Sleuthing for salamanders: New DNA technique boosts salamander science

A new scientific tool developed at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont will allow salamander-studying scientists to trace the amphibians’ whereabouts without ever laying eyes on one of the slimy creatures. 

“It’s kind of like a crime scene investigation thing,” said Gar Secrist, the teacher/naturalist at Tremont who led the research. “You’re looking for evidence of the salamanders that were there without ever seeing the salamanders.”

DNA testing for crime suspects sparks ethics debate

Starting next February, all law enforcement officers will be required to collect DNA from people arrested for certain crimes.

Anyone arrested for murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping or even cyberstalking will automatically have their DNA collected via a cheek swab.

The DNA sample will be entered into a database to see if it matches DNA collected in unsolved crimes. By law, arrestees who are proven innocent will have their DNA eliminated from the database.

For a long time, DNA was routinely collected only from convicted criminals. Taking DNA at the time of arrest had required a warrant or permission from the individual.

State leaders are touting the new law as a step into the 21st century that will help close the books on unsolved crimes and prevent future crime.

“It’ll be a tool to solve crimes quicker, more effectively and the public will be well-served by this,” said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville. State officials say this measure will help solve hundreds of violent crimes and prevent even more.

But civil libertarians argue the law is unconstitutional and violates the right to privacy.

Sarah Preston, policy director for North Carolina’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, likened the new legislation to an end-run around the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Taking DNA is invasive,” said Preston. “It could also reveal a great deal of information. Thousands of genetic traits are contained within DNA.”

Preston said the existing law already allows police officers to collect DNA from those arrested in certain cases — they just need to get a warrant or an individual’s permission to do it. Making it mandatory in every single arrest, however, infringes on privacy rights, Preston said.


WNC officers weigh in


North Carolina joins 23 other states that have passed similar legislation, along with the federal government, which collects DNA from arrestees and detained immigrants.

Local law enforcement officers wholeheartedly support the move.

“DNA is the wave of the future,” said Capt. Blaine Jones of the Waynesville Police Department, adding that the legislation is much needed.

“It’s going to be a big asset to the law enforcement,” said Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Someone arrested for a particular crime today might also be guilty of an unsolved crime in the past. Collecting DNA from these individuals at the time of their arrest could put the earlier mystery to rest.

Moreover, in certain crimes like rape and murder, fingerprints — which can easily be wiped from a crime scene by the perpetrator — are not enough to nab a suspect.

“DNA is the 21st century fingerprint,” said Queen. “This new law will allow the state to fight crime with high-tech identification tools.”

But Preston disagrees that DNA is anything like a fingerprint.

“It’s pretty obviously not,” said Preston. “At the very least, there is so much more information that could be subject to a lot more abuse.”

Christopher Heaney and Sara Huston Katsanis, researchers at the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke University, recently wrote an editorial pointing out a serious flaw in how the system currently operates.

Government reports show that evidence from hundreds of thousands of rapes are left untested for DNA, even years after the crime is committed.

While labs would be testing thousands of arrested criminals’ DNA, they might find it nearly impossible to take care of the major backlog of DNA samples already collected from crime scenes, the researchers wrote.

Still, Cochran has faith that the new law will be for the overall good and that the benefits outweigh the cost.

“It’s going to work both ways — for the guilty and for the innocent,” said Cochran.

Queen emphasized that arrested individuals who are found innocent can be assured that their DNA will be expunged from the database.

“We think we’ve got plenty of safeguards for abuse of this DNA evidence,” said Queen.

Tribe moves to implement DNA testing for new applicants to Cherokee rolls

The Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has passed a new enrollment ordinance that requires DNA testing for new applicants to the tribe’s rolls. The DNA testing will be used to verify the applicant’s parental lineage.

The new enrollment ordinance also creates a process for disenrolling those who don’t qualify as Cherokee.

