An article out this year in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology highlights the potential incongruence between Native American identity and genetic ancestry. (Thanks to geneticist Bryan Sykes for tipping me off to it. How had I missed it?) Zhadanov et al’s “Genetic Heritage and Native Identity of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts” would be more aptly titled, “Genetic Heritage vs. Native Identity . . .” This study completed by the folks over at Genographic is paradoxical to say the least. First, the downside: the paper in one sense represents a superfluous genetic study of the tribe’s genealogy. Any student of New England history and anyone who looks at Wampanoag people knows they’ve been intermarrying with “European” and “African populations” for a long time. We didn’t need genetic analysis to tell us this. There was a minor surprise in what they uncovered in their analyses of Seaconke Wampanoag citizens mtDNA and Y chromosomes, or their maternal and paternal lineages respectively. That the majority of both of their lineages were traceable to “African” and “West Eurasian” lineages is not what surprises me. I know something about New England tribal history. Slightly surprising is that the only direct Native American lineage they did find is traceable very probably to one Cherokee ancestor who married a Wampanoag several generations ago. But given the way that Indians from different tribes moved around during the 20th century, meeting at boarding schools, pow wows, at Haskell, at conferences . . . I’m not really surprised by that either. There is no genetic indication then of Wampanoag ancestors. This genetic situation is a bit more incongruent with their Wampanoag identity than I predicted in my 2007 Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics (JLME) article, “Narratives of Race and Indigeneity in the Genographic Project,” but not by much.

No, what surprises me is the tone of this article that does not conflate Native American identity with Native American genetic lineages. For example, authors note that “the high frequency of nonnative haplotypes in this population, along with the paucity of Native American haplotypes, reveals the substantial changes in the genetic composition of the Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe in post-contact American history” (Zhadanov et al 2010: 586). This is an important passage that explicitly grounds the people as Wampanoag first. Their genetic lineage is not deterministic.

And that is the fascinating upside to this study. People who know my work know that I’ve been pretty critical of Genographic. But in this article they are very good about not trumping the tribe’s Wampanoag identity with their genetic findings. The authors spend about 1/3 of the paper recounting the literature on New England history and the impact of European or white settlement on the numbers and state of Wampanoag. And they do this historical accounting in a way that emphasizes Wampanoag survival and not simply their decimation in the face of a brutal colonization. This is a flip of Genographic’s usual narrative (and the Human Genome Diversity Project before it)—that the indigenes are all vanishing and therefore must be sampled as quickly as possible.

No doubt Genographic’s tone is  related to the fact that they share the byline with tribal community members (3 are listed as co-authors). This is also a welcome change from the old school days (still in existence for many) in which a tribal group is named in the short acknowledgements at the end of the paper, thanked for donating their blood samples. Or even worse, some papers from the early 1990s and before actually thank agencies such as the Indian Health Service (IHS) or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for turning over blood to the scientists. One wonders about the informed consent in those situations.

Of course, others who have not developed this relationship of collaboration and no doubt moral obligation that the Genographic authors have developed with their Wampanoag collaborators may not be so forgiving. The Bureau of Indian Affair’s (BIA) Office of Federal Recognition (OFA), for example, mediates tribal recognition cases in large part by calling in the disciplinarians to pass judgment on the authenticity of Native identity claims. So historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists get a good deal of say. There is no good reason why genetics and biological anthropological evidence will not be brought into the mix. Let us hope that regulators and policymakers in our genetically rather fetishistic country do not hold Genographic’s findings against the Seaconke Wampanoag people.