Letting your “DNA show you the way”: Selling the politics of genetics and the business of race
As a historian, and as a person interested in most narratives of the past, I realize the unique value of Ancestry.com as a research tool in my own work. But, I realize now that I have to make a distinction between the value of Ancestry.com as a resource that helps me to mine rich primary sources such as historical census records, and the misleading, potentially harmful messaging behind the advertisements featured on TV and the internet for Ancestry.com DNA testing. These advertisements wrongly entice people to improve their lives as they “uncover” a previously unknown identity by providing a window into additional or alternative racial and ethnic ancestries they may have — and in the process unwittingly undermine Native communities’ ongoing struggles for sovereignty and well-being.
Not yet committed to the streaming habits of the binge generation, I still watch some appointment TV during dinner. It is my habit to tune out during TV ads, to either mute them or scurry to the kitchen for seconds during the break. One evening — in my rush to get more lasagna — I heard a lilting, flutelike melody, as well as the voices of Native children chanting in the background, that was familiar to me from watching countless Westerns. In that flash, I didn’t even process the product that was being advertised with the stark and painful images of wagons slowly rolling through dense woods, women holding children on their shoulders, and the close-up of worn, threadbare moccasins stepping across a snow-covered prairie. I was stunned to recognize the scene as a reenactment of the Trail of Tears — the violent forced migration of the Cherokee people from their ancestral homeland into “Indian Territory” from the 1830s to the ‘50s by the US military, following instructions from President Andrew Jackson. The Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek people were also forcibly removed to this area, which eventually became the state of Oklahoma.
After depicting a depressing scene of violence and deprivation along the trail, the scene cuts away from the cold, harsh landscape into the warmth of a familial gathering of contemporary Native people, lit by a campfire and accompanied by an actor’s voice-over. He states, “[M]y DNA showed that I am Native American, and connected me to cousins who taught me about our tribe…” Situated next to him is a large, color-coded pie chart that indicates he is, among other ethnicities, 6 percent Native American. While the 30-second commercial may tell this man’s story, it conveniently does not convey the fact that the DNA test alone cannot link an individual to a particular indigenous nation, tribe, or tribal affiliation. In the spirit of full disclosure, the superimposed pie chart also revealed that he was 25 percent Western European and 13 percent Irish — but that’s for another essay.
Shock and fascination sent me into a Google vortex of research about the ad. I discovered a casting call from a talent agent seeking to hire “actors” for future ads for Ancestry.com. The advertisement called for people who were “slender in build” — presuming that no one was plump on the Trail of Tears — and who were “Native American in appearance” with “at least 51 percent Cherokee ancestry” with tribal documentation. Ironically, this requirement of 51 percent ancestry would have disqualified the person in their own ad, who had “discovered” his native heritage using the Ancestry DNA test kit they were selling. Worse yet, the desire for people who are “Native American in appearance,” conjures decades of images of non-Native actors playing Indians in Western films. Also known as “red-facing,” they would be slathered in copper-toned makeup, buckskin shirts, and feathered headdresses. The question thus becomes, “Native American in appearance” to whom?
While the 30-second commercial may tell this man’s story, it conveniently does not convey the fact that the DNA test alone cannot link an individual to a particular indigenous nation, tribe, or tribal affiliation.
In both her scholarship and activism, indigenous feminist scholar Kim TallBear details the complex politics of genetics and how the structures of science compound the violence of settler colonialism. TallBear notes that, “[P]roving genetic affiliation is both technically and politically complicated.” Yet the Ancestry.com ads convey that with a few clicks and a cheek swab, we can connect ourselves to historical narratives that might be more desirable than the ones we’d previously claimed.
People who are interested in discovering their ancestry have to consider the difference between a person’s desire to connect to their tribal identity and the company’s desire to make a profit. Scholars such as Philip Deloria have offered insights into why non-Indian people might be driven to claim or reenact an indigenous identity. Deloria asserts that some people are motivated by a backward-looking desire to participate in a noble Native past in order to claim a piece of history that they perceive as foundational to the American identity. In doing so, they fail to acknowledge their ancestors’ roles in the violent removal of Native Americans from their land. Genealogists claim the number one question they are asked when helping people track their family histories is, Why can’t I find my Native American DNA? However, the designation of who is or is not Native American is a much more complex question. Reducing it to scientific data that can be purchased superimposes the structures of racial capitalism and settler colonialism over the genealogical quest that seeks to recover Native identity.