The Tribal Council’s vote earlier this month paves the way for non-Cherokee to be purged from the tribe’s rolls as soon as a month after Principal Chief Michell Hicks signs it into law. It is not clear when he intends to do that.

The council passed the new measures with a unanimous 12-0 vote on June 3.

The enrollment ordinance also puts a stop to new people enlisting as tribal members, with the exception of infants and 18 year olds, until an on-going audit of the tribe’s roster of nearly 14,000 tribal members is complete.

The updated ordinance is the result of months of debate on the Tribal Council floor about how the Eastern Band will implement its expensive and lengthy enrollment audit and avoid repeating the process again in the future. Tribal members voted to conduct the audit — designed to weed out people who don’t meet the tribe’s minimum enrollment requirements — in an intensely contested 2002 referendum.

Finally in 2007, the tribe hired an outside firm, The Falmouth Institute, to do the audit, which has cost $746,000 to date.

The audit turned up 303 tribal members with no direct link to the Baker Rolls, the 1920s-era document that served as a census of sorts of who was Cherokee at the time. Tribal members must be able to prove that they have an ancestor on the Baker Roll and have a blood quantum of at least one-sixteenth Eastern Cherokee. The audit revealed another 50 members who lack the adequate blood degree.

That last group is in the crosshairs of the new ordinance. According to the newly adopted policies, members in question will be informed of their status by certified mail and granted the right to a hearing before the enrollment committee within 30 days. If they don’t appear at that hearing, they’ll be automatically disenrolled.

The tribe’s audit is bound to cause bitterness

How do you kick out a member of a Native American tribe? The Eastern Band of Cherokee is about to find out, and there’s no way it’s going down without some bitterness and fighting.

The EBCI is almost finished with an audit of its enrolled members, and the Tribal Council is apparently leaning towards DNA testing to determine who is actually a member in the future.

The 1924 Baker Roll is the official document from which tribal membership is determined. Those families on that roll who meet the blood quantum level are considered members of the tribe. The enrollment audit started in 2006, and the tribal council is set to decide in June how to proceed with those whose tribal identity is being questioned.

Some are saying that new members should only be admitted after a DNA test, regardless of their family history. Others want to go further and do DNA testing on all enrolled members in order to clean up the rolls.

The potential for misery and family upheavals is just around the corner. What if someone has lived their entire life as a Cherokee and now is told, no, you don’t have enough Cherokee blood ? It seems the council has no choice but to follow through with DNA testing, but for some the results will be life changing.


Years of column writing have taught me this — think you’ve written something enlightening that the multitudes should take to heart, and the piece is quickly forgotten; dash off a column that you’d rate as benign at best, and the phone rings off the hook and the email box gets slammed.

Last week’s piece about Haywood County’s solid waste system and proposed changes in how it operates falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but comments from a couple of county commissioners do merit a mention. First, I said commissioners voted to make changes to the solid waste system. That’s a mistake. The proposed budget includes cost savings from the overhaul of the system, but the budget has not been approved yet. Nothing’s been decided for sure.

Second is the widespread use of the term “privatize.” Some are taking exception to that description. A Haywood task force has recommended changes to the solid waste system that would send some services to the private sector. The pick line that separates recyclables would simply disappear, as commissioners would outsource recycling services if the proposal were approved. A private company would also be in charge maintaining the convenience centers. At this point, the county would still be heavily involved in maintaining the transfer station and running the landfill.

Solid waste won’t be privatized entirely. Fewer county employees will be involved in solid waste disposal and recycling. The column’s premise was that these economic times are going to force many elected leaders — not just Haywood’s — to look for cost savings, and that outsourcing what were once government operations is likely to occur more rapidly until things get better.

I think that a close look at what can be outsourced is a good idea, that there is only so much government can and should do. In Haywood’s case, the overhaul of the solid waste system is a good idea with plenty of merit.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Cherokee enrollment quandary leads to talk of DNA testing

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is talking about moving to DNA testing as a way of verifying the blood requirement to be enrolled as a tribal member.

