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Unexpected Ancestry at the Crossroads of Identity and Genetics

The Cherokee Paradox

For much of human history the community tradition as related from elders to a new generation was the gospel as to one’s personal as well as group identity, with little other sources of information available to contradict it. Today, new developments in the science of human genetics have led to unparalleled insight into the identities of our ancestors long ago, but in some cases this information has made it more difficult to answer the question of who we are today. Genetics has brought to light in stunning detail the origins, continual migrations, and intermixture of humanity as how our ancestors spread across the planet. The complexity of this story has taken many by surprise. This is especially so in the Native American community, where hundreds of thousands of members of federally recognized Indian tribes are finding to their surprise little if any Native American ancestry identified on their direct-to-consumer DNA test reports; such as those offered by 23andme and, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the ‘Cherokee paradox’. Huge numbers of Indian tribal members have been taken aback by their paucity and even lack of Native genetic ancestry, and its impact on personal and cultural communities. The need to understand how and why such disconnect could occur between the social, legal, and biological identities of a single person or community is great. Like some in Indian Country, other Americans are finding that despite what their family oral history teaches, they had little idea of the complexity and diversity of their ancestral origins. The impact of genetics on identity is immense and unfolding, and it promises to be revolutionary in a multitude of ways; in “The Cherokee Paradox” we investigate its complexity and its consequences in the lives of those that it has touched, for better or worse. Throughout the history of humanity, the search for knowledge had led repeatedly to the overturning of dearly held concepts by new information. Today the insights that genetics is having on the idea of identity is changing fast and it is promising more to come.


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