From Chapter 4, “DNA,” Old Souls in a New World: The Secret History of the Cherokee Indians, by Donald N. Panther-Yates (Cherokee Chapbooks 7; Phoenix: Panther’s Lodge, 2013) ISBN-13: 978-0615892337
Few people know it but Elvis Presley claimed to be Jewish and Cherokee. A DNA test run on a rare specimen of his in 2004 bore this out. Both of Elvis’ assertions were based on the ancestry of his mother, Gladys Love Smith. Growing up in Memphis, Elvis went to summer camp through the Jewish community center. When his mother died, he took care to have her grave marked with a Star of David (since removed). He studied Judaism increasingly in later years and to the end of his life wore a chai necklace, symbol of Jewish life. Published genealogies take Gladys’ strict maternal line back to great-great grandmother Nancy Burdine, a professed Jewess born in Kentucky, whose mother was White Dove, a reputed fullblood. Through his mother’s direct female line, Elvis was a Jewish Indian, an American Indian Jew.
Well, maybe not. Bracketing for the moment what makes one a Jew, we have to admit that American Indian identity is not so simple either. One factor weighing heavily in both claims, however, is DNA.
Paleo-American genetics is fraught with problems. According to a previous director of Tulane’s Middle American Research Institute, the field is a notorious “battleground of the theorists,” a controversial area “which has snared to their downfall not a few crackpots, mystics, ‘linguistic acrobats,’ racists and even ‘famous institutions’ . . . [including] of course the anthropological profession itself.” The DNA landscape is strewn with racist bombshells and political dynamite.
About twenty years ago, in a work as revered as it is unreadable, Italian-born geneticist Luca Luigi Cavalli-Sforza at Stanford University unveiled a tree of man based on an analysis of 120 markers from forty-two world populations. Looking solely at female lines, he posited two main limbs, African and non-African. The latter branched off into Europeans (Caucasians) and Northeast Asians (Siberians and Mongolians). Included in Northeast Asians were so-called Amerindians. Amerinds were closest in genetic distance to Northern Turkic, Chukchi and other Arctic peoples. They shared a number of genetic markers with their ancient neighbors, including a similar frequency of female lineages. These came to be labeled mitochondrial haplogroups A, B, C, and D.
Little did Cavalli-Sforza and his team expect to encounter any snags in their research, much less defunding by the U.S. Government and the United Nations, but this is exactly what happened. The genial professor received a letter from a Canadian human rights group called the Rural Advancement Foundation International. They demanded he stop his work immediately. They accused the Human Genome Diversity Project of biopiracy. The scientists were stealing DNA.
Ever since that slippery slope, geneticists have trodden warily around the issue of Native American demographics and genetics.
Theodore Schurr’s team in 1990 had matched “Amerindian” changes in mitochondrial DNA over the last 40,000 years with those of Mongolians and Siberians. The lines were indelibly drawn. The scientific community laid down the law that the earliest Native Americans come from four primary maternal lineages. Only female haplogroups A, B, C and D are true Native American types. A fifth lineage, haplogroup X, was admitted, provisionally, in 1997.
Elvis’s American Indian mitochondrial type is B. What account can we make of this haplogroup? Certain critics of the new axiom in American Indian genetics point out that B is not associated in high frequencies with Mongolian populations. Rather, it is Southeast Asian in origin—something borne out by the Elvis sample having also a rare Asian ethnic marker. B’s center of diffusion is Taiwan and it is common, even dominant, among Polynesians, the Hopi, and Pueblo Indians like the Jemez.