Constructing identities: the implications of DTC ancestry testing for tribal communities

Abstract

Purpose

Direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic ancestry companies have rapidly increased in popularity, with top testing services maintaining genetic databases of several million consumers. While genetic ancestry tests are often characterized as recreational, companies invoke deeply personal concepts of individual identity, group membership, and kinship when marketing their services. In particular, many companies claim to be able to determine Native American heritage, claims that are not supported by the state of the science and may have significant cultural and political consequences for US tribal communities. This study aims to fill the gaps in empirical work on this issue and characterize how genetic ancestry companies articulate indigenous identity through their marketing strategies.

Methods

We conducted a qualitative content analysis of the public facing websites for 25 DTC genetic ancestry companies that offer services measuring Native American ancestry.

Results

Our findings describe how genetic ancestry companies promote a causal relationship between genetics and self-identity through marketing language such as “Discover Yourself” and “Are you Native American?” and how this may affect US tribal communities.

Conclusion

Genetic ancestry company claims regarding genetic ancestry, personal identity, and cultural membership are problematic and challenge how US tribal nations currently identify and create potential obstacles for tribal sovereignty.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank Vence Bonham, Edmund Keane, and Benjamin E. Berkman for valuable discussion and feedback on earlier drafts of this article. The views expressed are the authors’ own. They do not represent the position or policy of the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Correspondence to Sara Chandros Hull PhD.

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Walajahi, H., Wilson, D.R. & Hull, S.C. Constructing identities: the implications of DTC ancestry testing for tribal communities. Genet Med 21, 1744–1750 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41436-018-0429-2

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Keywords

  • indigenous identity
  • direct-to-consumer
  • commercial ancestry test
  • Native American
  • empirical bioethics

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