Unwritten Histories

The Unwritten Rules of History

Unpacking DNA Ancestry Tests

This photograph was taken from the perspective of someone standing on the ground, looking up in the the canopy of a forest. Tall tree trunks climb high in the sky, converging at one point in the centre of the image. You can see some blue sky between the leaves of the tree canopy.

Special thanks to Shannon Stettner for her help with this piece.

If you’ve spent any time either watching television or on social media in the past few months, there is a high likelihood that you’ve run into a commercial, blog post, or Youtube video featuring DNA ancestry tests. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have been pushing these tests as important ways to find out about your family history. Which sounds pretty cool. However, much like Canada150, many historians find themselves incredibly frustrated by the increasing popularity of these tests. I can neither confirm nor deny that some yell incomprehensibly at the television screen whenever one of the Ancestry.com commercials comes on. Now, there are numerous articles out there explaining the scientific limitations of these tests. For instance, this recent piece on Gizmondo talks about how the results of these tests aren’t always reliable, due to the limited availability of comparative data, which alleles are being used to access ancestry, and just plain error. However, there haven’t really been any detailed discussions about the limitations of these tests from a historical perspective. So, in today’s blog post, I’m going to talk about exactly that, with a particular focus on the complicated nature of historical populations, the “science” of race, the role of white privilege, and notions of belonging and community.


Some quick caveats. First, there are some instances where DNA ancestry tests have been exceptionally important, largely with respect to uncovering lost histories. I will address this in further detail below. And second, I would like to be extremely clear that none of the information presented in this blog post is based on original research, but, rather, collects together arguments and information from numerous perspectives in one place. I am particularly indebted to Kim Tallbear (enrolled Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. Descended from the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma), Adam Gaudry (Métis), Chris Andersen (Métis), and Darryl Leroux for their extensive work in this area, particularly with respect to the issue of self-indigenization. Please be sure to check out their research in the suggested readings at the end of this blog post.


Presentism, Ancestry, and Historical Populations

One of the basic premises of these DNA ancestry tests is that you can definitely trace your ancestry to a particular historic population. There are two related problems with this: one, the assumption that population mobility is a modern phenomenon, and two, the assumption that present national borders have historical meaning. Both of these assumptions are examples of what historians call presentism, or anachronism, which means trying to understand the past from the perspective of the present. In this time period, one of the main tenets of history as a discipline is that the past can only ever be understood on its own terms. Because, as we will see, the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.


Historical Population Mobility

Canada and the United States like to take pride in the fact that they are “nations of immigrants.” The classic immigration narrative that many of us encounter is that of someone coming to North America in search of a better life. However, neither immigration nor massive population movements, are not a new things. Aside from looking at the population dispersal of homo sapiens out of Africa, individuals and groups have always been very mobile. Just look at the Roman Empire. As Mary Beard has explained, not only was the Roman Empire ethnically and culturally diverse, but to “be Roman” was more akin to our modern understanding of citizenship. Individuals moved widely within the borders of the Roman Empire, particularly if they were soldiers or political administrators. Roman London in particular was a highly cosmopolitan area, with people from all over the world living and dying within its borders. Nor was this population mobility limited to the Roman Empire. For instance, the Black Plague was a huge population disruptor. So was the expansion of the Mongol Empire and its invasion of Europe. And the same goes for the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate. Nobody may have expected the Spanish Inquisition, but it led to a massive exodus of Spanish Jews who dispersed across Northern Africa, the Mediterranean, and into the Netherlands, England, and Germany. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes alone, which permitted Protestants to live within France, resulted in 200,000 French Protestants leaving France in a single year. So your DNA may or may not reflect where your ancestors actually lived.

Further, not only is it impossible for DNA tests to account for all of this population movement, but it also raises important questions about what ancestry even means. Simply put, there is no way to pin down anyone’s particular ancestry, because that assumes that you can select one particular moment in time as being more significant than another. I happen to be a Jewish Canadian, but my ancestors came from the region of Galicia. And before that, they likely came from the area we now refer to as Germany. And before that, the Middle East. And before that, like everyone else, from Africa. So what does that make me?


Border, where art thou?

The second issue here is that of borders. We like to think of borders as defined and concrete lines (though the Canadian-US border is anything but….) But the reality is that most borders, and by extension, nationalities, are less than 100 years old. And this includes borders all over the world. The Decolonial Atlas does a great job of breaking all of this down in detail, so I won’t spend too much time explaining this. But a fantastic example comes from one of the older Ancestry commercials that features a man who identifies as Italian-Canadian, who takes the DNA Ancestry Test, only to discover that he has mostly Eastern European heritage. The biggest problem with this one, aside from the “I thought I married an Italian” comment by his wife, is that this can easily be explained by understanding the history of Northern Italy. Rome may be ancient, but Italy is not. Italy, much like Germany, was more a collection of smaller states (or city states) than anything else. Each region had its own history, culture, and political system. It wouldn’t be until the early 19th century that the unification of Italy would begin, and the existing borders were not finalized until the mid-twentieth century. In fact, for most of the 19th century, the area we today call Northern Italy was actually part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. If we consider this history, and that still today there are some parts of Northern Italy where German is the predominant language (notably the Südtirol region), Eric’s ancestry actually makes perfect sense. Suggesting that he is somehow Eastern European as opposed to Italian both ignores this complicated history, and assumes that some parts of his ancestry are more important than others.


