an associate professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, where she holds the Canadian research chair in Indigenous peoples, technoscience, and environment. In 2013 she literally wrote the book on Native American DNA entitled Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Her Indigenous Science Technology and Society work recently turned to also address decolonial and Indigenous sexualities specifically on decolonizing the centering of monogamy that she characterizes as emblematic of settler sexualities. This builds on the work she has been doing in a blog written under an alter ego, called the Critical Polyamorist through this work she founded a University of Alberta artspace research lab, and co produces the sexy storytelling show TV confessions sparked by the popular Austin, Texas show Bedpost Confessions. She's also active on Twitter and is a role model to many of us as an Indigenous researcher public scholar and feminist scholar. Welcome, Dr. Kim Tallbear.

KIM TALLBEAR: Thank you for inviting me.

MATIKA: We're so glad you're here. Would you take a moment just to introduce yourself as you were to a large group of people.

KIM: I usually let others introduce me and then I have to correct the name of my tribe so I'm a citizen of the system in Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, in what is now South Dakota slightly North Dakota, and I grew up in Flanders, South Dakota, which is another reservation where everybody's related between Sisseton and Flander they're both on the eastern side of the State of South Dakota. And I also grew up partly in the Twin Cities, which was Dakota homelands, as well as Anishinabeg homelands and so we've always kind of migrated back and forth between the reservations in South Dakota in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

MATIKA: Wonderful. So, this podcast is called all my relations and we are really interested in uncovering our relationship based identities and our relationship with one another, our relationship with land, our relationship with water and before we dive into anything else would you relate to that subject for a moment, especially given where you're from.

KIM: Yeah i mean I I feel like i grew up hearing more you should act in a good way or you should act appropriately. And that was often getting at that everybody like if you were at a powwow or at a community meeting or something everybody knew who my grandparents and great grandparents were. And so, we would be an embarrassment to them if we didn't act appropriately right. And I think, so that was kind of more the emphasis growing up and then I think as I kind of encountered a lot of the writing of Oceti Sakowin people around this idea, it, it definitely did branch out more into this idea of being in good relation and I was able to relate that how you relate with other humans but also other than humans back to how I was told to try and reflect well upon my extended family the [Native language] but also the Oyate or the tribe or the people. Yeah, so I do relate to yes and then of course I brought this really forward into my own work and in ways that are in conversation with Indigenous and non Indigenous academic writing about being in good relation and I've written elsewhere I actually think we're in a really great time in the academy in some ways we're not in a great time in terms of the restructuring of the academy. But in terms of the kind of intellectual work that I find non Indigenous people doing to try and recover a language for talking about their relationships with what they consider inanimate objects or other non human organisms so I feel like there's a conversation that's possible now where Indigenous people can I think really infuse that with a lot of sophistication.

ADRIENNE: So we're going to start the conversation by talking about DNA since that is something that is very big in the media right now in the conversations around. Elizabeth Warren, and the continuing conversations around these ancestry DNA tests. But before we dive into that I would really be curious to hear kind of the origin story of how you came to this work where the interest came from, and how you got involved with this in the first place because when you started this a long time ago, these conversations weren't really happening on this level.

