When DNA Results Are Disappointing

My mother, Lillian, taught her children how to do an Indian rain dance when the family lived in Northbrook, Ill. She told my sister, Sissy, and other family members that she was part Cherokee.

Sissy and other relatives believe Lillian had some Native American heritage. Really, why would a mom who wasn’t Native American teach her kids an Indian rain dance?

Does Lillian look like she could be Native American in these photos? It’s hard for me to say. She had dark hair and dark eyes but not the angular features I associate with Indians.

Lillian when she graduated bigger
Lillian in 1953
nice photo of Lillian and Howard
Lillian probably in the 1970s

I was intrigued by the idea of being related, even just a little bit, to Native Americans. How exciting! There is a mystique to being Native and I wanted to be part of it. It seems hip, something to be proud of.

Turns out I’m not alone. Roberta J. Estes, who writes the DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy blog, hears from Indian wannabes every day. Some people mistakenly think they will qualify for free college tuition if they can establish Native heritage. Estes wrote an excellent piece on the limitations of DNA testing for those who want to use it to prove Native American heritage.

I’ve always thought of myself as a white woman with European ancestors. When I found out I was adopted 11 years ago, I figured I was still a white woman with European ancestors, perhaps from Poland as I wrote last week.

For adoptees, certain parts of identity can crumble just like that. Those people I always thought of as my parents? Well, Claire and Bob were my parents but they didn’t conceive me in the traditional sense. They didn’t pass their genes on to me. They adopted me.

Far from being set in stone, identity is something like a work in progress for adoptees trying to find their roots. As I’ve searched for the truth about my biological family, I’ve imagined other identities for myself. As I waited for my DNA test results, my imagination got a little carried away. Did my ancestors live on a reservation? Did Lillian learn the rain dance from her mother, brothers and sisters?

The test results threw cold water on my Indian fantasy. If I have Indian blood, it’s no more than a trickle. My ancestors came from Western Europe. One of my new cousins, who is a genealogy buff, told me there are no Native American ties on my maternal grandfather’s side of the family.

What about my maternal grandmother’s side of the family? That’s not entirely clear.

I took Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test, which uses autosomal DNA (a mix of genetic material from the mother’s and father’s sides). Autosomal DNA can trace back about four or five generations in terms of matching the test taker with “reference populations” from various parts of the world.

Lillian’s Native American ties, if they were real, would have had to have been further than five generations back in history.

According to my results, 98.23 percent of my DNA traces back to the Orcadians, meaning my ancestors were from the English Isles. If you inherited less than 3 percent of DNA matching a particular reference population, it will not show up on test results.

I could take the mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) test, which would trace my direct maternal line back to infinity. If this line is of Native American origin, it would show me as belonging to an mtDNA haplogroup known to exist in Native Americans.

But the test is not recommended for adoptees looking for close relatives, which was my original reason for doing DNA testing. Test takers can be an exact match with fairly distant relatives due to how slowly mtDNA mutates, Family Tree DNA told me in an email.

Ok, maybe I’ll take the mtDNA test after I exhaust my search for information about bio dad. In the meantime, I will have to hang my hat with the uncool, invading British settlers instead of the Indians who suffered at their hands.

One thought on “When DNA Results Are Disappointing

  1. Ha! The Indian wannabe thing ran strong in my first family. (I’m an adult adoptee) My non-identifying information listed my mother as being English and Native American. I was born in Fall River, MA and so always daydreamed that my ancestors were Wampanoag – the tribe who greeted the first English settlers in the 1600s.

    In the course of trying to find relatives I did all 3 DNA tests available – 23andMe, Ancestry.com, FTDNA – and not one turned up any evidence of Native ancestry. Wah-waaaah. Also, come to find out we have English, Irish, and Scandinavian on my mother’s side! My uncle is way into genealogy and had not turned up anyone NOT English – which makes me think we might be related to the Viking invaders who settled in England in the 900s – also, Irish by way of England perhaps? We are related to John Alden who was the shipwright on the Mayflower…. my ancestors hung out with Native people and unfortunately probably treated them horribly. *sigh*

    It was a bit sad to let go of the Native stuff, but I have been watching the TV show about Vikings with a renewed interest.

    Thanks for sharing your stories and insights on this great blog!

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