Saturday, May 28, 2016

Geneticists, Linguists, and American Indians

There’s an interesting piece in today’s NYT about genetic testing African Americans. The researchers covered in the article calculate that “the ancestors of the average African-American today were 82.1 percent African, 16.7 percent European and 1.2 percent Native American.”

More interesting than that, by examining the length of matching DNA strands, they claim that the Native American genes got into the African American mix very early, as slaves were first brought from Africa, and that the European genes got into the mix later—primarily during the time just preceding the Civil War.

Furthermore, by tracing X and Y chromosomes—Xs come only from mothers; fathers can pass on Xs or Ys—and the fact that the X chromosome of contemporary African-Americans shows more African ancestry than do the Y, leads them to the conclusion that the 16.7 percent European ancestry is primarily due to white slave owners fathering the children of their black slaves.

Here is a link to the story: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/28/science/african-american-dna.html?emc=edit_th_20160528&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=66175474

This is all very interesting, but haven’t historians been telling us most of this for a long time—if we were listening? Linguists too, and folklorists have traced languages and cultural patterns, and thus the movements of peoples across time and geography.

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I always introduce Library visitors to Alvin Josephy’s Indian Heritage of America (published in 1968) by pointing out that he begins with languages. Although scarcely 50 years ago, this was a time before the “human genome.” But common sense and Josephy tell us that we can trace people’s movements, and to some extent the development of their cultures, through language. Josephy found early that one of the gifts left by missionaries, furmen, and adventurers is a chronicle of Indian languages.

Speaking of gifts, a donor recently left the Josephy Library a copy of John Wesley Powell’s 1891 report to the Smithsonian. This Powell—the same who floated the Colorado—sent a team of a half dozen researches across the country gathering language information for two years. He then analyzed and classified the Indian language information they brought back in his annual report. Powell broke them into 46 major language groups—I believe this was the first classification of North American Indian languages.

Josephy had later research to work with. But it has always struck me as a mark of his genius that he began a book intending to paint a broad picture of the Indian heritage of North and South America by talking with linguists. And it occurs to me that his advantage in being a journalist was that he was not discipline-bound—he reached out to linguists, archeologists, anthropologists, and others who were, often quietly and for an audience limited to their own field, building pictures of the past.

There are a dozen ways to go with this: genetics is incredibly interesting, but let’s not forget the human stories of slavery, the “Great Migration” of African Americans out of the south, and, always, the Indian presence in all subsequent “American” history. How do we make sure the human stories don’t get lost in the science?

Or, we can celebrate the new emphasis on tribal languages across the country. One of my early Peace Corps language memories is a Turkish saying that where there is “one language, one man; two languages, two men.” Taking away the gender issue, the point is that language is intricately tied to culture, and the loss of language is a loss of culture and history. So good for the tribal language programs and linking tribal peoples to history and culture.

We’ll continue to get stories from geneticists, but let’s also remember and thank those missionaries and adventurers for their roles in preserving languages. And let’s remember the stories that language, oral history, and culture tell us about the past as we keep them alive in the present.

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