Testing Native Roots
Putting family lore to the DNA test
Illustration by Eric Schock
Last Mother’s Day, my daughter gave me a 23andMe DNA test kit, with the intention of having me send in a saliva sample and unlocking the mysteries of our shared genetic ancestry.
She had already received the results of her own DNA profile, which revealed that she was 99.8 percent European.
This, of course, had to be a mistake. She comes from a long line of Apaches on my dad’s side. On my mom’s are her Irish-meets-Cherokee ancestors.
Someone once told me that, for people like us who are born in Oklahoma, it’s nearly impossible not to have an American Indian lineage of some kind.
Turning a blind eye to the blonde hair and fair complexion I share with my daughter and sons, I’ve always accepted this theory without hesitation; my mom’s Irish heritage had obviously diluted the gene pool that included my dad’s Native influence of black hair and the kind of skin that could appear to change ethnicities in a matter of a few sunny days.
My sister has been tracing the genealogy of both sides of our family for years, turning up one fascinating detail after another. Not only are we direct descendants of some kind of princess from somewhere or another who was kicked out of her country (that sounds about right), we’re also closely related to Daniel Boone. Or Davy Crockett. Or someone with a coonskin hat.
Year after year, as she pored over the details of each fresh leaf from our ancestry.com family tree, my sister contacted newly discovered, distant relatives to introduce us as their extended family and to compare notes about our lineage.
At holiday gatherings, she’d show us U.S. Census reports that included the names of our European ancestors as they landed upon our country’s teeming shores and forged their way farther west. We’d listen to tales of the plights of our Native ancestors, stories my sister had painstakingly pieced together through many exchanges with distant cousins, aunts and uncles.
Since the day my sister informed us that we hailed from a glorious line of Apache ancestry, I was a proud and vocal ambassador – loosely meaning that, over the past 25 years, I’ve enjoyed inserting my background into any discussion about ethnicity. “I’m part Apache, you know,” I’d boast, scoffing at the pitiful, unenlightened people who frequently challenged me by asking how many Apaches have blonde hair and green eyes.
“Are you on the roll?” they’d ask intrusively. “No,” I’d snap back. “Rolls are the product of government meddling,” I’d insist, knowing absolutely nothing on the subject, but standing firm in my conviction, nonetheless.
The suggestion that my daughter’s spit didn’t reveal even a sliver of a Native chromosome came as an insult to me.
“They sent you the wrong results,” I told her flatly. “How could I be part Apache and you’re not?” “All I know is that I need SPF 5,000,” she said, reminding me that her Italian friends refer to the color of her skin as “mozzarella.”
In light of the decades of information my sister has amassed about our family’s genealogy, I gladly accepted the 23andMe kit to put an end to this nonsense on my daughter’s report. Intent on setting the DNA record straight, I spat with increasing zeal and hand-delivered my sample to the post office.
Six weeks later, I received an email announcing that the details of my DNA report were now available.
My heart and mind were racing. Would the Apache heritage outweigh the Cherokee? What other surprises would emerge from my DNA in this melting pot we call America?
I clicked through to discover what the mirror has told me every day of my life: “Lauren, your DNA results are in! You are 100 percent European.”
Whiter than my mozzarella daughter! Whiter than Ivory soap! SPF 5,001.
Now, I don’t even know who I am. And what’s more troubling – thanks to my sister’s sketchy genealogy detective work, I’ve got a few huddled masses in my family tree who need to pack up their coonskin hats and go find their real relatives.