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Best DNA Test to Discover your Native American Ancestry

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Denis Law

You may have heard your grandma or parents talking about a long-since-passed relative who was Native American because of your history in the Southwest. However, it’s hard to believe the tales without proof. Even so, it’s not uncommon for families that have long histories in the US to believe they may have some Native American ancestry, but it’s difficult to find reliable records on paper. Fortunately, today you can easily learn more about your history and your ancestry thanks to convenient home DNA testing kits.

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There are several companies that offer DNA testing kits which can help you understand your Native American ancestry (although, it should be noted, just because you or your ancestors have Native American DNA, it doesn’t mean that you or they are Native American) and discover more about your history. Read on below to learn more about how you can use a DNA home testing kit to determine if you have Native American ancestry and a bit more of your family’s history.

Table of Contents 
Define Your Need
What Types of DNA Tests Are There?
Which Test Should I Choose?
Should I Take an Autosomal DNA Test?
Ethnicity Tables
Finding Cousins
Should I Take an mtDNA Test? 
Should I Take a Y-DNA Test?
What is a Haplogroup?
Summary and Recommendations

Define Your Need

Before getting started, it’s important to know why you’re contemplating a DNA test kit in the first place. While they mostly offer similar services, some DNA tests glean different information than others and may be more relevant to your circumstances. Here are some of the most common reasons you could get a DNA test:

To establish a direct paternal or maternal lineage – This is an important reason for many people to take a test, and it can also be a way of learning about your direct family tree. Y-DNA and mtDNA tests can help you better understand if your family has Native American ancestry. In these cases, you’ll likely want to find a company that offers mtDNA or Y-DNA testing, which can trace your paternal and maternal lineage. To find out what percentage of your ancestry is Native American – This is a common and simpler way to determine if there are any genetic markers that indicate you have Native American ancestry.

native american dna testing kits

If you’re simply seeking to explore your ancestry more, autosomal tests, which scan for broad genetic markers, are a great and easy way to start. To learn about your family’s migration history – DNA tests can help you trace your family’s history geographically. By understanding how genetic makeups change and what portions your DNA has, you can visualize your ancestors’ journey all the way through to the present. To focus your research on particular regions or family lines – DNA tests can show you general regions where your genetic markers match, as well as ancestries. This can help you dive deeper into your family’s history.

It’s important to keep in mind that the results of a DNA test alone will not be recognized if you’re attempting to join the membership of a recognized tribe. While a DNA testing kit can help you better understand the process, it shouldn’t be your first option if that is your goal

What Types of DNA Tests Are There?

Before choosing a random product, you should make sure that the test you are considering can give you the answers you’re seeking. There are three main types of tests that most DNA testing services offer, including:

Autosomal DNA - These are the most common types of kits offered today, and they can give you a good basic idea about your ancestry and family tree. These types of tests examine your autosomal DNA—the 22 pairs of chromosomes in your code that don’t involve determining your sex—to explore your genealogy and genetic composition.

Your autosomal DNA is unique, as you receive one set of chromosomes each from your mother and father, who got them from their parents. It’s worth noting that once you pass your more immediate family, the number of genetic markers from a specific ancestor start to decrease.

The way tests can identify your ancestry is by exploring your genome at specific points in the code. These points, known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms (or SNPs), can be matched wi known genetic markers to determine if you share genetic similarities. Each person’s DNA contains roughly 4 to 5 million SNPs, so it offers testers a wide canvas on which to find your ancestry.

There are some big benefits to taking an autosomal DNA (sometimes referred to as atDNA) test:

  • Shows you your genetic composition, including the different ethnicities that make up your DNA.
  • Gives you a broad idea of your genealogy stretching back a few generations
  • Assists you to find a list of DNA matches that may be related to you
  • Most readily available type of DNA home testing kit

Even so, there are a few drawbacks to atDNA tests:

  • Can only check a few generations back due to your genetic code only containing a set number of ancestors’ DNA and the reduced accuracy the farther back you go
  • Can only show you general matches, not show which side of your family your ancestry comes from
  • They don’t reveal how your matches are related to you

When it comes to checking your Native American ancestry, an atDNA that reveals under 6% Native American genetic markers will likely not yield any documented Native American ancestors in your genealogy. However, results higher than that may warrant a further search of Native American ancestry.

mtDNA – These types of tests scan your mitochondrial DNA. MtDNA tests are particularly useful because your mtDNA is passed down from your mother, unchanged, to all her children. One of the biggest advantages of using your mitochondrial genetic material, then, is that you can trace back your genealogy much more accurately, since people related to you will have an identical match.

