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DNA testing unearths secrets

Diana Rogers (left) of Elbow Lake and Joy Carter of Alexandria learn how to interpret genetic results during DNA Day at the Douglas County Historical Society. The two are consultants at the Alexandria Minnesota Family History Center. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)1 / 2
Genealogy sleuth Taryn Flolid shows a group of ancestry buffs how to use Ancestry.com, an online program that analyzes DNA samples and connects relatives. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)2 / 2

As online genealogy programs hummed on their laptops, the women's stories came one after another.

They had unearthed old family secrets, discovered unknown cousins, dispelled ancient family myths.

Some of the women have spent decades painstakingly researching family trees. Now they had come together to learn the latest, revolutionary methods in figuring out who they were: genetic testing through online genealogy companies. It was part of DNA Day at the Douglas County Historical Society.

"There's a million stories," said Taryn Flolid, who led the class along with Glenn Van Amber, both research volunteers with the historical society.

A morning session had catered to those planning to do a DNA test. Now, this afternoon, those who had already sent off saliva samples gathered to learn how to interpret their results.

"I'm so glad I'm here, in this era," said Mickey Giroux. "I have learned so much. I know what I'm going to be doing Thursday — going through this and learning more about it."

Two of her shockers: Learning that a grandmother had been married to someone in the mafia, and that she wasn't 100 percent Italian, as she'd always believed, but only 68 percent.

Char Hanson let out a pleased exclamation upon discovering that a cousin she already knew about had signed up on Ancestry.com.

She had already discovered that a family story about a distant grandfather wasn't exactly true. His wife had told her daughters she'd left him behind in Sweden because he was jailed for attempting to evade conscription into the army.

Actually, he'd been jailed for brawling, she said, and parish records noted, "He was known to be a brawler."

Not everyone wanted their family stories to be made known in the newspaper, to avoid upsetting elderly relatives.

One woman said she had been contacted by an adoptee trying to find his birth father. Sure enough, she proved to be his first cousin.

"I was thrilled," she said. Her aunt, not so much.

The DNA Day guides explained how to interpret results. They passed out sheets explaining how to figure out how much DNA relatives share. Even full siblings have different genetic makeups. One might be more Irish, the other more Italian.

Flolid learned that she is more British than her sister, who claims more Scandinavian genes.

"That annoyed the heck out of me because I'm the lefse maker," she said.

DNA testing is rife with controversy over privacy issues, especially when it comes to adoption. Parents of adoptees might not wish to be found. Families might block someone from meeting a biological parent. Someone might discover that someone they always thought of as their parent or grandparent actually was not.

Then there is the growing possibility that those who commit crimes could be discovered thanks to new policing methods using online ancestry records. This year, California authorities announced they had made an arrest in the case of the Golden State Killer, a man who terrorized neighborhoods with break-ins, rapes and murders during the 1970s and 1980s.

Everyone has to decide what they think in regards to privacy issues, Flolid told the class. She doesn't mind the idea of DNA being used to solve crimes.

"If some of my relatives left their DNA where they shouldn't have, well, that's their problem," she said to laughter.

Family issues are more sensitive, she said, but she said it's a balancing act, deciding whether it's more ethical to keep a family secret or to solve a dilemma for a second cousin.

"My opinion is everybody deserves to know who they are," she said.

"You have to take the good, the bad and the ugly when you do your research," Giroux commented.

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