Montana man's DNA oldest found on the continent, testing company says

Kristen Inbody
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Montana man's DNA oldest found on the continent, testing company says

DNA testing company calls Darrell "Dustry" Crawford's test results "like finding bigfoot."

HEART BUTTE, Mont. – On a blizzarding March day on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Alvin "Willy" Crawford's heart gave out.

Among the many things his brother Darrell "Dusty" Crawford wanted to tell him before he died, one thing, in particular, is needling him.

At Willy's urging, Crawford had his DNA tested.

"He's the one who encouraged me to do this, and he wanted to compare our results," Crawford said. "I just wish I could have shown it to him. It would have blown him away."

Crawford had his DNA tested through CRI Genetics, which aims to provide customers with a "biogeographical ancestry," a description of where their genes fit into the overall story of the species.

For Crawford, the company traced his line back 55 generations with a 99% accuracy rate. That's rare because the ancestry often is clouded that far back, according to the company.  

It was, they told him, like finding Bigfoot, it was so unlikely.

The company has never been able to trace anyone's ancestry in the Americas as far back as Crawford's DNA, they told him.

Crawford understood from school that his Blackfeet ancestors must have come to the new world on the Bering Land Bridge during the Ice Age. Perhaps that's true for some Blackfeet.

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Snow lingers on a rainy day in early April near Heart Butte.

But Crawford's DNA story suggests his ancestors came from the Pacific, traveled to the coast of South America and traveled north, according to CRI. That's a theory anyway.

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He's part of mtDNA Haplogroup B2, which has a low frequency in Alaska and Canada and originated in Arizona about 17,000 years ago.

That group is one of four major Native American groups that spread across the continent. They're called clans and traced back to four female ancestors, Ai, Ina, Chie and Sachi. Crawford's DNA says he's a descendant of Ina.

The DNA group’s closest relatives outside the Americas are in Southeast Asia.

Ina's name comes from a Polynesian mythological figure, a representative of the "first woman." She's riding a shark on a $20 bill in the Cook Islands.

“Its path from the Americas is somewhat of a mystery as there are no frequencies of the haplogroup in either Alaska or Canada. Today this Native American line is found only in the Americas, with a strong frequency peak on the eastern coast of North America,” according to the DNA testing company.

A sample is prepared for DNA testing.

The DNA test focused on mitochondria DNA and Crawford's line of female ancestors.

Shelly Eli, a Piikani culture instructor at the Blackfeet Community College, said oral stories say “We’ve always been here, since time immemorial.”

“There’s no oral stories that say we crossed a bridge or anything else,” she said.

She cited 2017 research from a mastodon site in California that scientists say puts humans in North America at least 100,000 years earlier than previously believed. Previous estimates suggested humans arrived 15,000 years ago.

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Crawford also had an unusually high percent of Native American ancestry in his results, 83%. Some of that was a mix of Native threads, but, unusually, 73%was from the same heritage.

Besides his Native heritage, Crawford’s DNA was a remarkable global melting pot. His DNA was 9.8% European, 5.3% East Asian (mostly Japanese and Southern Han Chinese), 2%South Asian (Sri Lankan Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati Indian and Bengali) and .2% African (Mende in Sierra Leone and African Caribbean).

What makes a tribe member? 

Tribes wrangle with who is eligible to be a member. Is having a parent or grandparent enrolled enough? Is blood quantum more meaningful? Is belonging about a way of living or genetic?

The Blackfeet, like many tribes, have debated who should be an enrolled member. 

Unenrolled Blackfeet, or "descendants," do not qualify for the same educational grants, their children aren't protected by the Indian Child Welfare Act, they don't receive payments from the sale of tribally owned natural resources or tribally negotiated court settlements and they can't vote in tribal elections or hold elected tribal office.

Crawford called blood quantum another form of genocide, an attempt by the federal government to “breed us out.”

“Every time I dated someone here, my grandmother would say I was related to them,” he said. "Sooner or later we would be marrying our cousin. So they stole women from other tribes. Otherwise, they'd be inbred."

Jessica Bardill of Concordia University in Canada focused her doctoral research at Duke University on DNA testing as a criteria for tribal enrollment. She argued DNA testing limits tribal identity to a biological understanding – and can reveal information about lineage that contradicts other claims and family stories.

