Native American Ancestry In DNA Testing: Ancestry DNA versus 23andMe

person holding test tube rack
Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Native American designations in American life are common nowadays. It seems that everyone wants to date themselves back to the earliest American settlers (Christopher Columbus, an Italian, doesn’t count).

And for some, it’s been a folk tale passed down through their family tree. Their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, have been passing down the “your so-and-so relative was Native, and thus, we’re Native” statement for years and years. As a child, you likely grew up with the same stories. A colleague of my sister mentioned something to her about a dreamcatcher a few weeks ago. She knew what it was but didn’t know that he knew. “What do you know about a dreamcatcher?” She asked. “Well, it’s a symbol of our Native roots,” he replied. When she told me, it was rather funny knowing what I know now about ancestry DNA testing (not the particular company) as a whole.

This isn’t to say that he doesn’t have Native American ancestry, but it’s true that, nowadays in America, nearly every family on every street claims to be Native American. In their minds, they’re Native, even if they can’t name one Native in their family. Most have never done a family tree but have lived off the stories that others have told them. At one point, I did the same, so I’m not putting anyone on the spot — just pointing out how the Native stories arrive in our minds and expectations.

I read of one particular case through a company called CRI Genetics (they’re another trusted company for DNA testing) about a man who did his DNA test thinking he would come up African-American. He was fair-skinned and had been told he was black all his life. Imagine how shocked he was when he discovered by way of his DNA test that he didn’t have one drop of African ancestry. Not a single drop. What he did see, however, was that he was majority European and, to complicate things further, 39% Native American.

When he confronted his father about the test, his dad basically cursed and hung up on him, mumbling under his breath about why his son couldn’t let the past stay in the past. And this adult son was now faced with wondering why it is that his father kept his Native American ancestry from him his entire life.

But here in the US, it’s a different story. Being Native American is like wearing a Mayflower Badge that says you’re a descendant of the Mayflower group: it’s an achievement for many, a proud sign of their longstanding heritage in the US. Even in a land of immigrants (that’s what the US is), some of us choose to boast in being the earliest here. But Native Americans consist of various tribes with customs, traditions, languages, and lifestyles. From current research, I know that there are about 550 federally recognized Native tribes in the US. Some have different standards for admission than others, with some requiring a DNA test prior to admission.

And with some requiring a DNA component, thanks in no part to the Federal Government’s Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, some modern-day Natives are under pressure to produce a document that says they have some Native DNA (else they’re out). Not all Native tribes require this; many mandate documentation of your deceased family member and current family members that are Native and enrolled in the tribe. For living relatives, that shouldn’t be hard to prove.

But for those who also need a DNA test, they’re under pressure to produce a document declaring them with any smidge of Native DNA they can. Without it, they can kiss tribal enrollment goodbye. Even if they can prove it, they still may not have enough blood quantum to qualify for that particular tribe.

So with that said, today’s post is designed to discuss my journey to discover if I had any Native American ancestry and, if so, where. Additionally, this post will also discuss Ancestry DNA and 23andme, two reputable companies in the field. The reason why these companies are at the forefront of the discussion is that most of you reading this will want to do DNA testing at some point — and these two companies are all you’ll likely see and hear about in the news. There are others such as Family Tree DNA, but these two companies are considered the juggernauts in the field. Just watch YouTube and pay attention to DNA discussions in the news; only two companies stand out for most folks.

Well, without further ado, let’s get into my journey.

Native American ancestry and Ancestry DNA

The first thing that came to mind when I received my test results on January 3rd of this year at Ancestry DNA was, “There’s gotta be some Native there. It’s on my dad’s side at least, which means I should find some.” To my disappointment, I did not. I discovered that I was, according to Ancestry, slightly more African than European (45% European, mind you), and that was all. 55% African, 45% European, that was it. To my surprise, I discovered that I was far more European than just about most African-Americans in the US. Research will tell you that most African-Americans have somewhere between 15-20% European ancestry due to the sexual exploitation of slaves. In my case? I had 45% European ancestry and a father who’d told me he was white and Cherokee Indian since I was 12. My mother’s side of the family wasn’t too approving of what my father told me, but he set me on a path in my head that I wouldn’t leave until I knew the truth.

When you discover you’re 45% European, it puts things into perspective.

The DNA matches also didn’t disappoint. Rows and rows and rows of Caucasian 4th cousins with whom I shared great-grandparents but who shared no African ancestry convinced me that I had to have some significant European ancestry. If they were white, and both their parents were white, at least one of their parents had to be my relative, right? And if their parent(s) were white, then their parents had to be, and so on. Doesn’t take long on this path to discover that I was heavily European on my father’s side, as he had told me. And after getting my DNA results, I started building my family tree. My paternal great-great-grandfather had 4 names. Roman Catholics who are Irish have 4 names; I went to school with a few, and the sons and daughters all had 4 names. I also discovered my Irish and Scottish roots through this same great-great-grandfather.

