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Ancestry not just from DNA
By Orson Scott Card December 16, 2010

When I was about ten, my parents gave me my own book of remembrance. I pored over the pedigree charts for a while, and I was perplexed. "Dad," I said. "Where are the Indians?"

My father was baffled.

"You always said that we were descended from the last of the Mohicans." I had read James Fenimore Cooper's novel of that name, and had been disappointed that his version seemed to ignore our family connection.

My father burst into laughter. "No, son, I always said that my father said we were descended from the last of the Mohicans. It's a family joke."

"I knew that everybody laughed," I said, "but I thought it was true and they just thought it was funny somehow."

I was so disappointed to find out that all our ancestors could be traced back to the boats that brought them to America from Europe. Not that I was ashamed of my European roots -- the family took much pride in our Revolutionary War and Mayflower ancestors.

But in my youthful gullibility, I had treasured the idea of a native American connection.

Years later, it dawned on me why: I had come to love the Book of Mormon on a personal level since I first read Emma Marr Petersen's wonderful Book of Mormon Stories for Young Latter-day Saints, which had practically been my primer.

I loved those heroic prophets and judges and kings and war leaders, and when I heard my family talk about our Mohican ancestor, I was thrilled to be connected to the Book of Mormon people by blood as well as faith.

My native American connection might have been nonexistent, but then one of my wife's sisters married a man whose father was most definitely Indian. It was irrational, but I have felt a little jealous now and then -- their kids had that Book of Mormon connection, and my kids didn't. It was as if I had let them down somehow.

Then, just a few days ago, my wife learned that there is such a connection after all.

Her dad, LDS historian James Brown Allen, is named for his great-grandfather, Captain James Brown of C Company of the Mormon Battalion -- the man who founded Ogden, Utah.

My wife has been corresponding for some time with O. James Brown Klein, librarian of the Brown Family History Library online. Recently, Jim Klein posted results of the DNA analysis he had arranged for.

It was discovered that he had clear genetic markers that linked his ancestry with Algonquian Indians as exemplified by the Ojibwa or Chippewa -- along with an expected Portuguese connection.

The only feasible source of this DNA in his ancestry was a woman listed only as "Mrs. Brown," the "Portuguese" wife of William Brown, who immigrated to America from Scotland and settled in Vermont.

While Mrs. Brown was called "Portuguese," that seems to have been a euphemism in the racially conscious society of the 1700s. When a woman came forward to contest a will, claiming to be a member of that family, court testimony pointed out that the William Brown family were "of color."

Mrs. Brown was only slightly Portuguese and mostly Indian, probably of the Abenaki tribe of New England.

So my children do have that Book of Mormon connection that I always wished I had.

Now, I'm perfectly aware that demographically the Book of Mormon people were almost certainly confined to a smallish area, and most native American ancestry has roots in the New World much older than the arrival of any of the Book of Mormon colonists.

But I also know that statistically speaking, after a couple of thousand years of intermarriage after Lehi's party reached America, there is almost zero chance that any native American was not related by blood to the people of Lehi.

I'm also aware that some ignorant people have made much of the failure of researchers to find any genetic markers of Middle Eastern ancestry for any native Americans.

But this is hardly surprising, when you consider that, to avoid contaminated sampling of native American genotypes, any native Americans with DNA that showed markers of European or other non-American genes were removed from the samples.

If you remove all identifiable Old World genes from the start, on the assumption that they must all be the result of post-Columbus intermarriage, you haven't actually proven that there were no pre-Columbian intermarriages.

And small population groups can be swallowed up without a trace when there is no effort to maintain endogamous isolation -- which happened for a couple of hundred years after the coming of Christ to America, if it hadn't effectively happened before.

By comparison, William Brown's marriage to a woman of mixed Abenaki and Portuguese ancestry was very recent, with all connections traceable and the genetic markers quite clear.

Now, as a rational person (which I try to be, at least on days when I'm writing essays for this column), I know that there is no especial benefit accruing to people with Book of Mormon ancestry.

For that matter, my descent from several Apostles and a President of the Church has never once given me any kind of advantage or disadvantage in my attempts to be a good Latter-day Saint. Few know and none care that I have General Authority relatives.

After all, aren't most Mormons descended from Brigham Young by now? Or at least related by marriage to someone who is?

There's no "pioneer ancestor" free pass, either. Yes, I descended from a man who was a captain of 50 while crossing the plains, and all my ancestors either walked across the plains or sailed across the Atlantic as LDS converts -- or both.

But that doesn't automatically make me a good Latter-day Saint, any more than the fact that one of my ancestors was young Butch Cassidy's schoolmaster automatically gives me -- or denies me -- a teaching certificate.

Ancestry is important. We have a special responsibility to look after the ordinance work of those from whom we descended.

Yet when we join the LDS Church, we take upon ourselves the heritage of all the Saints. Even if you joined the Church in Nigeria in 1990, it immediately became correct for you to speak of "our pioneer forebears," because in joining this people, you became part of our community as far back as it reaches.

So also, with or without native American connections, we who believe in the Book of Mormon, the Prophet who translated it, and the Savior of whom it testifies, are now among the people of that book, for we are the ones they wrote it for.

We are the ones to whom its writers are speaking (Mormon 8:35).

It's our book, because it was given to us. DNA links can be fun to discover, but faith and covenants make the stronger connection.

(For Jim Klein's own report, see http://www.brownhistory.org/Abenaki.htm#Mrs.%20Brown%20was%20Abenaki.) .

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

 
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