Nobody Can Tell Me Who I Am


Postings from the Edge

By Donald N. Yates

combination dnaThey called her Mother Qualla—a stately, bluish-gray skinned schoolteacher in New York with angular features, thin lips and quick, intelligent eyes. Brian Wilkes and I drove her to her motel room at a meeting of the Southwestern Cherokee Confederacy in Albany, Georgia.

That was twenty years ago but I shall never forget Mother Qualla’s take on Indian recognition. She listened to our stories, looked at us sternly and said, “No one can tell me WHO I AM!”

Such words could well serve as the mantra of more than a hundred dedicated genealogy seekers in DNA Consultants’ Cherokee DNA Project who are proving the geneticists wrong. Participants in Phase II received a thank-you email from the company September 20 that provided many with the confirmation they had long sought in vain from previous testing.

“I always had a gut feeling that I was Native American,” said San Pablo, Calif. resident Jesse Montes, a fortyish Latino who resembles nothing so much as Sir Joshua Reynolds’ 1762 portrait of Ostenaco. “It was a big surprise and relief to discover I am Indian in both my father’s male and my mom’s female line, just as family stories said we were.” His mitochondrial sample turned out to be haplogroup C, the type of Cherokee Beloved Woman Nancy Ward and a whole line of chiefs from the Wolf Clan, including Dragging Canoe.

Although none of the participants previously knew each other, many found out they were related as descendants of the same Cherokee ancestor and evidently belonged to the same clan. Indeed, several were adoptees totally uninformed about their ancestry before joining the project.

Juanita Sims was one of the frustrated clients of previous testing, which can often be cut-and-dry, case-closed on the matter of who is Indian. Said niece Elizabeth DeLand, “She originally had the test done because her grandmother and great-grandmother spoke Cherokee and she is trying to find it in her DNA.” Sims proved to have a rare form of U5a1 DNA, fully matching a woman born in Walker County, Alabama, in 1828. DeLand enrolled her aunt as Participant #67 in the study, one of the last to be accepted.

Under the rules of Family Tree DNA’s Cherokee DNA Project, “Native American mtDNA Haplogroups are A, B, C, D and X,” and any others are ineligible. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and United Keetoowah Band adopt similar restrictions for what they consider “true” American Indian DNA types.

Of the 67 participants, eleven of them (16%) tested with other companies first, including Family Tree DNA, Ancestry.com and DNA Diagnostics Center. On the other hand, about half (47%) got first-time test results from DNA Consultants’ service lab, Genex Diagnostics of Vancouver, British Columbia. About a third tested with Sorenson Genomics of Salt Lake City, Utah, a source used by the company in the first two years of the phase’s existence. Two participants did not want to reveal the identity of their lab.

Despite not having to pay for benefits of being included in the study, all candidates had to purchase either a Native American Test or Report Only analysis. As a measure of their passion to find answers, they collectively spent an estimated $50,000 between one company or other, according to Holli Starnes, project administrator and assistant principal investigator.

In addition to cross-comparisons within the project, all participants will be now compared to 135 mitochondrial records from the Cherokee DNA project assembled in 2002-2011 under the aegis of the late Chief Joe White and longtime administrator Marcy Palmer of the Central Band of Cherokee.

According to Jan Ravenspirit Franz, webmaster for the CBC, this project was closed and reorganized by its sponsor Family Tree DNA, where it currently lists 51 members, but the wishes of the original participants are being respected and all data has been maintained for continuing analysis.

In a preliminary tabulation, 16% of participants proved to have direct female descent in “standard” American Indian haplogroups A, B, C, D and X. The majority (84%) had what are commonly recognized as “non-Indian” haplogroups.

With surnames like Allen, Harris and Wilson (four of these), and Little Bear, Thundereagle and Buitenhuis, they joined from Tennessee, Washington State, Oklahoma, Texas and Connecticut. Some verified ancestors they knew about from the paper trail; others met new figures on the trail blazed by modern genetics. One matched Kitty Prince of the Bear River Athabaskans; another, Cherokee Beloved Woman Nancy Ward (haplogroup C).

“My grandmother and her family always said we were Cherokee and I know that they were afraid of looking too brown and would always stay out of the sun,” wrote one participant. “They didn’t want to be connected to Native Americans at all. I feel like I have missed part of my heritage and would like to know if this story is true.”

She happened to have haplogroup H, a controversial type for Indian ancestry, but matched three possible Cherokee descendants and no one else.

Another, who happened to bear the African haplogroup L3, matched several ancestors claimed by others in the records and reported to be Cherokee. A similar L3 turned up in a California man and was reported in A Te Anu, a Muscogee Creek woman.

One man, an adoptee, managed to get his adoption papers opened on the strength of his DNA testing. His mitochondrial DNA was a rare form of T* that coincidentally matched that of others in the project, and no one else in the world.

As in Phase I, rare T haplotypes accounted for about one-fifth of participants and was the leading anomalous Cherokee type. H and U, as well as K and J were also prominent. New additions came in the form of W (2), N (1), L (6), I (2) and V (1).

Two participants (B and U) had family stories they were Jewish.

Surnames of Individuals Tested

Afshari Allen Alvarez Anonymous Barrios Benjamin Benning Brill Buitenhuis Carpenter Carter (2) Cazee Chatterton Clark Dulaney England Epstein Espinoza Francisco (2) Franz (2) Guillermo Gurule Harris Haynes James Keating Kellam Kubik Lambert Little Bear Melton Montes Murphy Nagy Nielsen Perez Ponder Poole Pyle Rahamim Redding Rogalla Rymes Santos-Montanez Sexton Shipman Shippley Sims Sponenburgh Stritzel Stults Swinney Thundereagle Van Poperin Walker (2) Ward Williams Wilson (4) Worstell Young.

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  Comments: 1

  1. GINA JAMES VANDERHORST


    My father is LeRoy James, the person whose DNA matched that of Kitty Prince of Bear River. I am just learning the significance of all of this. We knew his grandmother was indigenous to California. She was born in 1892, however we do not know where. As a young girl, she was a servant in the household of Angel Berryessa in Martinez, California. At 16 she was married off and had a child by 17, only to dissolve the marriage soon after my grandmother was born. She survived by hiding her true identity. Now thanks to DNA Consultants, myself and my siblings will be making the 5 hour drive from the SF Bay Area up to Bear River in Loleta, CA. I am not expecting a warm reception, however I am finally confident in claiming my identity as Bear River.
    I am still working on paper documentation, however these results are proof enough for me.
    Thank you.

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