And, to be sure, there was the strong African ancestry of my mother and her parents. Ancestry declared me 55% African, with nearly one-third of my DNA pointing to Nigerian ancestry. We know it came from my mom’s dad’s family; again, not too surprising considering that my mom’s grandfather (my great-grandfather) looked like a Nigerian all his life. Everyone said so growing up. A rumor that was finally put to rest by DNA.

But there was a rumor that Ancestry’s DNA results did not put to rest: that I was Native American. Ancestry’s test showed not a drop of Native American DNA. Not. A. Drop. But as disappointed as I was, I believed that my test had been manipulated somehow. I knew the Native was there (I’ll get into that in the next section), but I didn’t see it.

Since my DNA results from Ancestry, I’d been reading on Native American DNA and how it doesn’t necessarily pass down to every child. I’m a twin and I assumed that, if the test didn’t show it, I must not have any to show. That is, I’m of Native ancestry without its presence in the DNA. This is what I believed at the time.

I even tricked myself into believing that if Ancestry said it wasn’t there, it must be true. I watched a few Ancestry YouTube videos where all sorts of reasons are drummed up for why Native was absent in my DNA results: it was there but was too little for detection; it wasn’t there but I’d believed it based on folk tales in the family; folk tales can exaggerate anything. Heck, in one case, it was said that a woman believed she was Native because of a photo of a female relative dressed in Indian garb — only to discover that the Indian garb was just a costume at a county fair for fun one year. That was used to argue that the Native wasn’t there and the woman had believed a lie all these years based on a photo.

So slowly, I started to think that it must not be there at all. There were a few problems standing in the way of accepting this cold hard reality, though.

Evidence That Left Room For Hope

I was somewhat disappointed with my Ancestry DNA test for a few reasons. The major reason pertained to the fact that I look more Native American than I do African, yet Ancestry had no trouble telling me that I was majority West African. So what was the problem? I didn’t know, but I figured maybe another test would tell me. At the time, I decided to order the 23andme DNA kit as a second test to compare with Ancestry.

I remember the day it came in the mail. “I don’t think we have any Native American ancestry to be found in our DNA,” one of my cousins said (this cousin married into my mom’s family, making her a cousin-aunt). She too, had been disappointed by her Ancestry DNA test. And her criticism left me thinking that 23andme may prove no different than Ancestry.

But two things surfaced in the 9 weeks between when the 23andme DNA kit came in the mail and when I sent it in that kept my hope alive.

Maternal great-uncle’s Ancestry DNA results

I’d read my own DNA results for so long that I had forgotten about my great-uncle’s. I went back to read his results at Ancestry and discovered that Ancestry had detected Native American ancestry in his DNA. My uncle’s DNA had detected ancestry from the Yucatan Peninsula, which covers 3 Mexican states and parts of Belize and Guatemala. If he was Native American based on this ancestry dating back to Mexico, then I knew I had some Native American ancestry somewhere, too.

Around the same time, I watched a number of YouTube videos regarding ancestry DNA test results and I noticed a pattern: those with a lot of Mexican/Hispanic ancestry were also the ones with the greatest Native American DNA. And then, it hit me: “Mexico is part of the North American continent.” I’d thought up until that point that Native Americans were those who’d settled in the territory we now know as the 50 states. North America is a much bigger continent than just the US and includes Canada and Mexico, too.

So if Ancestry detected that my maternal great-uncle had Native ancestry, why couldn’t it detect mine?

Even crazier than this was that my uncle’s DNA test was the key to proving the rumor of my mother about her side of the family. “You and your sister have Native on my side of the family too,” mom used to say. I assumed that my mother was being sincere about the information given to her, but I didn’t put much stock in she being Native because there was no proof. I don’t even know the name of the maternal grandfather from whom we have Native ancestry. I know my paternal great-grandmother who was said to be 100%, full-blooded Indian. She died when I was an adult, but I knew her. I knew her name. I knew her children, the oldest being my grandmother. And her second eldest daughter is still living, my dad’s aunt, whom I’ll get into in the next section.

So, with my mother’s family having confirmation in Ancestry’s DNA test results, I had another reason to keep going. Now I wasn’t just Native on dad’s side, but mom’s too. And I had one more reason to not give up on my Native American ancestry.