Your mtDNA shows you your haplogroup—the shared genetic material that can be traced back to a single common ancestor—which is related directly to your ethnic ancestry. This way, you can scan your maternal lineage back thousands of years by determining your haplogroup origin to a specific group. More importantly, it can also show you if there is Native American ancestry more directly in your bloodline.

Some of the biggest benefits of using mtDNA tests include:

  • Trace back your maternal lineage back significantly farther than with atDNA testing
  • Both men and women can take the test, since it scans your mitochondrial material
  • It can give you an accurate picture of your ancestry and highlight if you have Native American ancestors

However, there are some drawbacks associated with them as well:

  • They only trace your maternal lineage, so if your Native American ancestry is on your paternal side, you won’t know
  • Not every company offers this type of test

It’s also worth noting that while they are a more accurate test in some ways than atDNA tests, mtDNA testing is also not definitive proof that you are or aren’t Native American for membership purposes. This is because your matrilineal lineage is also affected by reproduction. If you are male, your children’s DNA will not have your mother’s mtDNA, but rather their mothers’.

Y-DNA – A Y-DNA test looks at the other side of the coin, your father’s ancestry. These tests look exclusively at your paternal lineage through the Y chromosome. When we’re born, we receive two chromosomes that are related to our biological sex—women receive two X chromosomes, while men receive one X and one Y chromosome. Y-DNA tests scan the latter, meaning that the test is only available for men.

Otherwise, Y-DNA tests are very similar to mtDNA testing. They are used to find your Y-DNA haplogroup, which shows your patrilineal connection to your ancestry (although it is only passed from father to son, so determining cousins and distant relatives this way is less valuable).

Some of the advantages of Y-DNA tests include:

  • Trace your paternal lineage back through several generations and thousands of years
  • It can show you if any of your male paternal ancestors is Native American
  • It provides a stronger connection for genealogy, especially in places where names are passed on the paternal side
  • It reveals your Y-DNA Haplogroup

Even so, there are also some drawbacks:

  • It can only be taken by males, as they are the only ones with Y chromosomes
  • It is limited only to your direct, paternal ancestors
  • It’s not widely available from all testers

Regardless, a Y-DNA test can be a valuable addition if you’re seeking to learn more about your family’s history and especially your parentage and connection to a recognized Native American tribe.

Which Test Should I Choose?

When it comes to learning more about your genealogy and your Native American ancestry, each of these three tests offers important advantages and disadvantages. Importantly, all three are great at helping you connect to distant family members and relations you may not even have known you had. However, this is where differences begin.

Autosomal tests are a great way to start your search for Native American ancestry, and they can shed some interesting light on your past and family history. However, their scope is too broad, and they are more useful to resolve your curiosity than prove you are Native American.

On a single sample, the company may match you with thousands of relatives, but you’ll see significantly fewer immediate or extended family. Another great feature in the results is the company’s relations map, which shows you a breakdown of your relatives across the world, highlighting regions where you have DNA matches. You can also dig deeper and click on DNA matches to see what you have in common (it’s worth noting that not every user is available to be matched, as you can opt out of public profiles at any time).

MtDNA and Y-DNA tests are much better at determining if you have Native American ancestry, as they can trace your paternal and maternal lineage. However, it’s important to remember that while a DNA testing kit can get you started on the journey to learn more about your Native American roots, applying for membership and recognition by a Native American tribe will usually require significantly more proof than a single test result.

Should I Take an Autosomal DNA Test?

If your goal is to understand your broad ancestry, then you may not have to look any further than an atDNA test to answer your questions.

The biggest advantage of these tests when it comes to understanding your Native American ancestry is that they can give you a quick overview of your overall genetic history. This includes giving you a broad look at your genetic makeup, including any signs of Native American SNPs and a percentage breakdown of the different ethnicities found in your family tree. It can also help you connect to distant relatives or unknown family who may be Native American.

Unfortunately, these tests can do little more than point you in the right direction or solve a curiosity, as they lack the specificity to determine important questions about your Native American ancestry. For one, while they can reveal if you do indeed have any Native American ancestry, they can’t tell you specifically which side of your family it comes from. Moreover, atDNA tests alone are not enough to prove that you are indeed Native American—that many times requires extensive genealogical research and proof that you have relatives within a tribe.

Ethnicity Tables

When you get an autosomal DNA test, one of the things you’ll receive is a breakdown of your ethnic genetic composition. While this is not a definitive list of exactly how much of each ethnicity you contain, it’s a great way to learn more about your family history and can reveal if you have any Native American ancestry in your DNA. A standard ethnicity table will look something like this:

Europe63%
Italy26%
East Europe14%
Great Britain15%
Northwest Russia8%
North America25%
Cherokee13%
Scandinavian Descent8%
Latino4%

Finding Cousins

One great benefit of a standard autosomal DNA test is that it can help you connect with family you may not have even known existed. Unlike mtDNA and Y-DNA tests that focus on your ancestry related directly to your parents, atDNA tests can help you connect with people in your family tree that are distantly related to you.