Deloria asserts that some people are motivated by a backward-looking desire to participate in a noble Native past in order to claim a piece of history that they perceive as foundational to an American identity. In doing so, they fail to acknowledge their ancestors’ roles in the violent removal of Native Americans from their land.
Until very recently, Ancestry.com sold access to a group of genealogy experts to help customers locate family histories using more complex resources than those available in the basic DNA test “kit.” These 20 experts, once all-white, now include one African-American woman. Acknowledging the complex and fraught nature of the history of race in the United States, it would seem that having a staff of experts with some racial diversity would create a more welcoming environment for people looking for answers about a sparsely documented past. Researching unique histories of ancestral displacement — which include families being separated by slavery, maroonage, and forced relocation to reservations or placement in boarding schools — can be difficult. Just as all students benefit from a faculty made up of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, wouldn’t Ancestry.com customers benefit from having a diverse panel of experts that can address the kinds of questions posed when people of color are included in the process?
What exactly is being advertised?
In a New York Times article entitled, “Who Decides who counts as Native American?” Brooke Jarvis states that tribal members struggle with what it means to be Native as well as the complex consequences that accompany that designation. “To the 566 federally recognized tribal nations, the ability to determine who is and isn’t part of a tribe is an essential element of what makes tribes sovereign entities.” When this decision is reduced to a set of financial or scientific transactions, without regard for the opinions and advice of Native people, customers should interrogate what exactly they are paying for.
The “discovery” of one’s racial heritage in the distillation of racial and ethnic identities seems to me to be the very opposite of what we define America to be. After all, there is no question that we are a mixed-race nation. The historical processes of European settlement, the dispossession and violence against indigenous people already inhabiting the land that became North America, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade and forced relocation of African people saw to that. But commercials for these DNA test kits promote a uniquely American process in which we prefer to claim certain ancestors over others, which is a retroactive form of discrimination. Companies like Ancestry.com allow customers to purchase a narrative that ignores the political processes of the 18th and 19th centuries and focuses instead on whether the customer’s ancestors wore kilts or lederhosen. This narrative fails to teach customers about whether their forebears were slaveholders, whether they “settled” on the American frontier and displaced Native people in the process, confiscated Native land, constructed a reservation, ran Indian boarding schools, or seated Black people at the back of a bus or train car. No one wants to buy that history.
Companies such as Ancestry.com allow customers to purchase a narrative that ignores the political processes of the 18th and 19th centuries and focuses instead on whether the customer’s ancestors wore kilts or lederhosen.
Returning to the ad in which the young man supposedly “found” his Cherokee identity reminds me that what DNA test kit customers would rather buy is an experience of joy and pride in learning about our roots, even if that experience is not actually encoded in our genes. The slogan of Ancestry.com encourages people to “let your DNA show you the way.” As a student and practitioner of history, I encourage people to look beyond the often dubious claims of capitalistic enterprises and find out what exactly a company is selling. DNA won’t determine your “tribe.” But, if you are interested in the families and lives of Native people, why not learn more about the dynamic cultural practices they pass to each generation? Or, learn more about the conditions of poverty that plague reservations; the disparities in resources — medical, technological, and even nutritional — that many Native communities negotiate, and the struggles for land, recognition, and sovereignty that have taken place for centuries, and which are still ongoing today.
Adrienne Sockwell is a graduate student in the History Department and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Portfolio program at the University of Texas, Austin. Her scholarly focus is 19th-century US history, specifically Native American economic history, slavery, and the history of American capitalism. Her research incorporates archival and museum studies, visual and material culture, and digital humanities. In her current position as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Harry Ransom Center, she created a public-facing teaching guide that is now a permanent part of the center’s digital collections.
Savannah Wood is an artist and cultural organizer with deep roots in Baltimore and Los Angeles. Using photography, collage, and sculpture, Savannah uncovers obscured histories, taps into ancestral magic and disrupts linear readings of time. As the Archives Director for the 128-year-old AFRO American Newspapers, and the Executive Director of Afro Charities, she creates programming and infrastructure to increase access to the AFRO’s rich archives. Learn more at savannahwood.info and afrocharities.org.
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