The tribe’s latest quandaries over its enrollment audit have led Principal Chief Michell Hicks and a number of members of the Tribal Council to point to DNA testing as the way forward when enrolling new members of the tribe.

“Going forth DNA is the only way to correct this issue. I’ve said this from day one,” Hicks said. “Council has control over the enrollment process. The chief’s office doesn’t have any control here. But that’s always been my recommendation. If we want to get it right, let’s get it right, going forward with the DNA process.”

Making DNA testing mandatory for those who want to be included on the tribe’s rolls became the focal point of discussion at a Tribal Council meeting earlier this month. The conversation ensued after two enrolled members from the Snowbird community asked the tribe to stop enrolling new members until the auditing process had been completed.

The Tribal Council received the results of the enrollment audit in October. Since that time, an enrollment committee has worked on implementing the policies and procedures that would allow the tribe to proceed with disenrolling tribal members who don’t meet enrollment requirements.

The auditors report showed that 50 people on the rolls don’t meet the blood degree to qualify as a member of the tribe. Another 303 people on the rolls can’t prove they have an ancestor on the Baker Roll, a 1920s-era federal roster of tribal members considered a litmus test for enrollment today.

Even the Baker Roll is a contested issue. When the roll was adopted in 1924, the Tribal Council approved 1,924 names and challenged 1,222 names on the 3,146-person list.

Big Cove Representative Theresa McCoy said the audit can’t be considered complete until the council acts on the findings of the consulting firm that conducted the study.

“The process included the removal of the names of persons who do not meet the criteria for enrollment when they were enrolled, so to me, the enrollment audit is not complete,” McCoy said. “The paperwork is, the findings are, but the audit is not.”

While the enrollment audit was approved by a vote of tribal members in 2002, it was not until 2006 that the Falmouth Institute, an outside consulting firm, began its work. The Tribal Council is scheduled to vote on the policies and procedures it will use to enforce the results at its June meeting and the process could be complete as early as September.

The painstaking and lengthy audit has led some sitting council members to push for the use of DNA testing in the future.

“Let’s start doing DNA. We’ve got that technology, and we need to utilize it. Instead of putting people on that aren’t supposed to be,” said Snowbird Representative Diamond Brown.

The tribe has enrolled 157 new members, mostly infants, since last June. At its meeting earlier this month, the Tribal Council voted to pass an amendment that would prevent any new members, except those ages 0 to 3 and 18 to 19, to enroll until the audit process is complete.

One of the major issues concerning the tribe’s rolls centers on the right to per capita payments. Every tribal member gets two checks a year as a share of casino revenue. It amounts to about $8,000 a year. Per capita payments will be released to members on June 1.

Snowbird Representative Adam Wachacha said a complete enrollment audit and DNA testing were the only ways to save the tribe from repeating the painstaking review process again in the future.

“The people want the rolls to be cleaned up and unless we fix the process which we’re at, 20 years from now we’ll be in the same boat we are in now,” Wachacha said.

Hawk Brown, an 18-year-old enrolled member from Painttown, said DNA testing could make for painful realizations for some families.

“Everybody’s got skeletons in their closets. But if we want to clean this up, the people voted on it and that’s what they want to do,” Brown said. “Them things will have to brought out. Them things will have to be brought out in my own family.”

The Tribal Council will vote on the issue of whether to include DNA testing as an enrollment requirement and on policies and procedures governing disenrollment hearings in June.

Enrollment audit a slow, uneasy process for Cherokee

In a 2002 referendum, the members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted to authorize an audit of the tribe’s enrolled members. Almost eight years later, the process is coming to a head as the Tribal Council considers how to use the findings of the study.

The primary issue facing the council is what to do about the 300 names the audit showed to have no connection with the Baker Roll, the tribe’s benchmark for enrollment qualifications.

