So….. About That: Genetic Testing and Family Myths
For as long as I can remember, there’s been a tale in my family about my father’s Native American heritage through his mother’s lineage. My great-grandfather insisted he was Cherokee, not Mexican, as he often put it. We took this as gospel, considering our darker skin and other features as confirmation of our substantial Native American lineage. Looking at family photos, the resemblance was uncanny. There was no reason to believe otherwise.
With the advent of DNA testing, I decided to participate, curious about this piece of family folklore. My first Ancestry DNA test suggested around 5% Native American DNA, which seemed to validate our family’s narrative. I didn’t keep the results; they served their purpose at the time. I knew inherited DNA isn’t distributed evenly due to random genetic inheritance, but this was enough to confirm the story was not entirely bupkiss.
As technology advanced, my interest in our family history deepened. With my husband, Rand, I decided to retake the Ancestry DNA test. The second round of results were baffling – no trace of Native American DNA. In search of answers, I uploaded my raw data to other platforms for further analysis.
What did they reveal?
Most platforms reported a range of 2% to 5% Native American DNA, which I know to be linked to my mother’s side. They also identified a mix of European DNA, including 5 to 10 % Iberian along with a baffling 2% to 5% African DNA, components that often contribute to Afro-Latino DNA. My paternal grandmother and her father’s lineage are still a mystery. Were they Latino? I can’t be sure. I do know that no family member related to them, who has taken a DNA test, shows any Native American DNA via Ancestry. And there are many of them, given the prolific families of Mahurins and Lees.
So, what did I learn? I discovered that I share DNA with the Scraper/Sixkillers of the Eastern Band Cherokee, specifically through my mother’s side. Our common ancestor is roughly five generations back, as indicated by the estimated DNA I possess. While we’re still pinpointing the exact connection, we’re certain we share the same progenitor of the Sixkiller line. Further, I discovered I’m a direct descendant of Chief Enola Black Fox on my mother’s side through the Turners, which was a bit shocking, and has prompted me to vet the information multiple times just to be certain.
This journey, which has inadvertantly destroyed a family myth, has been intriguing, to say the least. My cousin Shannon, who also possesses our family’s darker features, finds it amusing. Her mother—my aunt—looks very much like my father and his sisters. Their Native American identity is so deeply ingrained that they won’t entertain any other possibility. Despite our (mostly) mixed European makeup, they wouldn’t consider themselves anything less than Native American. The irony of my father’s notorious racism doesn’t escape me, considering the potential of my great-grandfather being part-Latino. Quite the conundrum, isn’t it?
Despite the lack of Native American DNA on my father’s side, the history is still rich and fascinating. We are, after all, descendants of William Nickerson, founder of Chatham, Massachusetts. The first of our name to set foot on American soil, Nathaniel Covell, had married William’s daughter, Sarah. We are descended from William Bradford, signatory of the Mayflower Compact. Then there’s Benjamin Covell, who aided in the diversion that led to General Cornwallis’ surrender during the Revolutionary War. Hell, even Sir Isaac Newton is a very distant cousin. All through my father’s side.
In the grand scheme of things, I am a genetic melting pot. My makeup is a diverse tapestry woven from Scottish, English, German, Norwegian, and Iberian threads, spiced up with dashes of Native American, African, and Irish. My family history is a treasure trove of unexpected revelations. Even though the truth about my great-grandfather remains shrouded in mystery, an enigmatic void in our family tree, I’ve realized that I don’t need to carry forward the myth that my father’s side has perpetuated for generations. And I’m okay with this.