In her article Karen Kaplan brings up the issue of racial and national identity, investigating the challenges of Native American people in the US. Providing examples from real-life stories the author aims to determine what does it mean to be Indian and whether or not DNA testing is scientifically and ethically appropriate for defining that status.
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The author begins with the story of Marilyn Vann, an engineer from Oklahoma, who is certain about her Native American roots and possesses numerous documentary evidence. However, it was not sufficient for Cherokee Nation and they rejected her membership application. DNA testing is Vann’s only option to prove her ethnicity and restore justice.
This scientific approach became widely popular all around the country but the attitude towards it varies from one tribe to another. Since tribal membership usually provides certain benefits, such as allowances and various social services, the flow of applications has significantly increased during the last few decades. In particular, the pretenders are interested in casino money. According to enrollment clerks, these people tend to say: “’I just found out I’m Indian and I want to know how I can start receiving my profits” (Kaplan 2). Consequently, many tribes decided to restrict their membership policy.
On the other hand, DNA as a solution might provoke even more questions. Progressive as they are, modern technologies cannot be completely reliable. A DNA test will only give an accurate result if it is possible to use blood samples of a parent and a child and prove their relation. “Genetic and genealogical ancestry aren’t in perfect sync” and the percentage of genes inherited from each parent may be extremely different (Kaplan 2). Equally impossible is to trace the affiliation to the particular tribe. Even though Cherokee and Sioux, Apache, and Navajo lived in different areas all over North America and developed their unique languages and cultures, they were not distant enough to develop unique DNA features (Oswalt 13).
Moreover, if the tribe establishes a test result as a membership criterion, it has to check all the existing members as well, and not everyone would have a positive outcome. The tribe would have to face an ethical problem on whether or not to exclude the respected members, who might have spent their entire life among them. The testing would also be able to reveal very personal information about family relations and trigger social conflicts.
The major question that the author highlights in her work are: What does it mean to be Indian? Marilyn Vann is only 3% Cherokee by blood but spent her childhood among them, participated in school programs for Indian students, her father spoke some Tsalagi and her earlier ancestors helped to build the tribe. By giving this example the author disputes the blood analysis as a crucial criterion for proving a person’s national identity. David Cornsilk, a member of Cherokee Nation is certain: “To define someone by blood quantum is the very definition of racism” (Kaplan 3). If preserving the historical heritage means maintaining the existing customs and paradigms, then it only makes sense to include people like Marilyn, who identifies herself with the culture and is willing to cultivate it despite her ‘questionable’ blood relation.
There are various opinions on the definition of ethnicity and national affiliation, and each party has its valid arguments. The implementation of DNA testing may have helped to regulate some processes but at the same time, it blurred the line between protecting the nation and discrimination based on blood purity. The issue remains open.
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Kaplan, Karen. Ancestry in a Drop of Blood. Los Angeles Times. 2005. Web.
Oswalt, Wendell H. This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 9 edition, 2009. Print.