SAN FRANCISCO—The United States has treated its indigenous people poorly for much of its history, yet today thousands of people are anxious to show their Native American heritage and are turning to DNA testing for help.
Some white Americans have long claimed distant ties to Cherokee princesses or other legendary figures among those explorer Christopher Columbus mistakenly called Indians when he thought he had arrived in South Asia.
Now Indian heritage—which can make a person eligible for federal assistance programs or a share of tribal casino profits or just satisfy curiosity—can be determined through genetic testing. Advances in DNA screening have provided new tools to document Native American ancestry, although some say such data is open to be interpretation.
“If you are interested in determining your eligibility for Native American rights or just want to satisfy your curiosity, our ancestry DNA test is the only method available for this purpose today,” one firm, Genelex, advertises.
Although U.S. citizens typically know the broad outlines of their ancestry, for Native Americans the exact fractions of their heritage can take on heightened importance.
Nineteenth-century treaties obligate the U.S. government to provide education, health care and other services to many tribes. Indian sovereignty also means tribes can set up casinos on reservations, and Indian casinos now generate $18 billion annually and the numbers are growing.
Many tribes set as a membership standard that a person must have at least one Indian grandparent or one great grandparent. Others among the 562 federally recognized tribes require links to members on a tribal membership roll in past generations.