Since 2000, the tracing of ancestry utilizing genetic markers has skyrocketed in popularity. Genealogy is one of few categories of websites that competes with pornography for most user activity and is reportedly second only to gardening as a hobby in the U.S.
Yet there’s something very ironic about the fact that today, very few consider the roots behind the tools that enable us to access ours.
The empirical study of one’s ancestry has had different meanings for different populations in the United States, depending on the time period. The civil rights movement in particular was a cultural turning point for the technology. For many descendants of communities born out of forced migration, most notably African-Americans, the idea of tracing one’s roots back to normalcy offered a rare opportunity to reclaim ownership over a history that had otherwise been erased. In the seventies, the very popular book-turned-TV series Roots followed the life of an 18th century slave and followed his descendents all the way to the author/narrator. In 2003, the African Ancestry, a website facilitating the African-American search for roots, was one of the very first example of direct-to-consumer genetic-testing. It was founded in 2003, predating 23andMe (now one of the most popular services) by five years.
This movement and its implications was not lost on the Armenian community, whose ancestors had narrowly escaped a mass genocide in the Ottoman empire nearly a century prior. “While I was interested in my ancient DNA and the migration of man out of Africa,” wrote Weekly editorial board member George Aghjayan back in 2015, “what really motivated me was the hope of connecting with descendants thought murdered during the genocide. Possibly descendants of the sisters my grandmother never heard from after they were sent to the desert. I wanted to bring them back from the dead.”
Aghjayan recalls that these efforts really gained force in the Armenian community by the nineties. The first such project was initiated by Mark Arslan and focused on those who had come from the district of Kghi. Gradually this expanded and now thousands of Armenians have tested at the various DNA companies. In recent years, there have even been annual Armenian genealogy conferences.
But before ancestry testing became an empowering tool for ethnic minorities in the U.S., it was used for the purposes of ethnic gatekeeping. In the late-19th and early-20th century, many whites in America, threatened by the waves of new European immigrants, were intent on creating barriers to newcomers; both real and imagined. Lineage-based organizations emerged, like Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), founded in 1890, which stipulated that its members have ancestral ties to soldiers of the Revolutionary War. In 1910, they wrote that the organization stood for “the purity of our Caucasian blood, the perpetuity of our Anglo-Saxon traditions of liberty, law, and the security and gradual elevation of the white man’s standard of living.” (DAR’s policies have become significantly more liberal and accepting since then.)
… as institutions shift their standards to account for historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities, we find ourselves at a new, political crossroads.
Many southern states formally adopted what had up to that point been called the “one-drop rule,” a social and later, legal principle of racial classification that said any person with even one distant African ancestor (i.e. “one drop” of black blood) would be considered black and thus, barred large groups of people from accessing certain benefits, ranging from housing to healthcare. The eugenics movement similarly affected another racial caste that had long been deemed undesirable by white settlers: Native Americans. Long-held racial stereotypes in the U.S. propagated the belief that Native American women were unfit to raise or to have children in comparison to white women, and even as late as the 1960s and 70s, a federally funded effort was underway that resulted in nearly 4,000 native women being sterilized (many, without their consent).
These atrocities are horrific, and nothing can undo the damage. Fortunately, in the century, recognition of these injustices is widespread and efforts at reparation, in many different forms, are underway.
Today, certain privileges are reserved for those descended of marginalized communities, which take the form of everything from scholarships and university admission quotas (i.e. affirmative action) to dental care. There has also been a cultural shift, particularly in metropolitan parts of the country; an awakening to the injustice white supremacy has inflicted on people of color. A backlash has ensued (the #BlackLivesMatter movement) and a backlash to that backlash (the visibility of neo-white supremacists and the election of Donald Trump).
But as institutions shift their standards to account for historically disadvantaged and marginalized communities, we find ourselves at a new, political crossroads.
Had she not run for Senate in 2012, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s unwavering belief in a distant Cherokee relative may never have been ruptured. But at some point during her campaign, it was revealed that she, a white woman by all visible indicators, had allowed Harvard Law School to include her as part of their diversity quota, listing her as a Native American in their rosters when she was tenured there in the nineties. Preceding the 2018 midterm elections, President Donald Trump reinvigorated these criticisms of Warren, calling her ‘Pocahontas’ at a rally, and stating that if she could prove her Native ancestry by means of a DNA test, he would donate $1 million to a charity of her choosing. Warren, responding to the taunts, actually did perform a DNA test, to prove her native roots.
Warren’s rebuttal to taunts from Trump ended up backfiring—badly. The Cherokee Nation was incensed. Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. condemned Warren’s use of genetic testing. “A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship,” he stated, “Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America… It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven.”
Debate rages as to Warren’s motives—had she truly been seeking to benefit politically? Or were her claims to Native heritage in her job application a simple mistake made in haste? A moment’s decision in which rationality was trumped by faith in an unquestioned family lore? Regardless, rallying for Native American heritage only when it is politically desirable to do so is wrong—a fact, it is worth noting, that Warren now accepts.
And to the point about DNA-testing, many Native Americans rightly responded that tribal inclusion is not just about blood quotas; it’s also about the importance of lived relationships and a sense of community. But this is a community, it seems, which has learned it cannot afford to be welcoming. “There’s a running joke in Indian country,” Dr. Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta specializing in racial politics, told journalist Brooke Gladstone in a recent interview, “…when we’re out in the world and we meet people and they say, ‘Oh you’re native! Oh, my great-grandmother was Cherokee!’ our first response is to try not to roll our eyes.”
While this response is on some level understandable, it’s also a sad realization: though while the context has shifted in the modern era, the idea that an awareness of who one is, is nearly always accompanied by an awareness of what one is entitled to. Even if what one is entitled to is well-deserved.
The stakes for Armenians, it is worth noting, are very different. Certainly an awareness of one’s Armenian-ness (written about ad nauseum in our pages) entitles one to feel certain cultural and identity-related privileges. Certainly there are Armenian scholarships and foundations. But as a community, there is not (yet) any particular political benefit to being Armenian today—particularly in Turkey. As a result, there is a generally (with certain exceptions) welcoming attitudes towards non-Armenians, referred to as odar, who express an interest in joining the community’s ranks—even fabricating cutesy titles for folks, like “ABC” (Armenian By Choice). The Armenian Revolutionary Federation, for example, holds no stipulations that members must be of traceable Armenian descent to join (and in fact, the ARF welcomed many Kurds in its early days).
Regardless, though it occupies a different political space for our community, genealogy has been a valuable avenue of research for Armenians, which is why Armenian newspapers are often host to countless articles on the topic (even recently a six-part series into “How to Research your Armenian Roots”) During his research into his ancestry, our editorial board member discovered the descendants of his great-grandmother’s sister, who had thought to have been lost during the Genocide. “The people in this story remain victims of genocide,” concluded Aghjayan his story from 2015, “but they no longer are tallied in the dead. The 1.5 million has been reduced by 2.”