“The Cherokee people are currently working through the procedures and policies to be set in place to deal with these individuals,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks. “This is a difficult situation for us all, but a necessary step to ensure we are all in compliance with the Eastern Band’s enrollment guidelines.”

After perusing 18,000 files and more than 115,000 documents, the staff of The Falmouth Institute presented the final enrollment audit report to the Tribal Council last October. Now the council is charged with setting the policies and procedures that will be used to implement the findings.

The auditors found 1,405 files they deemed actionable, 683 files that did not meet the current enrollment requirements, and 300 people with no connection to the Baker Roll

At stake is not just who can be considered a member of the tribe, but also the benefits and rights that come with recognition as a tribal member, including the right to own land in the Qualla Boundary and the right to per capita payments. There are currently about 13,000 enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.

During committee meetings last month, tribal council members considered the possibility of taking land back from disenrolled members and asked their legal team whether they would have to provide compensation for it.

EBCI Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky said the Pechanga Tribe in California and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan are in the midst of similar enrollment verification proceedings, but neither has used the enrollment audits to expel people from their reservations or to repossess land.

Jennifer Bainbridge, a tribal attorney in charge of researching the issue, said the lack of precedents makes for slow going, but that property rights issues would be the sticking point.

“There’s not any case law out there about tribes who have disenrolled people and taken their property,” Bainbridge said.

As complicated as it is, figuring out how to enforce the enrollment audit may prove simpler than determining how to interpret it.

Tribal Council member Terri Henry, who represents the Painttown community, pointed to the fact that the original Baker Roll was a contested document. When the roll was adopted in 1926, the Tribal Council approved 1,924 names and challenged 1,222 names on the 3,136-person list. For Henry, that fact shows that even at that point the tribe felt its membership should be a smaller group than the one the federal government recognized.

“To me, this kind of answers the question about the body politic at the time,” Henry said. “This was actually at the time the roll was enacted. This would be at the genesis moment of the enrollment of the tribe.”

The dispute over the Baker Roll can be traced to the fact that it was a document that relied on land records belonging to William Thomas, who facilitated the purchase of the land used to establish the Qualla Boundary. According to Tarnawsky, the Baker Roll “was derived from landholdings of Cherokee enrolled members who either sold or gave land to Mr. Thomas that then became part of the boundary.”

The Thomas papers date to the 1840s.

The difficulty of verifying all of the records available to the Cherokee that could establish enrollment criteria was made evident when David Wyatt, head of the tribe’s GIS mapping program, began discovering historic documents during his research of land tracts.

“In the process of scanning all that information at BIA, we came across a little bit of everything,” Wyatt said

Wyatt found original copies of Thomas’ records, census records from as early as 1912, and a 1967 revised version of the Baker Roll, among other documents. None of these were included in the enrollment audit conducted by Falmouth, and their staff indicated to Tarnawsky that the scope of their project would be limited to records in the possession of the tribe’s enrollment office.

So far, the Cherokee have spent $746,000 on the audit, with another $100,000 budgeted for its completion. But with the discovery of new records that could be pertinent to the effort, it’s not clear when the job will be done.

Tribal Council member Teresa McCoy was clear in the meeting last month that her constituents want closure.

“I do prefer that there be a deadline placed on this. Let’s not let it drag out for another six months. Our community met last week, and they were adamant. They were ready to start the next morning. They are tired of waiting. They have waited for seven years, and they don’t know what’s taking so long,” McCoy said.

But the council will have to decide whether to push disenrollment proceedings on the list of 300 or on a broader group identified by the audit.

With a vocal part of the membership clamoring for resolution, the council will have to negotiate intricate legal issues in addition to sorting out how to deal with records in possession of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the State of North Carolina that could shed light on the status of enrollment claims.

Tribal Council member Tommye Saunooke asked for patience.

“I think the public needs to understand that the results of the audit did not come back to the council until late 2009. Council has not drug their feet on this,” Saunooke said.

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