From California to Connecticut, tribes and would-be members are grappling with the ramifications of a science that is able to demystify someone’s genes for as little as a few hundred dollars.
Modern genetic tests can detect traces of ancestors by looking for mutations that pass from generation to generation in specific racial groups.
More than half a dozen companies have sprung up in the last five years. Many report their most eager customers are people seeking to prove Indian heritage.
Some tribes are welcoming the new science.
The Meskwaki Nation in Tama, Iowa, began requiring DNA testing this spring to screen out pretenders seeking to cash in on the tribe’s casino profits.
“It was something we needed to be in place to protect the tribe,” said tribal council member Keith Davenport. “People are looking for an easy ride.”
But the DNA tests have opened fresh wounds throughout Indian country, unmasking complicated family relationships and turning the unspoken bonds of community into impersonal laboratory results.
At the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, which operates the lucrative Foxwoods Resort Casino near Norwich, Conn., enrollment clerk Joyce Walker regularly fields inquiries from people who say DNA tests prove they are Native Americans.
“People say, ‘I just found out I’m Indian and I want to know how I can start receiving my profits,’ “ Walker said.
She tells them to take another DNA test to prove they are the offspring of a tribal member. The news is rarely welcome.
Casino profits aren’t the only reason people want to join tribes. Card-carrying members qualify for care from the federal Indian Health Service. Some tribes offer allowances for school clothing, vocational training, aid for the elderly and other services.