DNA link answers life's big question for Juneau man

Posted: Sunday, May 04, 2008

Fernando Rado's family got a whole lot bigger Thursday, when he found out through the results of DNA testing that he is a descendant of an ancient man whose remains were found in a glacier nearly 10 years ago.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The news also answered a question many people ponder throughout their lives: Where am I from?

"There's a globe of the Earth and there's a point right there where you come from ... it's a lock in the picture for me," Rado said.

Rado was one of 250 Native people to be tested for a DNA match to the remains, which were found by hunters in a melting glacier in British Columbia in 1999.

Scientists believe the man died 200 to 300 years ago, or possibly longer, according to Sealaska Heritage Institute, which sponsored the tests with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations tribe in Canada.

Because Rado's mother, Betty Rado, registered him with the Canadian tribe, and he knew his family on his mother's side was from Klukwan, he gave blood for the test and signed papers a few years ago, then forgot about it.

On Thursday, he spent the day telling everyone he works with as assistant building manager at Sealaska Heritage Institute about the news, trying to figure out what it meant to him.

"I feel like I'm part of a pyramid that goes out to the rest of my family ... I feel like there's a huge responsibility to be respectful because this person is no longer, but his remains found is my family," Rado said.

Rado was born in Ketchikan in 1961 into a large family of biological and adopted brothers. His father, Pedro "Pete" Rado, was Filipino.

Since the Philippines are so far away, and the Canadian border created an invisible line separating him from his mother's heritage, Rado said he always had a vague feeling about his roots. But his new knowledge changes everything, he said.

"I owe a great deal to my family on the other side of the border, for them taking the initiative to have the research done to show how we were all related before the borders were erected," he said.

He plans to visit Champagne and hug some family members this summer.

The ancient man, named by tribes Kwaday Dan Ts'inchi, or Long Ago Person Found, may have been from Southeast Alaska.

A study by the University of Glasgow concluded he had strong coastal connections during his life and had been on the coast shortly before he died, since more than 90 percent of the protein in his diet was from marine sources. That study also estimated his death at about 550 to 600 years ago.

It's not a surprise that the man was related to tribes from both Alaska and Canada, according to Kathy Dye, spokeswoman for the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

"Alaska Native oral traditions talk about extensive contact between Southeast Natives and Canadian tribes," Dye said. "Oral histories also indicate Native people did travel from Southeast to the Interior and from the Interior to the Southeast."

The DNA results show that nine people from Alaska and eight people from Canada are related to the ancient man. Of the Alaskans related to him, three are affiliated with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations tribe and have been notified, according to Sealaska.

The remaining six Alaskans will be notified as Sealaska works with the Canadian tribe to locate them. Fifteen of the people identified themselves as Wolf or Eagle moiety.

Rado found out over the weekend he also is related to people in Juneau he only knew as friends.

Harryet Rappier, who was born in Juneau 82 years ago and whose mother was born in Klukshu, said she received a call from Whitehorse on Friday about her DNA matching the ancient man.

She called Rado and talked with him for an hour Saturday, and the two determined Rado knows her son, Wayne Smallwood Jr. It turns out the men are cousins.

Rado explained the importance of finding out about his very extended family by recalling an experience in his early 20s when he attended his first potlatch in Juneau.

"As soon as you step into a room where everyone looks like you, talks like you, you don't have to explain what you're saying, you're on the same wavelength - it's like an overwhelming embrace," he said.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquisat 523-2279 or e-mail kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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