“Does DNA Mean D.O.A. for Dawes?”

By J.D. Colbert

Native Oklahoma Magazine
Sour Sofkee, December, 2021

Do you want to know if you are Native? Do you want to find out the “truth” of the family legend that you are Cherokee and that you have a great-grandmother who was a Cherokee princess? Or perhaps your interests are more mercenary and you simply wish to “tribe shop” for membership in a large per cap tribe? Well, the miracles of modern science may soon deliver your CDIB card right to your doorstep.

Numerous companies now offer DNA genetic testing and aver that these tests can definitively tell you if you have Native American ancestry. At least a few of these mostly Internet based companies also claim to be able to tell you what tribe that you are (and if this information comes from the Internet, it must surely be true!).

Thus for only $150 (plus an optional $75 for a handsomely framed “Certificate”) the average American can sit at home, swab the inside of their cheek, FedEx their package and within 7-10 business days receive scientific “proof” that they are, after all, Indian. Sweet vindication! With such “proof” in hand (not to mention the handsomely framed Certificate) agitation for enrollment in “their tribe” is sure to follow.

The science of DNA testing and its possible future general acceptance have enormous implications for tribes and Indian Country. Indeed, DNA genetic testing for Native American ancestry if left unchecked has the potential to unleash a Perfect Storm of disruption across Indian Country the likes of which we have not been seen since the General Allotment Act of
1887 also known as the Dawes Act.

So much so it is fair to ask, “Does DNA Mean D.O.A. for Dawes?”

Science, like Fire Ants, is ever advancing, continually moving forward. It may be that today the business of DNA testing for ancestry mostly lies in the realm of hyperbole and quick-buck scam
artists (scams? On the Internet?). However, yesterday’s phrenology oftentimes becomes today’s laser-based brain surgery.

Thus, we can be certain that the science of analyzing our chromosomes will continually advance. Add to that the fact that our American society today is greatly in love with science and technology. Look how we embrace lie detectors, cell phones, iPods and Big Mouth Billy Bass the singing fish (I’ve still got mine on the wall although his singing has, after all these years, been
reduced to indecipherable babble).

It is not too much of a stretch then to foresee that DNA genetic testing will evolve to the point that it will not only claim to tell us our Native American ancestry but also will also serve as “scientific proof” of what tribe(s) we are and our blood quantum to boot. Whether this is true or not, American society and perhaps our legal system are likely to eventually embrace this

So what does this mean for Dawes? Most tribes utilize some type of base roll to ascertain eligibility for tribal enrollment. Frequently such base rolls are tied to the General Allotment/Dawes Act. Generally, if one can prove a direct line of ancestry to a person who is listed on the designated base roll, then one is eligible for tribal membership (and, of course, in many cases one must possess a requisite degree of blood quantum). This has pretty much been standard operating procedure across Indian Country for generations.

DNA genetic testing has the potential to completely upset this historic apple cart. DNA genetic testing might very well someday result in tribes abandoning the use of historic base rolls in favor of the “proof” provided by this new technology.
There are many who would welcome trashing the very concept of base rolls due to the well-documented egregious flaws, errors and outright fraud inherent in these base rolls. Such problems were famously documented in the Meriam Report of 1928. Tribal membership and oftentimes blood quantum levels were misstated and many otherwise eligible Indians refused to participate in the census/roll process.

The specter of this looming technology and its possible future widespread adoption augurs for cataclysmic change across Indian Country. It may mean that many who are presently on the tribal rolls may not be able to pass the cheek swab test. Disenrollment may strike Indian Country with COVID-19 proportions. On the other hand, many who possess Native blood but can’t trace their ancestry back to the base roll will have a compelling case for tribal membership.

In the end, it seems to me, that if we cling to the singular mathematical equation of “blood quantum=Indian” that the advancement of science and technology along with an American faith in scientific proof will ultimately mean that it is D.O.A for Dawes.