Updated on: June 30, 2020

Can a DNA test help you determine if you have Native American ancestry?

Yes. DNA test kits reveal your ethnic lineage, so you’ll see where your relatives were from. Exploring your family tree and determining if it has Native American roots is a great way to learn more about yourself. 

Despite the benefits of DNA testing for Native American heritage, there are a few flaws in at-home test kits for this purpose. At-home kits are basic and provide an estimation of your DNA makeup. They are also based on modern populations or are mapped by regions. The better a testing company’s database the more thorough the results, which means not everyone is going to get a complete look into their heritage from their DNA sample. 

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At-Home DNA Testing is a Crowd-Sourcing Effort

DNA test kits rely on people to participate. If they are unable to grow their database or a certain heritage refuses to participate, it’s incomplete data. 

Additionally, who is or is not a Native American based on the criteria of each tribe also varies widely. There are more than 550 federally recognized Native American tribes and each has specific guidelines for determining tribal membership. Most do not require DNA testing for membership and rely solely on paternity and familial connections of the last four to five generations. This makes it difficult to track heritage genetically. 

Some tribes even prohibit DNA testing of members. This has limited the Native American information in databases and it’s more difficult to establish connections with your ethnic heritage. 

And although some tribes are interested in exploring the use of DNA for tribal enrollment, to date, science can’t come up with a genetic signature for this purpose. 


Want to know the best DNA test for Health, Ancestry, or Heritage? Read our 2020 review of the best DNA tests.


Should You Use DNA Testing to Establish Native American Heritage?

The simplest answer to this is “it’s likely impossible to do so.” Add to that the fact that it isn’t worth trying for most people.

Most people connect to their tribes through tangible family heritage. They might have even moved on from their tribal reservation, but still have a connection to it through their spirit stronger than their blood connection. 

The only reason for establishing a genetic connection to a tribe would be to satisfy your curiosity. It’s interesting to understand your genetic roots, but that doesn’t mean you’ll benefit in any way regarding opportunity. 

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DNA Tests Might Be a Great Way to Learn about Native American Ancestry for Some People

Some people consider DNA testing for Native American ancestry something of a novelty, but it does offer more than that. Just as learning you have ancestors from Italy or Africa or China or anywhere else in the world, knowing that you have Native American DNA is interesting. It can also help you identify health risks and understand things about yourself better. 

It’s highly unlikely genetic testing will reveal anything that would hold up before a tribal council. That doesn’t mean it knowing your heritage isn’t an important endeavor. Connecting to your Native American roots through your DNA allows you to explore your history and learn more about your family. And something like that is never a wasted effort. 

The only DNA testing for Native American ancestry

Ancestry

Services like Ancestry.com have perks beyond simple guesses on your genetic lineages. Their vast database has the capacity to connect you to actual relatives, which reinforces your connection to their communities. If you suspect you might have Native American heritage, this is the only path worth spending any money on.

Living DNA

As mentioned, each large direct to consumer DNA testing service keeps its own database. If you’re seeking to cast your net as wide as possible, it’s best to submit your sample to multiple analysts. LivingDNA offers the ability to upload your DNA to their ‘One Family, One World’ project, where they aim to connect all individuals on earth. It comes with the added benefit of a free analysis against others in their system.

Unfortunately, for the same reasons that prohibit the Navajo from allowing DNA testing of their peoples, Native Americans may hesitate to opt-in to these databases for reasons ranging from data security to personal fear of being discovered by their tribes. For better or worse, these choices hamper the process of connection between individuals—and your ability to join a tribe. They should also create time for reflection, on whether your DNA is worthy of handling by any more than what is necessary—to preserve your essence to yourself as we proceed into an unpredictable future.


Know more about yourself for less. Read our favorite DNA tests under $30 and under $60.

Joel is a writer with a passion for the science of DNA and the power of its manipulation.

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