KIM: No, um, yeah so I first encountered the politics of identity and race around the mapping of the human genome back in 2000. So I was working as an environmental policy specialist I had worked throughout the 90s for the Environmental Protection Agency for the Council of Energy resource tribes, as a contractor to tribal governments, and then I was doing a contract with Department of Energy in 2000, and I was working for an Indigenous research organization in Denver that had had a lot of grants and we had done a lot of work to do tribal involvement in the management or cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex so most of my work in the 90s was up around the intersections of nuclear weapons development, environmental contamination, and the cultural resources that Indigenous peoples had in and around those nuclear reservations. So DOE suddenly starts funding tribal involvement in conversations around mapping the human genome kind of strange but they weren't at that point, they were converting a lot of their scientific kind of resources over to this kind of hot new scientific topic. And we got a big grant to host some conversations with tribal representatives throughout Indian country and it became very clear to me, there was a whole lot of really interesting conversation going on people worried about things like, well, they might be able to manufacture biological weapons because of our unique genomes well all human beings are genetically related so that's not really very as like, anyway. But there was also a lot of talk. That was around very genetically essentialist and the way that blood talk and sometimes be blood essentialist, and I was really really fascinated and I knew I had a lot of questions that I wanted to ask and answer and I immediately knew I wanted to write the, what my dissertation became so I decided at that moment because I had a master's degree in environmental planning, I'm gonna go back to graduate school and to do a PhD just to write this book and that's what I did. And so I I didn't know the field of science and technology studies existed I knew I couldn't go to Native studies because I wasn't going to get the mentoring and the science that I needed so I ended up applying to getting into the history of consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz, which there were Jim Clifford was there who worked on the politics of indigeneity globally and I knew Jim's work but I didn't know Donna Haraway at all and and then I when I got there I realized why they had accepted me because those two work closely together and she does feminist politics of science and technology. So that's how that came about.

ADRIENNE: Wow. Yeah. I've never heard that story before that's really,

KIM: And I'm an advocate of recruiting graduate students who are coming back to school with a very particular problem they want to solve, I don't think we need to be creating a graduate school, academic lifestyle, academia is not a lifestyle choice. You should have a very particular problem you want to solve and you should bring the university resources to do that. That's not the most popular position but that's kind of the that's the attitude I have towards what academia can do for us in Indian country.

ADRIENNE: I think it would create a lot more healthy relationships to grad school toO for for Native students.

MATIKA: Yeah, well let's just start by defining what exactly is Native American DNA.

KIM: Itʻs a settler colonial idea. You know, so in human migrations research there are scientists who use a combination of ancient DNA, which they're drawing often out of human remains or other kinds of articles you can ancient DNA isn't just only DNA from 1000s of years ago, technically you use ancient DNA techniques to say get DNA, out of menstrual regs from the 19th century right it's any DNA that's hard to get out. And so, but there are people who use ancient DNA techniques to look at the DNA sequences in ancient remains and then they might also compare them to populations living in the world today and they're both interested in using DNA markers, and the frequency at which they occur in different geographies around the world to trace when they think people migrated, populations migrated through particular areas that of course they have this, the out of Africa narrative right. It's very much a in US based scientists have very much an immigration based narrative so they are thinking about the they basically divided into four racial groups. So it's not only Native American DNA you have African DNA you have your Indo-European DNA you have Asian DNA, that's what they call it and then there of course are overlaps sometimes between those things. But they so not only are they looking at human migrations historically they're looking at how different populations in the world are related to one another genetically, and so they can then tell based on mutation rates which branches branched off different lines and where people went in the world. So Native American DNA is just one of those. These sets of markers that are found in high frequency in what are now the Americas in Native American populations that have been sampled, but you. But have they done like an even net sampling across Native populations in the Americas, No. There's multiple factors first of all who gets to define who's Native in order to get samples, right. So they are looking for non admixed Natives right and so they would go into, they have done sampling actually at Sisseton Wahpeton where I'm from. And if you know anything about where I'm from, I have a Cheyenne and Arapaho grandfather. We all have multiple tribal lineages right this is both pre contact and post contact, we're not, we're tribes are not synonymous with genetic populations but scientists don't know that so they go in thinking, you know, you don't want Natives are we I'm a full blood I'm before. You're okay maybe not. There's how many different tribes in your blood. Right. But they don't know any of this stuff so like oh I got some full bloods and then they'll, they'll take out all the people who say they have a white dad or grandparents. So, this is how sampling is happening as scientists who have gone in and done sampling and who have this kind of racial standard racial framework that many Americans have on the world go in and sample according to that framework. And so they have called it Native American DNA.

MATIKA: And in your book when you talk about that you say that one of the major problems with that is the origin story right because it debunks the origin story if there is.