Most tests results you receive will include lists of possible DNA matches that can indicate a familial connection. Although the companies don’t include contact information with these due to privacy concerns, you can many times use their websites to reach out to potential family members and reconnect to learn more about your history.

Should I Take an mtDNA Test?

If you need to dig deeper into your Native American ancestry for membership reasons, you’ll need to take a test that can reveal direct ancestors who were also part of a tribe. MtDNA tests are much better suited for this purpose. Because they can scan your maternal lineage back to dozens of generations, it is much easier to determine if you have a direct ancestor who was part of the tribe and understand their connection to you. mtDNA tests are also valuable because they’re available to both men and women. If you’re a woman, you don’t have to rely on men’s Y-DNA results to learn about your Native American ancestry.

It’s worth noting that while these tests alone are still not enough to gain approval and membership, they’re an important step towards expanding your genealogy and concluding if you have a Native American forebearer.

Should I Take a Y-DNA Test?

If you’re a male, or you know that your ancestry stems from your father’s side of the family, a Y-DNA test is a good way to learn more. Much like mtDNA tests, they offer more concise evidence of your Native American ancestry and can even reveal potential ancestors who were part of a tribe or recognized as Native Americans. However, these tests alone are not enough to grant you membership.

It’s important to keep in mind that there is no “Native American gene”, and so making claims based exclusively on a DNA test may not carry the muster most tribes require for membership. Instead, you can use these results as part of a deeper investigation into your family and ancestry, or as part of your proof-gathering if you are attempting to join a recognized Native American tribe.

What is a Haplogroup?

One last thing to keep in mind is the concept of haplogroups. Haplogroups are large groups in a genetic population who share a common ancestor either on the maternal or paternal line. For instance, many scientists speculate that every person on the maternal line is descended from “Mitochondrial Eve”, a theorized original ancestor who lived in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Even so, tracing back anyone’s ancestry to the original may be complex, so most tests will find large groups of ancestors whose DNA markers match yours, known as haplogroups. These groups can tell you much about your history and show you a good breakdown of where your family originally descended from.

Summary and Recommendations

A DNA test is a great way to start learning about your family’s Native American Ancestry, but it’s important to remember that it’s a first step. Understanding what you want to get from the process—learning more about your family, attempting to join a Native American tribe, finding long-lost family—can make it easier to determine what kind of test you want, and which company to use.

If all you want to do is understand your ancestry and see how much of your genetic makeup is Native American, an autosomal DNA test should be more than enough. However, if you are more serious about learning about Native American ancestors, or are attempting to apply for membership to a recognized tribe, you may prefer an mtDNA or Y-DNA test, as these can tell you much more about your direct ancestors, and aid you with the process of getting the information necessary for approval. Take a look at some of the top contenders in the market to take a Native American Ancestry DNA test:

Ancestry DNA

As one of the oldest and largest DNA testing companies, Ancestry has perhaps one of the best DNA databases on the market. With billions of historic records, more than 700,000 genetic markers and millions of users in their database, Ancestry can give you a closeup look at your family tree.

Pros:

  • Explore a DNA database of over 10 million users to find out if you have native American ancestors
  • Quickly integrate your results into your family tree with a built-in genealogy tool
  • Easy to understand results that are constantly updated

Cons:

  • Accessing historical records requires a subscription fee
  • You can’t upload data from other sources

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23andMe

Another top contender in the DNA testing market, 23andMe’s autosomal DNA tests are a great way to learn more about your ancestry, with several regions checked (over 150 worldwide) and a full ancestral makeup report included. Additionally, you can check both your paternal and maternal lineage.

Pros:

  • Take both mtDNA and Y-DNa tests for a better ancestry picture
  • Get your results in an easy to use and understand dashboard
  • Get in-depth and detailed results about your ancestry

Cons:

  • It’s on the more expensive side of the spectrum
  • It’s a bit murky on its data sharing and privacy information

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MyHeritage

With a rapidly growing database, a historic records collection of over 6 billion items, and millions of family trees already uploaded, MyHeritage is a great way to learn about your Native American ancestry and find relatives you may not have known you have. The company’s autosomal tests give you great insight and can show you thousands of relatives.

Pros:

  • The most affordable option in our top choices
  • Take advantage of a massive collection of historical and genealogical data
  • Check your genealogy in a nifty mobile app that shows all your results

Cons:

  • Its results are largely focused on ancestry and DNA matching over ethnic composition
  • No mtDNA or Y-DNA tests available

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