My great-grandmother Grace is one of the most interesting people in my family tree. As a non-Asian orphan raised in San Francisco among Chinese people at the turn of the century, her history is a jumbled mess of race confusion and what exactly it means to be a minority. Much of the truth of her story is a little cloudy, since she was in the habit of telling tall tales and probably didn’t have much information about her background herself.
The family story has always been that she was part Native American and part Irish, but the details have never been filled in. Earlier this year, however, I decided that it was time to unravel the mystery and I dug deep in California history, tracking the concrete information we had on her and figuring out where Native American and Irish populations would have overlapped. Based on my research (and we’re talking days and days and days of research here), I determined that she was most likely part of the Hupa population of California.
The Hupa is both a relatively small population and one that was extensively studied at the exact time that Grace would have been born, so I had a lot of research to work from. I bought an exhaustive text, went through all of the archives of historical photographs available, and eventually constructed a complicated but water-tight story of how Grace came to be, who her parents likely were, and how she ended up in a Chinese orphanage in San Francisco. I even found a Hupa baby photo that bore a striking resemblance to my grandmother (her daughter). I had solved the mystery!!
I had my DNA tested in 2013 by 23andme, so I knew that I was part Native American, but when I looked at the numbers I was confused about my percentage. My DNA revealed that I am only 2.5% Native American according to my results, but if my great-grandmother had been 50% Native American, I should have been at least twice that percentage. Did this mean that Grace was mixed herself? That her Native American mother wasn’t as Native American as we thought she might be? That another race had come into play along the way?
All of these questions could only be answered by more DNA, so I was thrilled when my great-aunt arranged to have my grandmother’s DNA tested. As my great-grandmother’s daughter, my grandma has a much clearer picture of the mysterious racial makeup that I inherited, so I was eager to compare our results.
We got them today. And, crap.
To give you a side by side view, my grandmother is on the left and I am on the right:
Not sure what you’re looking at? Well, you’re looking at a mess of DNA, but what I really want you to notice is that I actually have more Native American DNA than my grandmother has.
This, friends, is not how this was supposed to work. This is DNA blowing my research out of the water.
Although my grandmother shows 2.3% Broadly East Asian and Native American, it’s likely that this percentage is Asian-Asian-Asian. Like, Asia. I know this because her father was the son of two people who emigrated from China to San Francisco and racial mixing is not the commonplace thing in China that it is over here. The chance that they had anything besides Asian-Asian-Asian in that bloodline is pretty slim, simply because culturally, geographically, and practically it was unlikely. There’s also the fact that my grandmother is exactly (EXACTLY) 50% Asian, 50% White. Like a half/half Easter egg. I didn’t know DNA could come out so perfect even if you know you’re of mixed race heritage.
Now, there is still a chance that my theory is correct and the DNA is off, but it’s looking like my great-grandmother was almost entirely white so her chances of being born to a Native American woman go waaaaaay down. Which really lowers the chance that I’m part Hupa. Which means I now know a whole lot about a Native American population that I have nothing to do with AND I don’t know which Native American population I’m actually connected to (…DAD).
It also returns Grace’s story to the land of murk, because without her own account of being part Native American, I’m a little lost as to where I can begin my research again. Tracking Caucasian orphans in Northern California at the turn of the century is not the easiest thing in the world since it’s not like that wasn’t a populated area and for reasons I won’t get into today, I have every reason to believe that her paper trail was purposefully destroyed when she was still a child. *sigh* But that’s a mystery for another day.
If anyone wants to know anything about the Hupas, let me know. I can totally educate you.