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When the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center worked on a guide for tribal use of DNA testing, Bardill emphasized that tribes are sovereign nations that can make their own calls on how, or if, to use DNA testing.

“Identity is a sensitive issue for many American Indian peoples and nations,” she wrote.

Bardill is Cherokee. Cherokee DNA testing was a hot topic earlier this year with Sen. Elizabeth Warren's DNA test. Her results showed she had a Native American ancestor going back six to 10 generations ago. That only makes her 1/32-1/1024th Native though.

Bardill found two tribes, the Mashpee Wampanoag and the Eastern Band of Cherokee, used DNA testing to prove or disprove both maternity and paternity claims by would-be enrollees.

A proud Blackfeet heritage, a new line of descendants 

Rock art near Heart Butte

In Crawford’s case, his mother, Naomi, is working on dual enrollment with the Blackfeet in Canada. Her grandfather had a polygamous marriage with a Canadian and Montana woman, the branch that ended up in the U.S.

Her enrollment in the Canadian side of the tribe would expand eligibility to some grandchildren who aren’t eligible for tribal membership in the United States because their parents don’t have enough Blackfeet blood.

Most people on the Blackfeet Reservation are mixed, Crawford said, his family included. That’s nothing new. Men from one tribe often took brides from other tribes. It matters in a new way, though.

Crawford married a white woman, Irish and German, from Valier. She's a school psychologist on the reservation. They have six children and 15 grandchildren.

As he explained his ancient ancestors, Crawford was proud to point to his Army Ranger shirt, a gift from his son Brandon, an Army Ranger.  Another, Nick, is a noted musician, part of the Crawford Bros. Band. Son Robert medically retired as an Army Captain, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Some of Crawford's grandchildren qualify for tribal membership and some don't.

Yet the DNA test results also can shape how Crawford's descendants think about themselves. He hopes they, like he, are proud of their Native heritage.

Composing a family tree for a college project, Crawford, whose Blackfeet name is Lone Bull, could only trace his ancestry back five generations. His mother's great-great-grandfather was Two Elk, a medicine man and bundle holder. The bundles are packages with sacred objects used in ceremonies.

His family name of Crawford came from a Scotch-Irish cattleman who drove a herd into what became Montana. He encountered some Crow Indians with Blackfeet women. One became his wife. Some in the family still live on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana.

While Crawford's DNA story speaks to larger issues, for him it's directly linked to his brother Willy. 

Willy Crawford

Willy Crawford, who died at 62, took the Ancestry.com DNA test, but it didn’t answer the questions he wanted to be answered. That’s why his brother turned to CRI.

Willy Crawford, who was an original Chief Mountain Hot Shot wildland firefighter and later a building trades instructor at the Blackfeet Community College for 18 years, had a passion for Blackfeet history and his family.

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"He was fascinated by our history, and it never dawned on me how much he knew until one night we were talking about land, and he knew so much history," Crawford said.

He was quiet but read thick history books and collected documents.

Their grandmother hardly spoke any English, but she also avoided speaking Blackfeet around them. She used her husband as a translator or communicated without talking. She taught them about roots and the ceremonies and patterns to follow when painting teepees.

Darrell Crawford remembers being near tears when he got the information back from CRI.

“I’d just talked to him about my result. My mom was interested in it, so I took it to her to read. He said he was going to read it, but he never made it to her house to read it,” Crawford said. "He would have been really happy with the results."

That morning, Willy was collecting garbage that had blown out of a heaping dumpster near his mother's home on a remote corner of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The wind and the dogs were shredding and scattering it, and a garbage truck hadn't been to the house in months.

“We tried to save him, but we couldn’t," Crawford said.

He came inside, sat down, leaned back and died. The snow plow and the ambulance couldn't reach him. The weather here is often dramatic, with strong winds and deep snow.

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Crawford encouraged other Native Americans to have genetic testing. The results could reshape how anthropologists understand Native history.

"You hear people talk about the very first Americans, and it's never the Native Americans who are here," he said.

Crawford recommended an open mind though. DNA tests often come with surprises.

"It might not come back as expected, and nobody is 'full blood,'" he said.

Follow Kristen Inbody on Twitter: @GFTrib_KInbody

This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Montana man's DNA oldest found on the continent, testing company says