Sunday, July 17, 2005

How Do I Define Melungeon Part II

3. What Will the DNA Study Show?

As stated before, the DNA study will look at population, as opposed to individual, results. This has been said over and over again from day one, but the criticisms from a select few continue to target the limitations of individual sampling. This is, in my opinion, purposefully misleading. It is indeed impossible to tell from a single individual's DNA sequences anything of importance about a broader population, or even one's own recent national origins. People migrate and move around, taking their genes with them (one exception would be Native American DNA -- if this shows up in your DNA testing you can rest relatively assured that it did NOT come via Europe or Africa). But when a larger number of individual sequences from that population are examined, trends often can be seen that might be meaningful. For example, if a population that is supposedly "purely northern European" in its origin shows, say, 20% Native American sequences, then this would be considered statistically quite meaningful (i.e., something else is at play and needs a closer examination). At this point, genealogical records become critical: do the paper trails for these lines truly lead back to England, etc., or do they simply disappear into North Carolina, or wherever? If the latter is the case, then we may be on to something. Not all Native American genes will show up, of course, but we only need a few -- of any origin for that matter -- to help us along on our search. Dr. Jones' study is taking this approach. Depending on the results, further research might be warranted, or at least a more careful look at the genealogical and historical records to understand how discrepancies between DNA and the written record, if any, might have occurred. There should be no fear in doing this, if we're truly seeking truth. However, my understanding is that Dr. Jones has no interest in further pursuing this line of research and it will be up to individuals to pursue their own family genetics.

Dr. Jones will likely publish his study in the next six to nine months, AFTER it has been through peer review like any other scientific study. However, Dr. Jones was kind enough to present a preliminary summary of his findings, not once, but TWICE at Fourth Union in June. Some of the most vocal critics of the DNA study were at Fourth Union but, for whatever reason, chose not to attend either of these presentations. For those who could not attend but would like to judge Dr. Jones' work by his own words, CD recordings of both presentations are available through MHA for a nominal charge covering the cost of the CD and production. Under no circumstances will individual results be released publicly by Dr. Jones. While one list critic in particular has called repeatedly for such disclosure, Dr. Jones will not violate his professional code as a researcher. It will be the prerogative of each participant to determine how -- or if -- they wish to disclose their DNA results. Additionally, Dr. Jones has provided his services as a volunteer and individual participants have not had to pay for this sequencing. DNA analysis is now available from a variety of reputable companies and costs, on average, less than $250 per sample sequencing (or around $350 for both Y and mtDNA). There is absolutely nothing prohibiting anyone from taking advantage of these services and settling any questions they may have on their particular lines. My understanding is that some study participants have already done so, and they are certainly free to release their results in advance of anything that Dr. Jones might release in his population study. Remember, his report will not link results with individual names and thus individual release could be of immense value in tracking our various ancestries and determining true family kinships.

Three basic populations are being examined in Jones' study: (1) the Vardy/Newman's Ridge/Hancock County, Tennessee populations, (2) the Stone Mountain/Coeburn Mountain/Scott and Wise County, Virginia populations, and (3) "extended" Melungeons -- descendants of Melungeons from both these areas who no longer reside in the area. A handful of samples were also collected, primarily from local residents, who felt that they might possess Melungeon heritage, but their sequences were NOT included among the three populations listed above (in essence they could conceivably serve as a beginning for a "control group"). The results of the study can be broken down and compared by subgroup (i.e., the east Tennessee results versus the southwest Virginia results, and so on). Possible kinship between groups (or the lack thereof) can also be determined. This study can verify certain heritages but cannot dismiss any. Just because a specific sequence isn't found doesn't mean that it's not there somewhere in the population - it simply means that it wasn't found in this sample. For example, I'm positively certain that "Portuguese" is a part of the ancestry but early comments from Dr. Jones did not confirm this. Not finding it, however, does not disprove it. It simply means that none of the Y and mtDNA samples in this particular population definitively showed "Portugal."

Also, while DNA sequences can give us hints at the origin of the earliest settlers, on an individual basis it cannot tell us much about "race" or "ethnicity." For example, I have a good friend who is 15/16ths Choctaw Indian. However, his GG Grandfather was a white man. As such, my friend's Y chromosome shows him to be "European" but his culture and his physical appearance are most definitely Native American. My wife's Grandfather was born on a Reservation in Minnesota. My wife is an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Ojibwa and is, thus, a federally recognized Native American. However, because of intermarriage, her mtDNA and her father's Y both yield European sequences. The same thing holds true with the Melungeons. One can have a European or a sub-Saharan African or a Siddi DNA sequence -- Y or mtDNA -- and still identify culturally and physically with the Melungeons, or Native Americans, or Irishmen or whomever. There is no conflict in this, regardless of what some may tell you. Whatever my final DNA sequences show (and I suspect they will be a real mix), I can promise you that it will not change my cultural self-identity: I am -- and will remain -- an Appalachian hillbilly who loves bluegrass music, the Tennessee Vols, and fishing the TVA lakes.