KIM: Oh, that that's one thing people are worried about?


KIM: That is actually a worry I think some people have. I wrote an article in gene watch, which is the magazine of the Center for society in genetics I think at Berkeley, about this because I do think we as Native people need to do a better job of articulate but it's it's hard of articulating the idea that we have a truth about how we arose in place as peoples that cannot be contained within a genetic narrative, so we don't have to reconcile our origin stories about who we are as people with genetic origin stories, but because genetics has such cultural power in a settler colonial society we are always faced with justifying our knowledges and our definitions and our histories, according to the dominant narrative that they set out and frankly most other Americans believe. So that's what I try to do in that article to say we don't have to reconcile with them. And, but neither do we have to necessarily say all migration stories around the world are false. There is somewhat of an irreconcilability in those stories and I see Indigenous genome scientists being able to hold their, spiritual, for lack of a better word understandings and traditions on one hand and then their science. On the other hand, and they just kind of move through the world, where they have both of these knowledge systems operating in their lives but not always in the same place. That's a very Indigenous thing to do, right and I and I want us to just be very confident that we can do that. And as you move through life I mean I have found ways to, to, to talk about these stories in more overlapping ways but because I spend so much time thinking about it, but we don't have to do that. I don't know if that's a complete answer to the question. So it's a worry that people have and I think it's an overblown it's it's it's overblown in terms of our own innate, I don't think we need to fear the lack of truth in our origin stories. I think more what we have to fear and I think a lot of Native people do fear this is the deployment of genetic origin stories to mediate our rights and, and people are particularly worried about maybe rights to land eventually. I'm worried about eventually the Office of Federal Acknowledgement maybe using genetic ancestry to determine whether or not somebody is authentically a tribe or not they already use cultural anthropological methods, why wouldn't they use genetic anthropological methods.

ADRIENNE: And that was going to be a question that I had too is just in terms of I think the public has a very hard time, the non Native public has a hard time wrapping their head around why Indigenous communities see these tests as inherently dangerous and or as threats to sovereignty. And I don't know if you could kind of explicate on that for folks of just understanding that these are not kind of a benign fun thing to learn about your heritage.

KIM: Yeah, I mean, they're foregrounding a settler colonial definition of indigeneity right so and, and I talk about this a lot that settler colonial definition is focused on lineal genetic ancestry alone. So you often see Americans well I have a grandparent who was from Irish therefore I am Irish right, even though they tend to be able to distinguish between the right to Irish citizenship versus that but they, there's a way in which Native Americans are so racialized obviously as other racial groups are in the US but what we have in addition to those that racialization is we have Indigenous peoplehood and most Americans cannot get their wrap their minds around the fact that we are not simply racialized you canʻt opt out of that, I mean I hear tribal leaders say well we're not a race for a nation Well, yes and no right to opt out of being racialized. But in addition to that which we have to live with in which we struggle against as other racialized marginalized racialized groups do, we do have peoplehood as peoples who are original to this place. And I think our invocation of that. I'm just going to be frank, I think our invocation of that is a threat to a lot of Americans who are trying to feel comfortable in a stolen land, and they are appealing to this sort of, it Canadians do this too even more than Americans do because they're more on about the multiculturalism up there I think that Americans are wanting to appeal to that as the sort of democratic ideal as they we all want to be included into the liberal multicultural state well that's not always been true of Indigenous people we want our peoplehood respected, and that is not necessarily always compatible with being included into your liberal multicultural state.

