23 DEFINES YOU 

WITH THE BUDDING GENETIC TESTING INDUSTRY, JUST HOW ACCURATE IS IT?

She heard stories about her great grandmother’s gift to heal – using chants during certain moons and seasons – from her 90-year-old mother, Josephine Like.

 

Henrene Kong Ito listened to these family stories from Like during car rides or when they would be at home, just looking out to the ocean.  She heard about how her great-grandmother would howl and end chants in a mumbling tone to unknown forces.

 

“Of course, after a glass of wine, many memories are shared,”  Ito said. Yet paperwork is needed to solidify such claims, when it comes to establishing formal ancestry, a challenge for Native Hawaiians.

 

Ito was born and raised on Oahu and moved to Hilo at the age of four. She has been living on the Big Island for more than 30 years, on Hawaiian Homestead Land, facing the ocean.

 

She said her father was 100 percent Chinese and her mother is 75 percent Hawaiian and 25 percent Chinese. Ito also has three sisters.

Ito’s grandmother wished for family reunions to be organized every five years, and those help keep the family connected and aware of their ancestry. There are only four of 14 remaining from the first generation, Ito said, with her mother being the oldest, but the luaus live on.

 

At the reunions, Ito said stories and documented genealogy publications are updated and distributed. Music also has been written about the family’s property by the ocean and the family genealogy.

 

“Knowing a small part of my Hawaiian history (through my mom) gives me peace of mind and security that seeking my ancestry through DNA is unwarranted,” she said.

“Knowing a small part of my Hawaiian history (through my mom) gives me peace of mind and security that seeking my ancestry through DNA is unwarranted,” she said.

AT KAMEHAMEHA SCHOOLS, ancestry matters

The biggest group of applicants at Kamehameha Schools fall under the kindergarten section of the Honolulu campus. The school's admission site reports an average of 1,350 applicants every year with only 80 slots available. Applications are only available for those applying to kindergarten, fourth, sixth, seventh and ninth to 12th grade.    

 

Elizabeth Ahana, Communications Manager at Kamehameha Schools, is a graduate of the school as well and understands the frustration some applicants feel on the ancestry policy.

 

“That’s a point others have brought up," she said. "We’re really trying to make the process easier for families. ... It’s important for us and our mission to be able to stay within our preference policy so we’re able to deliver on our mission.”

Ahana added that the school is open to commercial genetic testing sites, such as Ancestry.com, once they can narrow down Hawaiian ancestry specifically instead of its current “Polynesian” distinction.

Hawaiians have had their version of Ancestry.com since ancient times. They used traditional methods like memorization to pass on ancestry information from generation to generation. Chants are also used. Ancestry information can be found all over the Internet now, and such documentation has weight.

 

Kamehameha Schools emphasizes Native Hawaiian preference in their admissions process but doesn’t take genetic evidence from new tech sites like Ancestry.com or 23andme.

 

There are 7,000 students from all Kamehameha Schools campuses and every student reports traces of Hawaiian blood.

 

This private school is the only institution in the state that enforces an ancestral preference and has so since it was founded in 1887 by Bernice Pauahi Bishop.

To prove ancestry, the admissions site says applicants must submit “birth certificates for the applicant, the Hawaiian parent, and the corresponding Hawaiian grandparent.”

 

Additionally, “If the Hawaiian grandparent was born after 1959 and/or born outside of Hawaii, the corresponding Hawaiian great–grandparent’s birth certificate is also required.”

 

Dylan Chace Lee, a 2015 graduate of Kamehameha Schools, was the first member of his family to attend the school.

 

His application process to Kamehameha was a bit complicated because his father’s birth certificate did not list his ethnicity. Lee knew he was Hawaiian but didn’t have the paperwork to prove it.

 

So, the Lee family tracked down grandfather’s birth certificate in order for his application to qualify.

Kamata (left center) is Dylan's Japanese great-grandmother.

Lee was able to find that birth certificate, was accepted to Kamehameha Schools and left Waianae Elementary School in 2005 to attend fourth grade at the private school.

 

He said the Kamehameha admissions policy gives back to Native Hawaiians.

 

“It’s good to keep it this way because the goal of the school is to help the children of ancestry," Lee said. "We live in a society where people of color have a hard time to get an education. If they feel the person is well off, why not help those who are struggling?”

 

Ancestry to him is an important part of his identity. He said he used Wiki Tree to find out more about his family’s ancestry and was not surprised by the results. It matched what he had been told. 