Paternal Great-Aunt’s Blood Test

My mom’s uncle did an Ancestry DNA test, but my dad’s aunt didn’t have time to do that. She had a condition for which she needed surgery. She went to one of the finest medical centers in the country, and her doctor ordered a DNA test for her. The reason? Whenever she filled out medical paperwork, she would always put something different down for her race. On some paperwork, she was “white” (she looks Caucasian); on others, Native (she has Native hair grade, fine hair); lastly, when she got tired of all that, she’d put “Black.” So her doctor was puzzled as to why she put different things for her race. “Doc, I have all of it in me,” she’d tell him. Well, in the midst of this, aunty had to have surgery. So the doctor ordered a blood test.

The results came back. “You’re 81% Native American,” they told her. Eighty-one percent! Her mother, my great-grandma, had to be full-blooded for her to be 81%. Her father was White with no Native blood (that’s why she would put “White” for her race at times). Her mother’s mother was full-blooded, as we believe her parents were. It would make sense for my great-aunt to come up 81% Native American in that case.

Turns out the rumors about my great-grandma as a full-blooded Native American are true. She wasn’t on the Dawes Rolls, she wasn’t registered, but she was full-blooded. She and her family couldn’t read and write then. Her mother, my great-great-grandma, was a slave for some years and got rid of her slave name when she got her freedom. But great-grandma was full-blooded, and she had two parents that were likely full-blooded. I know these things through my family tree. And the last name from which they come is the reason why I have native today. There’s next to no Native on my paternal father’s side.

So a DNA test from mom’s uncle and a blood test from dad’s aunt led me to continue having faith that I too, had Native DNA. I joked for a while about being the most unlucky double Native in the world, and how my mom and dad made a secret pact to deny me Native DNA, but I was honestly hoping that wasn’t true.

In walks 23andme

With these pieces of information in my mind, I finally decided to take that 23andme test whose kit had been sitting around for 9 weeks. Completed the test, shipped it off, and that was that. Fortunately, 23andme has a plant here in my state, unlike Ancestry who had to ship my saliva sample to Provo, Utah. 23andme received my kit within a day and started processing it immediately.

It took about 28 days for Ancestry.com to post my DNA results. It took 23andme — get this! — a mere 12 days to report my results online. Twelve days! I am impressed with 23andme’s quick turnaround. When you’re paying full price for a kit (I did for the 23andme), anything done early and fast with precision goes a long way to rewarding me for the dollars spent.

Not only was I pleasantly surprised by the turnaround time, I was also pleasantly surprised by the results. Ancestry DNA said I was 55% African, 45% European with no Native American.

What did the 23andme test tell me? I’m still predominantly African (53%), with 45% European ancestry (no surprises there; they both gave the same exact percentage for the European). This time around, however, I have 1.2% East Asian and Native American ancestry, with about 0.8% of that being Native American ancestry. Chinese, Thai, Khmer, Myanmar, and Indonesia are some of the Asian places that are in my veins. To be honest, I believe this is Asian DNA, but it is also Native American DNA.

Think about it: where did the Native Americans originate from? Since one of the longest-held theories is that they traveled from the Bering Strait from Asia over to Alaska and, of course, the “Lower 50,” we’d expect Americans with Native American roots to bear some Asian DNA. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that all East Asian DNA is Native American per se, but a person who has no Asian relatives of any kind can only have Asian DNA because of their Native American heritage. The Natives, for such a person, would be the only Asian relatives they have.

What I learned from these DNA tests

What did I learn from these DNA tests? I learned that they’re rather accurate and generally reliable in the information they provide. If you take them, you have a fair amount of confidence and certainty that you’ll find what you want to know.

But in the final analysis, there’s one that does it better, and that’s 23andme. I knew that I was Native, and was told about my double Native roots. But Ancestry, detecting my maternal Native ancestry, couldn’t register my own. 23andme could. At one point, I thought the Ancestry sample might have been contaminated, but obviously it wasn’t if the European ancestry percentage number was the same for both companies. There were good similarities between the two that makes me doubt the saliva sample was bad. So, with that said, I can only explain the difference by saying that 23andme is just more precise at it than Ancestry.

Finally, if you know you’re Native American, and you have blood tests and documents to prove it, don’t resign yourself to one test and give up if it doesn’t appear. There are other tests out there outside of Ancestry. Give yourself a chance to do another test. If you don’t want to pay for another test, download your information from Ancestry and upload it to another company for analysis. But whatever you do, don’t assume your Native ancestry isn’t there. It is.

And last but not least, if you want an even more precise look at just how Native American you are, you can always take a blood test for comparison. Blood tests cost over $1,500 out-of-pocket, though…so in the end, ancestry DNA tests may be the cheaper (and more financially viable) way to go.