Like many genealogists these days, I belong to a ton of different groups: Facebook, Twitter, you name it. One of the recurring posts in many of the forums seems to be something along the lines of: “My great-grandmother said her mother was 1/4 Cherokee and I have no Native American DNA in my ethnicity estimate. So therefore, the DNA tests must not be accurate.”
Most people aren’t going to like what I have to say. But I’m gonna say it anyway.
1. Ethnicity estimates are just that — AN ESTIMATE. Frankly, all of the major DNA testing companies have focused on their biggest consumers — descendants of Europeans. So lots and LOTS of Europeans and Americans and Canadians have been tested.
That means if you want to know if your family might have, say Cherokee DNA, then you’re probably going to have to wait until a lot of Cherokee get tested — and that means that the major companies are going to have to go to each major Native American tribe and test them. Are they going to do that? The question should be an economic one — are lots of Native Americans taking DNA tests for genealogical purposes? Nope. The companies are going to go where the money is — and unfortunately that is, and probably will remain to a large part, in Europe.
This impacts not only those with Native American DNA, but also those with African American, East Asian, and Middle Eastern DNA. Actually getting the exact tribe, the actual percentage of Native American DNA is going to be a long time in the waiting.
2. Ethnicity estimates only tell you generalities. So if you do have Native American DNA (like my son — see his ethnicity estimate above), yay! But the ethnicity estimates are far from telling you what tribe you might belong to.
Think of this — after European Americans, the people who do the most DNA testing are African Americans. My father, for example, has about 2% Nigerian DNA. Cool, right? Well, there are more than 300 different tribes in Nigeria alone. Not to mention that many people in West Africa marry across tribes and countries. So saying you have DNA from Nigeria is kind of like saying you have DNA from somewhere in Africa. And saying you have Native American DNA is like saying you have an ancestor who was born somewhere in the Americas. Aside from a general region on a map, there is nothing more that DNA ethnicity estimates can tell you.
3. We inherit all the genes up and through our great-grandparents. So we might and we might not inherit genes from our 2nd great grandparents, and so on. Think of it this way — we are assured that we will definitely get the genes from our great-grandparents and our grandparents, and our parents. However, getting the genes from our 2nd great grandparent and further back is kind of like shooting a shotgun — the pellets go in every different direction — you might get some, you might not.
So if your 2nd or 3rd great grandparent had Native American ancestry, you might not see it in your DNA. That’s why testing many people from your family is definitely worth it. For example, I have tested 10 people from my family. We have the following interesting and unique ethnicities we never knew about: Bantu, Nigerian, Mali, Native American, North African, Polynesian. But I only have the Bantu — I would never have known about the rest of the ethnicities if I had not tested more people from my family.
Blaine Bettinger, from the Genetic Genealogist, best explains it like this:
“In reality, everyone has two family trees. The first is a Genealogical Tree, which is every ancestor in history that had a child who had a child who had a child that ultimately led to you. Every decision made by every person in that tree contributed to who and what you are today.
However, not every person in that tree contributed a segment of your DNA sequence (because of random inheritance, as discussed above). As a result, we have a second family tree – a Genetic Tree – which is a tree that contains only those ancestors who contributed to our DNA.”
4. Ethnicity estimates from the major DNA testing companies truly vary quite a bit. Let’s take a look at my DNA from the vantage of a couple of different websites:
You can see that the European/Mediterranean differ considerably between the two — in Ancestry.com I’m 98% European. While in Gedmatch.com, I’m only 81% European.
Look at the Gedmatch.com outcome for my son:
His Native American DNA in Ancestry.com is 86%, while in Gedmatch.com it is only 77%. Interestingly, in Ancestry, he has no African ancestry, but in Gedmatch.com he does. So relying on only one company might not give you the whole picture.
So if you suspect you have Native American DNA, please test lots of your family. Make sure that you have multiple interpretations of your DNA from different websites. And above all, don’t rely solely on family lore.