Understanding the “Science” of Race and Ethnicity

DNA ancestry tests also raise important questions about the meaning of ethnicity and race, and their relationship to genetics. These tests rest on the assumption that ethnicity and race are inherently knowable through scientific investigation, that all you need to do is take a test and you can find out which race or ethnicity you belong to. Except that’s not how race and ethnicity actually work, because neither concept exists biologically. Various individuals throughout the centuries have tried to establish a scientific, biological, and genetic definition of race, and all have failed. I repeat: there is no biological definition of race and ethnicity. Rather, race and ethnicity, much like gender, are social constructions, or, as Stuart Hall put it, floating signifiers. In other words, in different times and places, certain behaviours and physical features have been categorized as belonging to one race or another. For instance, throughout much of the 19th century, individuals of Irish and Italian ancestry, were not considered “white” in North America.[1] Their racial classification as not-white was clearly not based on skin tone (as anyone who has ever been to Ireland can attest), but rather on socio-cultural markers that established them as “different” from white people. In this case, Irish immigrants were often seen as dirty, lowly drunks, and Italian immigrants were seen as lazy, sexually voracious rapists. Which is not to suggest that their experiences were comparable to the experiences of African-Americans or Indigenous peoples. But, rather, that racial categories are highly mutable, and contextually dependent.

What’s more, historical and present attempts to understand the “science of race” were and are often deeply racist projects, intent on proving the supposed superiority of the “white race.” This was particularly popular in the Victorian era, where anthropologists would create those horrifying posters that divided the world’s populations according to the dimensions of their skulls (using a pseudo-science called phrenology), and “level of civilization.” These “studies” were often used to justify systems like slavery and colonialism, under the argument that Indigenous peoples and individuals of African descent were not actually human. So be wary of anyone who tells you that there is a “natural” or “biological difference between “the races.”


White Privilege and Exoticization

Another problem with these DNA ancestry tests is that they often serve to reinforce white privilege. The term was coined by Peggy McIntosh in a 1988 essay. Simply put, white privilege refers to the ways in which certain individuals who identify (or who are identified) as white receive the social benefits that are not accorded to individuals from other racial backgrounds. These benefits are so normalized that they, in effect, become invisible. Examples of white privilege include being easily able to find cosmetics that work with your complexion at drugstores and beauty counters; not having to answer the question: “where are you really from?”; having a good relationship with the police; and always being able to find toys for (my) nieces and nephew that match their skin tones. Probably the most important of these, as McIntosh notes, is the ability to look and feel “normal.” The flip side to this is the exoticization of the bodies of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour, who are constructed as “not normal.” You can see this every time someone refers to the actor Lupita Nyong’o as “exotic.”

So it is not by accident that many of the Ancestry.com commercials feature individuals who appear white “discovering” their surprising origins in marginalized communities. For instance, in a recent National Post article on the Indigenization of French female colonists, one of the individuals interviewed was hoping to discover that she had Indigenous heritage, because “I just think … it’s kind of boring to just be European.” The desire on the part of some white people to “not be boring” is white privilege at work. Not only does it mask the inherent power of white/European as being the “default,” it also makes the work that this requires invisible.

Culture is not a prop. That’s because non-white people can’t just take their identities on and off. For example, being Indigenous means being part of a specific cultural tradition, but it also means being discriminated against because of that cultural tradition, along with a history of colonial violence, intergenerational trauma, and high rates of incarceration. Few people today in Canada would dare disturb an 18th century colonial settler burial ground, and yet many think nothing of ploughing up Indigenous burial grounds from the same period. For example, only a few years ago, the Musqueam First Nation had to protest the planned building of a condo on their ancient burial site, just north of where I live in the Marpole neighbourhood of Vancouver. Ultimately, the band was forced to purchase the land from the developer in order to ensure that it would not be built upon. For most white people, it is a privilege to live with the knowledge that you would never need to go this far to protect the bones of your ancestors.


