‘Native American DNA’ and the self-indigenization of French descendants

—Darryl Leroux—

Relying on a populace well-educated in family history, a robust national genomics sector has developed in Québec. That development has coincided with a threefold increase in the number of individuals in the region self-identifying with a latent, mixed-race form of indigeneity that runs counter to existing Indigenous understandings of governance and kinship. Genetic scientists have intervened in this redefinition of indigeneity through the logic of ‘Native American DNA,’ which, according to Kim TallBear (2013: 17), acts as a ‘material-semiotic object with power to influence indigenous livelihoods and sovereignties’. In many ways, this short piece provides a counterpoint to Joan Donovan et al.’s earlier blog post on genetic ancestry testing. Yet, in this case the ‘discovery’ of genes associated with non-Europeans is embraced by a white settler people, with inauspicious consequences for Indigenous peoples.

At its annual meeting in September 2015, the Métis Nation of the Rising Sun (MNRS) publicly announced the results of a series of DNA ancestry tests: ‘We did about 20 tests, and they’ve all shown that we’ve been here for 2,000 years’, explained the organization’s president. The original Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news report on the matter parroted this implausible statement in its headline, though it eventually corrected its coverage, explaining that it was actually the Indigenous ancestors of today’s so-called métis who had lived in the area up to 2,000 years ago. While the difference between these two statements might at first glance seem minute, the slippage illustrates how commonsense notions of Native American DNA influence the redefinition of indigeneity in historically problematic ways.

In his statement, the MNRS president explicitly used the results of the DNA ancestry tests to legitimize the existence of a new ‘Indigenous’ tribal identity (Québec Métis). Locating what TallBear calls a ‘biogeographical pinpoint of originality’ (6) in the Gaspé Peninsula, the MNRS affirms its presence today through DNA. Given that the organization only formed in 2006 and that many of its members are new to this emerging identity, his claims are quite remarkable. After all, in a previous message to members, the president himself explained its genesis in the ‘interethnic contact’ between Europeans and Indigenous peoples in the 1700s. Notably, TallBear explains that ‘Native American DNA’ tells the history of human migration from the perspective of ‘those who did the encountering’ (5).

The MNRS’s ‘discovery’ seems to have emboldened their claims, as evidenced by a recent statement from their website: ‘This vast and diverse territory, with such breathtaking natural beauty, was never colonized nor ceded to Europeans who arrived on our soil; it has remained the property of the descendants of the original [First Nations] inhabitants … the Métis’. Thus, the thousands of Mi’kmaq who continue to maintain their relations to their ancestral land are cast aside by the power of Native American DNA. It is nonetheless worth noting that the Mi’kmaw people have their own origin stories in the region (e.g., Gespe’gewa’gi Mi’gmawei Mawiomi, 2016).

Indigenous peoples, including the Mi’kmaq and recognized Métis, have been clear that Indigenous peoples themselves must retain the authority to define their kin and govern their citizenship through their specific governance structures. Métis scholar Chris Andersen (2014), for example, challenges the dominant racial classification system that categorizes the Métis in a purely biological register – mixed-race – since it undermines Métis peoplehood. In other words, it is not some abstract notion of mixedness that defines Métis people but rather their Métisness – belonging to a particular Indigenous social and political formation called the Métis Nation from what is now primarily called Western Canada.

In February 2017, another self-declared ‘métis’ organization in a northern region of Québec announced a partnership with a direct-to-consumer, US-based DNA ancestry company (e.g. Isaac, 2017). The company in question markets a Native American DNA ancestry test that promises to identify one’s tribal origins, a claim that relies on the discredited idea of tribal and racial purity among Indigenous peoples. In actuality, there exists no scientific test that can identify with certainty the presence of genes associated with Indigenous peoples, let alone one that can pinpoint one’s tribal identity.

Nevertheless, the organization – which quickly signed up hundreds of members – was created on the strength of the company’s DNA testing. A few short months later, its so-called chief travelled to Paris as part of a small delegation of similarly self-identified ‘tribal chiefs’ to present a human rights complaint to the United Nations based in the non-recognition of their ‘Indigenous’ rights by the federal and provincial governments. Again, the legitimacy proffered to genes associated with Indigenous peoples lends itself to efforts that derogate the treaty rights of existing Indigenous peoples.

It is still unclear whether or not the work of genetic scientists will contribute to the legal recognition of a so-called Québec Métis people. The growing number of organizations lobbying on behalf of white French-descendant settlers with minimal Indigenous ancestry – I have surveyed nearly 50 such organizations representing tens of thousands of people in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Ontario – suggests that we can expect the redefinition of Indigeneity currently stimulated by the logic of Native American DNA to erode Indigenous sovereignty further into the future.

The scientific community has an opportunity to move beyond the strictly biological register that continues to define Indigenous peoples in racial terms towards one that understands Indigenous nations as political entities with their own basis for recognizing kin and making citizens. Disrupting the logic of Native American DNA would be a good start. 

References

Andersen C (2014) Métis: Race, Recognition, and the Struggle for Indigenous Peoplehood. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Gespe’gewa’gi Mi’gmawei Mawiomi. (2016) Nta’tugwaqanminen Our Story: Evolution of the Gespege’wa’gi Mi’gmaq. Halifax, NS: Fernwood Publishing.

Isaac D (2017) Métis movement in Chibougamau? The Nation. Available at: http:// www.nationnews.ca/metis-movement-chibougamau/ (accessed 20 February 2017).

TallBear K (2013) Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.