Ancestry Discovery Sites May Be Limited To Those On The Island
DNA scientists need triangulated data to be helpful, lacking info about Native Hawaiians
By: Katie Boon
14 May 2019
When it comes to her ancestry, Ihilani Lum can’t stand family disagreements.
“On my dad’s side, there’s some people that say we have a sliver of English,” said Lum. “But I know that particular sliver is not English. We know our genealogy. And it was a different time back then.”
Lum believes her great-great-grandmother Clara Jones was born Clara Naki, a person of Hawaiian heritage, but some of Lum’s aunts and uncles insist that Clara’s original last name was actually Jones.
People questioning their ancestral genealogy are living in the right era. In recent years people have been able to find long lost relatives and learn about genetic heritability through minimal genetic coding – something people in the past could only dream about – but for many, especially Polynesians, there is still a long way to go.
This could be life-changing data. To qualify for housing assistance under the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands’ housing program, for example, a person must have at least "50 percent" Hawaiian blood. This can be proven through genealogical records and documents but, at this time, not DNA tests. The DHHL website says DNA and genetic tests are not valid routes of proving blood quantum levels because genetic tests do not yet identify Hawaiian ancestry specifically, separate from other Polynesian bloodlines.
While debates regarding acceptance toward DNA testing continues, some people like Lum feel that a test like this will disprove the doubts others in her family have about her heritage.
Lum wants her ancestor remembered for the bravery and courage she had for doing what she needed to do during a stressful and pivotal time in history. According to Lum’s oral history, Clara changed her last name to Jones for job security.
“I would get one of those DNA tests just to put the questions to rest, even though it wouldn’t tell me anything I don’t already know,” said Lum. “I’d take a test to prove that I’m not from England, but it’s pointless to take a test that’s only going to tell me a broad region my people are from.”
However, without new breakthroughs in DNA testing, Lum may not be able to prove her Hawaiian bloodline through existing tests.
A century ago, people might not have believed that microscopic markers could connect ancestral lines around the world.
Today, people can learn about their genetic predispositions to health and disease risks, physical traits, the likelihood of passing traits on, wellness and aging all through DNA testing.
Some people are even finding family members through these genetic tests, including people they didn't know existed.
In April, for example, local politician Andria Tupola announced through a social media post that she has a sister-in-law.
After taking a DNA test, Michelle Lynn Basta located her half-brother Tavo Tupola. A reunion followed soon after.
Privatized genetic company AncestryDNA advertises itself as having “the largest consumer DNA network in the world.” 23andMe touts its services as letting customers learn what generation different specific ethnicities were introduced in.
The four leading ancestry and health databases – AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA – consists of DNA analyzed from over 26 million people, according to the MIT Technology Review.
With a swab of cheek cells and a fee of about $100, 23andMe can tell customers from which region their ancestors originated out of over 1,000 regions in the world. AncestryDNA looks at 700,000 genes per individual sample and compares this dataset to a database consisting of more than 16,000 documented individual samples to determine if people are related.
As more people submit their DNA samples, these companies add their information to these databases, which improves accuracy for future customers.
According to 23andMe’s website, there is only a 0.5% difference in DNA between any two people. The small differences between the strands can be linked to specific genetic traits, ancestry groups and health conditions.
In 2017, 23andMe pledged to broaden its ethnic representation after finding that 75 percent of all their customers were of European descent.
For some people, the results don’t tell some people much more than they already know.
One Samoan family who blogs on YouTube set out to find their exact origins. The oldest daughter of the Leausa family hoped to learn something new about herself.
However, the Leausas learned that diversity in genetic testing is limited for people of Polynesian descent.
The Leausa family, deeply rooted in Samoa, sent in a DNA sample. The oldest daughter read the results of both parents, who say they come from Samoan heritage: 100 percent Polynesian.
“I want my money back,” the sister said, as she laughed.
Three months ago, 23andMe expanded their database, due to a lack of representation for certain groups. This expansion added markers for Filipino and Vietnamese ethnicities.
According to AncestryDNA, Hawaiians are included in the Polynesian region, which consists of over 1,000 islands across roughly 62 million square miles of water. However, only 58 samples from people with Polynesian origins are used in AncestryDNA’s reference pool database.
Another blogger, Kalani Mondoy, has used many of these DNA and ancestry tracking tools out of curiosity.
“The scientific evidence confirms what we already knew from our oral traditions,” Mondoy wrote in his blog. “We come from the same few ancestors who came from different parts of Polynesia.”
Mondoy said Polynesian DNA matching is a complex issue because genetic diversity is limited due to the mixing of cultures and people.
Until more data is compiled to more closely identify genetic markers of specific regions, many living in the islands won’t be able to find out their exact ethnicities through these tests.
In the future and with additional genetic samples added with focus on non-European DNA segments, perhaps one day these tests will be more precise and accurate for people from all regions.
In February, Democratic Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren made national headlines when she apologized for claiming an indigenous lineage ran through her blood, when the Cherokee tribal affiliation isn’t determined by genetics. Its citizenship is purely up to the tribe’s discretion.
There is not a minimum blood quantum amount required for Cherokee tribal citizenship. Instead, to be counted as a member of the Cherokee Nation, a person must prove direct relation to an ancestor listed on a 1907 census of Cherokee lands in Oklahoma, according to the Cherokee Nation website.
DNA studies can be hard to understand, check out the video for a quick breakdown of how DNA works.
Lacking Pacific Islander Identity
Warren’s campaign workers put together a video defending Warren’s family history, including a part involving a geneticist telling Warren that she “absolutely has Native American ancestry in [her] pedigree.”
Regardless of what DNA ancestry tests tell her and how she views herself culturally, the name “Pocahontas” is now synonymous with Elizabeth Warren in most Republicans’ banter.
“I’m not enrolled in a tribe, and only tribes determine tribal citizenship,” Warren said, in an interview with CNN. “I understand and respect that distinction, but my family history is my family history.”
There are three types of DNA testings: Y-DNA, mtDNA and autosomal. Each test examines a different section of a person’s DNA: a father’s line, a mother's line and all ancestry lines, respectively, according to Geneticist Louise Coakley.
“Autosomal DNA test results also include admixture [and] ethnicity estimates,” Coakley wrote on a blog.
“DNA is the code in your cells,” British Geneticist Adam Rutherford wrote in Scientific American. “It is the richest but also most complex treasure trove of information that we’ve ever attempted to understand.”
Since DNA is split every time it is passed down a generation, some information is kept and some is lost. Theoretically, a person should have 50 percent of their mother’s and father’s genes, but 12.5 percent actually comes from each grandparent.
Family Tree DNA Center states that autosomal DNA can be used to get genetic information, but mother’s versus father’s sides are not defined. It is recommended that these tests are used to identify family closer than or to the third cousin.
Utilizing mtDNA or Y-DNA, users can look further back in their trees. Since mtDNA is carried only through the mitochondria of a mother’s side, results will allow a clearer picture generations back on the mother's side. Y-DNA is similar to the father's Y-chromosome.
According to AncestryDNA, the mix of genes that is shown through autosomal DNA is a highly accurate at confirming close relationships and ethnicity percentages.
Stretched out, DNA molecules are made up of double strands connected to each other by chemical base pairs. Guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine bind together to create the makeup of human genetic coding. One person has 3 billion of these base pairs in their genome. Arranged in 23 chromosomes, these contain the instructions for 20,000 human genes.