Belonging and Community

What’s more, you can’t just decide to be part of a cultural or ethnic group because you find it interesting and/or have some genetic markers from these groups. That’s because these cultural and ethnic groups are not just check boxes that you tick off, but actual living communities. For instance, you may have had a Jewish ancestor, but that does not make you Jewish. You can’t just show up at the local synagogue and expect to be welcomed with open arms (well, you can try, but I won’t be held responsible for the consequences). To become Jewish means actually doing the work of learning about Jewish traditions, history, and religious rituals, creating relationships with organizations and members of the community, and, more often than not, undergoing conversion. This is a time-consuming process that requires real dedication and a lot of soul-searching. While I am using the Jewish example here, mostly because it is the one I am most familiar with, this applies to most other cultural or ethnic groups. That’s because the idea of community goes both ways: you have to want to be part of a community, and it has to accept you. It’s a two-way street. This is particularly an issue when it comes to Indigenous communities.


Causing Harm and Healing Wounds

An increasing number of individuals are “discovering” Indigenous ancestors, largely as a result of the presence of genetic material ( the modern equivalent of saying that one of your ancestors was a Cherokee Princess, never mind that the Cherokee were a democracy…) This is extremely problematic. You may or may not actually have one or more Indigenous ancestor, but that does not make you Indigenous. That’s because being part of an Indigenous community is about more than genetics. It is about the lived experience of being Indigenous,  having connections to family, community, and place, and respecting the traditions and rituals of kin-making. It is also about being accepted and confirmed as a member of a community by that community.

Moreover, claiming Indigenous ancestry on the basis of genetics is often used by non-Indigenous peoples as a way of asserting their claims to land in North America. As Tallbear asserts, “I think it’s another kind of claim to own indigeneity, to try to have a moral claim or sense of belonging on the North American continent and so that’s the context in which these tests are so popular.” Not only is this one of the ways in which settler colonialism is perpetuated, but such claims can be damaging to actual Indigenous communities. By claiming Indigenous identity without having the lived experience of being Indigenous and connections to an Indigenous community, you can do real harm to the ongoing struggle many Indigenous peoples and communities are engaged in with respect to treaty rights, land claims, compensation for the survivors of residential schools, and the welfare (and very survival) of children.

There is one very important exception here, and that is in reference to individuals who, whether due to adoption, forced relocation, and other mechanisms of displacement, have had their histories stolen from them. This includes Sixties Scoop survivors, the descendants of individuals who lost their Indian Status, as well as the descendants of Africans who were enslaved and brought to the Americas as part of the slave trade. In these cases, DNA ancestry tests can be an essential tool to help to rebuild a history that has been wiped out through historical trauma, and to help individuals reclaim their heritage and actively connect with lost families and communities.[2]



So, am I saying that you should never use these DNA ancestry tests? No. Not at all. But if you do want to use them, you need to understand your own motivations as well as the limitations of these tests. While they can be informative and entertaining, trying to understand your own heritage through these tests is, as a friend put it, like trying to understand Canadian history by only reading Conrad Black’s book – dumbed down and not quite accurate. When combined with extensive genealogical and historical research, they can be important and useful tools. What’s more, these tests can also serve as possible gateways, opening the door to an interest in history, which is always a good thing. Just make sure you go into them with open eyes.



[1] The same is true for many other ethnic and cultural groups that are presently considered white, including Ukrainians and Jews, for instance.

[2] Consider the contrast between Andrea Reimer (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/duncan-mccue-vancouver-mayor-andrea-reimer-metis-identity-1.4499738) and Joseph Boyden (https://notyouraverageindian.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/10-reasons-why-joseph-boyden-is-a-problem-and-should-go-away/).


Further Reading

  • Chris Andersen, “Métis:” Race, Recognition and the Struggle for Indigenous Personhood (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015).
  • Adam Gaudry and Chris Andersen, ”Daniels v. Canada: Racialized Legacies, Settler Self-Indigenization and the Denial of Indigenous Peoplehood,” Topia no. 36 (2016): 19-30.
  • Adam Gaudry and Darryl Leroux, “White Settler Revisioning and Making Métis Everywhere: The Evocation of Métissage in Quebec and Nova Scotia,” Critical Ethnic Studies 3, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 116-142.
  • Darryl Leroux, “’We’ve Been here for 2,000 years’: White settlers, Native American DNA and the phenomenon of indigenization,” Social Studies of Science, prepublished January 9, 2018: 1-22.
  • Kim Tallbear, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).


I hope you enjoyed this blog post! And now you know that the next time you see a tv commercial for one of these DNA ancestry tests, and you happen to be with a historian, maybe just give them a cookie.  😉 If you did enjoy this post, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for a brand new Canadian history roundup. See you then!

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  1. A very important and timely piece. Thank you, Andrea! I am part of a community group that is studying these very issues in our small town. I am sharing your post with members of my group because you have, in clear, concise language and well-defined thoughts, articulated the issues we have grappled with for quite some time.

  2. Great post! Thanks for taking the time to share this information.

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