 

Lee found his great-grandmother and other members of the family but could not find his grandfather because Lee thinks he was adopted.  

“It’s good to keep it this way because the goal of the school is to help the children of ancestry… We live in society where people of color have a hard time to get an education. If they feel the person is well off, why not help those who are struggling?” Lee said.

“When you talk about mana, the best way to define it is as a social currency, seeing where my family lives today, lets me know they were well off when it came to that social currency,” he said.

 

“I want to continue all of that," Lee said. "With it, I can trace back, hopefully, to all of my descendants to their first pure-blood relative.”

 

Part of Hawaiian culture is knowing who you are and where you come from, because genealogy can determine how much mana, or supernatural power, one possesses.

 

When it comes to mana, Daniel Ikaika Ito says his family possesses a lot of it, as their ancestor was part of higher tiers of ancient Hawaiian social classes.

Daniel Ito, a 1999 graduate of Kamehameha Schools and Henrene’s son, said his family ancestry traces back to Keaweikekahialiiokamoku, a Big Island chief.

 

“When you talk about mana, the best way to define it is as a social currency, seeing where my family lives today, lets me know they were well off when it came to that social currency,” he said.

 

Ito actually became more interested in his family’s ancestry since his son, Keaweokapōhoku Michael Ito, was born in early November.

A SCIENTIFIC APPROACH

Floyd Reed has been researching genetics since 1996 and is an associate professor in biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, with a background in human genetics and ancestry determination.

 

“Humans have very little genetic variation," he said. "You need a lot of information to pick up genetic differences between populations, and that’s something we’ve been able to do in the last couple of decades."

 

He added that the ancestor accuracy in these tests can determine back seven generations before it gets blurry, from a technical standpoint.  

Another limitation: the smaller your ancestry is from a certain region, the harder it gets.

 

Reed actually used Ancestry.com and was able to find a genetic Finnish ancestor, meaning there’s no family history that shows they’re related but they share a big chunk of chromosomes.

Through social media, he reconnected with a cousin who lives in Finland, based on the Ancestry.com results.

 

“We’re genetically related but we don’t know how. We contacted them and they said one of their great great great grandparents came to America, so trying to pin this down and find information,” Reed said. “For big things like family relationships, the stuff is dead on. That stuff is accurate.”

Reed believes commercial genetic testing companies like 23andMe, are pretty accurate in ancestry determination but could use more research to perfect medical condition predictions.

DR. GENETICS?

The human body has 40 trillion cells, and each cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes that define you.

 

Commercial genetic testing services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe were introduced with the advances in technology.  

 

Henrene Ito’s sister paid for an ancestry service and showed her the results. She found the medical report more interesting and beneficial than the ancestry.

 

But just how accurate are those medical records?

 

“There’s a wide, wide range," Reed said. "For some traits, it’s virtually like fate. If you have this genotype, you will have this disease. For other things more complex traits, you’re only finding out a small percentage of your risk."

 

He hopes genetic testing for medical use will eventually become routine.

 

“I think that’s only a good thing, and I hope medicine embraces this,” Reed said.

 

Timothy Donlon is the president and director of Ohana Genetics, a laboratory that processes different genetic tests, specializing in medical testing like cytogenetics abnormalities. By looking for defects in the structure of chromosomes, it can determine if a fetus has defects.

 

Donlon tried out 23andMe for the medical feature and said it was a little disappointing because he already knew about some of the information when he did a DNA test for himself.

 

With a drop of saliva, anyone can have access to who your ancestors are centuries ago, as well as what potential medical conditions you might develop later in life.

 

The power behind the budding genetic testing technology might be the doctors of tomorrow.

GENETICS IN HOLLYWOOD

Genetic engineering was already developing in Hollywood as early as 1986 with "The Fly." Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film "Gattaca" shows genetic engineering was used to perfect the human body.

 

The film follows Vincent Freeman’s (Ethan Hawke) lifelong dream of space travel. But, he had a heart condition that prevented him from qualifying. However, Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law) had the perfect genetic makeup but was paralyzed from a car accident.

Morrow eventually became Freeman’s genetic donor by providing blood, urine, hair and skin samples daily. Freeman successfully gained employment at the space flight corporation as Jerome Morrow and was able to pursue his dream without stigma.

Written By : Nicole Tam
Published: Dec. 13, 2017
  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
  • White Instagram Icon