MATIKA: I just, I just want to acknowledge this line that you wrote in the introduction of your book you said that faith in the origins gets operationalized as molecular origins. And I'm wondering if you can talk about why you were doing this reacher research. If your origin stories or if your faith was impacted in any way. Um, if it felt challenged did it…

KIM: No, no, no, I, because I, and I'm really grateful actually for how I grew up. And I think I was saying this to somebody last night. I grew up in a Dakota community that. Fortunately the missionaries that got a hold of us were these kind of more syncretic Presbyterians. So I grew up going to church and the First Presbyterian Church in South Dakota is on my reservation where I grew up and it's in Dakota language the hymns the sermons, we have Dakota ministers one of my good childhood friends is a minister, a Dakota minister our some of our ministers sun dance and they are ministers and that's the kind of world I grew up in. So it was, we were it was compatible when you kind of chose whether you wanted to go to ceremony or church, some people do both. So no, growing up in that kind of syncretic world, I had no issue when I was taught there are multiple ways to the Creator. Um, what was strengthened was not my religious faith, quote unquote, but my faith in the way the good way of being in the world of my ancestors and how much they struggle to try and accommodate newcomers, while also maintaining their, their own worldview and way of life, and they struggled really hard and you see then what happens in 1862 when Little Crow my four great grandfather's was drug reluctantly as a leader to the Dakota War against settlers at that time and what became Minnesota or what was becoming Minnesota. So I would say my faith and who we are as a people was strengthened. We have a very complicated understanding of how to live with seemingly irreconcilable knowledges and life ways and and we I feel like we we have been a very non evangelizing culture, and that is not true of settler colonial culture, they want to shove every single thing down your throat, you know, you either die or you get on board with what they're doing, there's no other choice. And our people were just smarter than that. And we're good hearted. So I just I became more of a Dakota chauvinist.

MATIKA: I'm really interested in having you talk about, and describe blood, blood politics. And also if while you're talking about that you can talk about the notion of purity.

KIM: You know, I, I want people to be careful not to conflate blood with genes. I see people going back and forth between, you know, well that's genetically essential as when they're talking about blood quantum blood quantum is not genetically essentialist. Blood quantum is about fractions on paper. It's not about the physiological substance there's no examination of blood going on we all know how does blood quantum work it's fractions on paper right that get negotiated visually or you know whatever the local politics are of people looking at people and deciding what their race or breed was or whatever and you know. So I do write about that in the book where we need to attend very carefully to what the actual histories were in particular places when blood quantum fractions were put to paper when they were assessed how they're entangled with the breakup of the collective Indigenous land base and use very much in concert with the rise of private property right so there are very particular histories, Alexander Harmon has a book on this here in the Pacific Northwest right about how blood quantum was worked out here. I also would say, I mean, and I I wish I want us to move past blood quantum and have other ways of doing tribal citizenship, but blood is a symbol is a powerful symbol across cultures and time I do not accept that it was simply imposed as an idea onto Indigenous people I think that there was some agency that we had in reckoning with that those symbolic blood ideas and I still think there's agency. So we see in tribes all across the country. This is why we have referendums This is why we're always changing our blood rules right and you seem in tribes increasingly in the last 25 years moving towards lineal descent away from blood quantum rules. You see them moving from total Indian blood to now having to have a trace to the base roll that so in my tribe, for example, they still use one quarter total Indian blood, but that's total they'll go consider all of the lineages that I have in multiple tribes, they just want to trace to the base roll it's very complicated. Right. And so, Kirsty Gover who's I think she's from New Zealand wrote a book on. She's a legal scholar who wrote a book, serving over 300 tribal constitutions and sort of shifts in enrollment policies over the 20th century, and has shown the tribes are actually I think moving away from this racialized idea towards these what she calls a tribal genealogical ideas. Now that's still inflecting dominant racial ideas but there is agency happening as tribes attempt to tweak that. So yes, we need to keep speaking against blood quantum and blood politics as they work out as they are worked out but I think we are making moves away from that. But I also think it is a little naive to think we can just quote unquote go back to traditional ways of doing inclusion. We don't live within, we do have our traditional kinship networks, but that those are overlapping now with the fed with a federally recognized tribe or whatever other forms of recognized tribes that we have. And again you don't simply get to opt out of that colonial structure we are we're kind of hemmed in and working and resisting within the edifice of that colonial structure. So, is that an adequate answer?

