I can’t believe how often I receive this question.
Here’s today’s version from Patrick.
“My mother had 1/8 Indian and my grandmother on my father’s side was 3/4, and my grandfather on my father’s side had 2/3. How much would that make me?”
First, this question was about Native American ancestry, but it could just have easily have been about African, European, Asian, Jewish….fill in the blank.
Secondly, Patrick’s initial question is a math question, but the real question is how much of a particular ethnicity do you have on paper versus how much you have genetically.
How could they be different?
Lots of ways.
Oral history in families tends to get diluted and condensed over time. For example, maybe grandmother wasn’t really 3/4th – because her ancestors were admixed and she (or her descendants) didn’t know it. And how does one have 2/3, exactly, with 4 grandparents. So, the story may not be the whole story.
For our example, we’re going to eliminate the 2/3 number, because it can’t be correct. A grandparent would be 1/4th, a great grandparent, 1/8th. In other words, ancestors fractions come in divisions of 4, or 2, but not 3 – because it takes 2 people in each generation.
So, you could have 3 of 4 ancestors who are native, which would make the person 3/4th, 2 of 4 which would make the person half, or 1 of 4 which would make the person one quarter, but you cannot have 1 of 3, 2 of 3 or 3 of 3, because you have 4 grandparents, not 3.
First, let’s answer the math question.
Math is your friend.
There are three easy steps.
1. Divide Each Generation By Half to Current
Each ancestral generation is reduced by one half, because the DNA is diluted by half in each generation.
So, if Patrick’s mother is 1/8, Patrick is 1/16 on their mother’s side, because Patrick received half of her DNA. With fractions, you can’t reduce the top number of 1 by one half so you double the bottom number.
If grandfather was 3/4, then father was 3/8 on that side and Patrick is 3/16th.
So, now, add the numbers for Patrick together.
2. Find the Common Denominator
The two numbers you need to add together from the above exmaple are 1/16 and 3/16. This is easy because the denominator is already the same – 16. But let’s say you also have a third number, just for purposes of example. Let’s say that third number is 3/32.
How do you add 1/16, 3/16 and 3/32?
The denominator has to be the same. If you look at the denominators, you’ll see that if you double the fractions with 16, they become fractions with 32 as their denominator.
So, for this example, 1/16 becomes 2/32, 3/16 becomes 6/32 and 3/32 remains the same.
3. Add the Top Numbers Together
Now just add the numerators, or the top numbers together.
2/32 + 6/32 + 3/32 = 11/32
That’s the answer. In this example, our person, per their family history, is 11/32 Native or 34.38%.
Patrick, who originally asked the question is 1/16 + 3/16 which equals 4/16, which reduces to 1/4 (by dividing the same number, 4, into the top and bottom of the fraction), plus whatever amount that “2/3” really is. So, Patrick is more than one quarter, at least on paper.
The next question is often, “how do I prove that?” In terms of Native ancestry, the answer varies on the purpose – general interest, tribal identification or tribal membership, etc. I’ve written about that in two articles, here and here.
You can take a DNA test from Family Tree DNA called Family Finder that provides you with percentages of ethnicity, including Native American, as well as a list of cousin matches. They also offer additional testing that may be relevant if you descend from the native person paternally (if you are a male) or matrilineally (for both sexes.)
On the diagram below, you can see the Y DNA in blue, inherited by males from their father and the mitochondrial or matrilineal DNA in red, always inherited from the mother. While the Y and mitochondrial tests give you very specific information on two lines, the Family Finder test provides you with ethnicity information from all of your lines. It just can’t tell you which line or lines the Native heritage came from.
Often, due to admixture in the Native population over the past several hundred years, since the Europeans “discovered” America, the amount of Native DNA is less than expected and sometimes is so far back and such a small amount that it doesn’t show at all.
An individual could well be considered a full tribal member, yet have less than half Native heritage. Examples that come to mind are Mary Jemison, an adopted captive who was European, but considered a full tribal member, and Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee alphabet. Even the Cherokee Chief, Benge was at least half European, sporting red hair. His mother was a member of the Cherokee tribe, so Benge was as well. Cherokee Chief John Ross, born in 1790, was only one eighth Native.
So, the bottom line. Enjoy your family history and heritage. Document your family stories. Understand that tribal membership was historically not a matter of percentages, at least not until the late 1800s and early 1900s. Your ancestor either was or was not “Indian,” generally based on the tribal membership status of their mother. There was no halfway and mixed didn’t matter.
DNA testing can confirm Native heritage. It can also prove Native heritage in a variety of ways depending on how one descends from the Native ancestor(s), using Y and mitochondrial DNA. Depending on whether Patrick is male or female, and how Patrick descends from his or her Native ancestors, the Y or mitochondrial DNA test can add a wealth of information to Patrick’s family history.
For some people, DNA testing is how one discovers that they have a Native ancestor.
So, how much Indian do you have in you, on paper and through DNA testing?