In essence, the study will simply give us a hint at the "origins" of at least some of the earliest Melungeons but cannot tell us the whole story. Solid genealogical and historical work must also occur (and much good work has already occurred). But, again, DNA findings can sometimes give us insight as to why some of our family members with clearly non-European appearances (and so-called "family origin myths" of so-called "exotic" origins) have held so tightly to what conflicts with the paper trail. A prime example is the recent Sizemore Family DNA study. The Sizemores, mine included, have always claimed a Native American heritage through the MALE Sizemore line. The written record has been used to counter this claim, and my own early contention that Native American heritage might indeed be valid was dismissed out of hand by many genealogists, based, again, on the documented record. Well, DNA sequencing of a large sample ofmale Sizemore descendants (Y chromosome) has shown something very interesting: at least nine of the sixteen male Sizemore descendants in this study show indisputable Native American Y-chromosomes. However it came to be, those old Sizemores who claimed -- in vain -- to be Native American were indeed telling the truth. But an inflexible insistence on "documentation" coupled with a total dismissal of oral tradition squelched that truth -- for both the original families and the generations that followed.

Also, lest we forget, the opponents of the earliest Melungeon claims to be Portuguese, Native American, etc. are why this study was undertaken in the first place. For the past decade and a half, the continuing chorus from those who discounted the old Melungeon claims of origin -- based on the "written record" -- was, "Show us the DNA." Well, we -- and others -- are doing just that.

Finally, Kevin Jones has provided his services as a volunteer. A select few seem to have forgotten this. He deserves our thanks, regardless of whether or not we're pleased with the results. I expected more definitive proof of a "Portuguese" ancestry and more solid evidence that men played the key role in creating the Melungeons, two of my major premises. Neither of those expectations was borne out, but this doesn't mean that I shoot the messenger. I am extraordinarily disappointed in those few who choose to criticize rather than contribute. It's much easier to criticize a DNA study than it is to organize one; it's much easier to criticize a book than it is to write one; it's much easier to criticize a festival than it is to sponsor one; it's much easier to criticize efforts at filming and documenting the last remaining vestiges of our culture than it is to organize such efforts and seek the funding to make them happen. And it's much easier to make disparaging and slanderous comments under a false List name as opposed to using one's real identity.

4. Are there "Melungeon-specific" anthropological traits?

Absolutely not. "Melungeon" is a culture, not an ethnic group, so across the board, definable "Melungeon" physical characteristics do NOT exist. However, there ARE various ethnic traits that at least some Melungeons do possess, as do others who share similar ethnic origins, which demonstrate our connections to certain ethnic groups and -- by virtue of this -- ALL other human beings. In my presentations I talk about these traits (e.g., the central Asian cranial bump/ridge, which the Turks call an "Anatolian bump", shovel teeth, epicanthal eye folds, etc.) to show people that -- whatever race or ethnic group they may believe themselves to belong to -- that they likely possess anthropological traits tying them to other groups. Thus, racism is based on ignorance and our inability to see the kinship connections in front of our own eyes. One prime example I use to get this message across is my re-telling of an experience at a local (Kingsport, Tennessee) elementary school. Three fifth graders -- a "white," a "black" and a "Korean" child -- all came to the front of the auditorium following my presentation to excitedly announce -- while holding hands -- that they were "cousins." Each had discovered a number of mutual "ethnic" traits that, for the first time in their lives, drove home their kinship. This is the importance of the anthropological traits and its incorporation into my presentations -- NOT a physical litmus test for "Melungeonism." There is no such test, with Melungeons encompassing individuals of all colors and shapes and sizes. But understanding that we possess such "ethnic markers" is of critical importance in teaching that we all belong to one human family. And that's my major focus.

5. What is the "Melungeon Movement?"

Again, contrary to what some have said on the lists and elsewhere, the "Melungeon Movement" has nothing to do with championing one theory of origin over another. Those who see it this way once again miss the broader picture. The "Movement" is entirely about accepting diversity and recognizing human kinship, regardless of skin color or hair texture or DNA results. It emphasizes a global, versus tribal, view of humanity. One need only look at Afghanistan to grasp the ultimate chaos of unbridled, narrowly defined tribalism, where a few families on one mountaintop somehow constitute a nation -- and ethnic group -- unto themselves. Once this occurs, it becomes far simpler to separate oneself from others and, yes, to commit acts of prejudice and worse. This is NOT what the earliest Melungeon families were about. The Melungeon Movement draws its name in honor of these early pioneers -- a prime example of a multi-ethnic population which put aside its racial and cultural differences, came together and survived as one people (literally, the source of the slogan, "One People, All Colors"). The "Movement" is not concerned one bit with who -- or what -- the Melungeons were, are, or will become. Instead, it honors their dignity as human beings and presents these early settlers as a model for others in this strife torn world on how human beings ought to behave toward one another. I feel pretty confident that the "Historical Melungeons" would have approved of this message. If this is offensive or trite to some, then so be it. The Civil Rights Movement and other efforts to bring people together have also engendered ridicule and animosity. I think we can deal with that.

Finally, let me make an important point.

No one -- not me, not you, not anyone -- exclusively "owns" the Melungeons. It is not "my" Melungeons" or "our" Melungeons" or "your" Melungeons -- it is, simply, the Melungeons. The freedom to celebrate the richness of one's heritage cannot -- and will not -- be infringed upon by those seeking to exclude. The evidence of broad kinship is too heavy to permit such foolish and counterproductive divisiveness. When I announced at 4th Union my intent to disengage from research-related activities and asked all parties to work together, I did NOT say that I would no longer defend the great good that's been accomplished over the past fifteen years. The increasingly abrasive and disruptive activities of a small minority have convinced me that I need to "hang around" quite a bit longer. And that's just what I'm going to do.

Also of interest by Brent Kennedy:

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