MATIKA: That was actually really wanted you to say that out loud about about tribes and and the way that we connect to that there was some agency in the, in the blood definition. But then it's up but it's also very complicated and so how does that play into our genetic memory or the conversation where we say it's in

the blood. And, and one of the ways that we can talk about our connection to our ancestors that doesn't.

ADRIENNE: Well, I was just gonna say even. So in, in this space all. Many of the guests that we've had in here when we're talking about these cultural practices or understandings of our relationships the land, these metaphors that we use of like it's in our blood or now it's shifting and you talk about this much more to, it's in our DNA it's in our genetic memory. And when we know that there's so many challenges around using those as identifiers of identity and culture. What do you think about those conversations and that language and what are ways that we can talk about those relationships, without drawing upon these biological fallacies?

KIM: Yeah no I I do think actually some Indigenous ethnographer needs to go interview people and figure out what they mean what what they think is happening in our blood and hey I think that's an interesting ethnographic project, I'm not gonna do it but. I think people mean different things right we don't know what people mean but I do I have to say I just heard some Native person on a news clip this last week talking about something being in their DNA and I'm like, ah, stop. First of all, it's just a cliche, I don't like cliches, you should come up with a more original way to say something, but you know I don't purport to know what they mean. I think it's just a nice and easy thing to say. I don't talk like that though and that the the idea of blood memory is really interesting I wonder what people mean Scott Momaday is maybe one of the first people credited with that that term right. I don't know what he means you know I I hear it a lot now though, and. Okay.

ADRIENNE: I was gonna say and now there's this movement into the conversations around epigenetics and like, then that gets conflated in these conversations too and

KIM: Yeah and the epigenetic stuff is really interesting so we might do a summer internship for Indigenous peoples in genomics around intergenerational trauma and then we would have an epigenetics component to that I think that is a really interesting conversation to have. That might be a good use of the term blood memory. Right. But what what I want us to recognize is that there is an interplay here to get back to the relationality and this is what makes what should make our philosophizing on these issues different than settler philosophizing, in part. There are relationships between human relatives and our other than human relatives and so that comes into play in epigenetics the environment, quote unquote, actually can change your genome. Right. And, and that environment includes historical trauma from war and colonization and things like that. So, it is not a bi-, it is not a biologically essentialist thing to say in fact there are biological inputs to race now because race is something that is also shaped by physical trauma to your body and to populations and it can change it can change your genetics so I'm working with a group of Indigenous and non Indigenous scientists and thinkers who are really putting forward this biosocial notion of race biosocial notion of populations and bodies. And I think that is kind of compatible with being thinking about being in good relation, and attending to as having multiple relations where multiple relations have agency. So like micro organisms have effects on your bodies right you know if the environment has effects on your bodies the climate has an effect so according agency to those non human entities helps us kind of reconfigure the way that we're thinking about ourselves as humans, I think I'm getting off track again

MATIKA: No. It's perfect. I, I'm really interested in the ways that people can use your research. And what you've been talking about, and reform policy, and our tribal communities. You know and what does that look like how do we how do we inspire the next wave of thought. In our own communities to be more inclusive.

KIM: Yeah, I mean I don't feel like probably tribes are going to take up Native American DNA and i don't know I mean I don't know the degree to that, where my academic work has translated into the way that they use DNA testing, they're not using the kind of DNA test that I largely talk about right because they're irrelevant, you know genetic ancestry testing that find some relative some unnamed ancestor six to 10 generations ago is not relevant when you're trying to show that you are descended from somebody on the base rolls. So it's just it's not relevant that's largely what I what I talk about I do try to educate the public that there is a big difference between the DNA test the tribal governments using the DNA tests that are being sold like to people like Elizabeth Warren, because most people don't understand there. I've had a lot of blowback on Twitter oh you're being critical of Elizabeth Warren's DNA test but you guys use DNA I'm like I'm not the same DNA test you know it's not even remotely the same.