By Nina Kohli-Laven

How can an old Catholic Church record be considered confidential biological data? I was recently barred from viewing such a record-produced at a parish in 1887 by a Jesuit priest and containing the names and ages of partners to a marriage-on the basis that it is protected by privacy laws governing personal medical information. I was at a North American research institute where historical demographers are painstakingly consolidating fragmented names and dates dispersed across centuries of fraying Church baptism, marriage, and burial records into 12-generation family trees. The resulting genealogies are then aligned with genetic data at a major North American DNA databank in order to facilitate multi-generational analyses of hereditary disease transmission. The genealogies are disseminated to a continental network of over 3,000 researchers, clinicians, and counselors who use them to infer the distribution, origin and current location of specific genetic traits within Canada and the United States.

Many demographers consider Church records the most legitimate source of cumulative family historical data. Modern historical demography has often relied on Church records because they are ample and detailed, even as far back as the 16th century.1 The Catholic Church, in particular, mandated the standardized registry of births, marriages, and burials in a series of edicts after the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Registration systems spread via the colonial and missionary Catholic Church to North America by the 18th century. North American demographers tend to regard colonial and mission Church records as the banal products of everyday colonial bureaucracy. The records are seen as a straightforward tally-in names and dates-of the pioneer past. In historically French territories in Louisiana, the Great Lakes, and eastern Canada, the prominence and administrative power of the Catholic Church until the 19th and 20th centuries lends credence to this disciplinary disposition. The Church is viewed as a pre-industrial city hall - a clearinghouse for records and registration of life events.

In fact, Church registration systems were profoundly biased. They are products of psychic tensions that characterized governance in North America during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. In early North America, religious and civil authorities each sought to monopolize administrative control over settlement and trade. Clergy competed with secular administrators for moral and political authority over family life. Archbishops and bishops promulgated the conversion of natives as a route to civilizing the frontier. Many Church officials in Catholic regions in the South and Northeast of the continent sought to baptize as many natives as possible with Catholic names. Shaped by a culture of empire and proselytizing, priests assigned European identities to individuals in Church records on the basis of piety. Clergy in North America often advocated baptism with a Catholic name as an achievement available to those natives who had learned to sing European music, cultivate gardens and farms, and build themselves European houses, in addition to recite prayers, sing liturgical chants, and attend confession. A baptismal European name was therefore not merely a sign and mode of conversion to Catholicism but the culmination of a prescribed process of assimilation into European social and moral life.2

In the aftermath of anthropologist Franz Boas' influential activism against Nazi racial typing and the UNESCO 1950 and 1951 statements on race, it is now presumed that there is a self-evident distinction between culture and biology: An individual's physical traits are supposed to be appraised and labeled independently of his or her behavior. That was an important distinction to establish in order to combat popular conceptions that ancestral makeup determines intellectual and moral potential in our society. However, that distinction was not a convention that consistently shaped racial philosophy before the 20th century, for better or for worse. In 17th, 18th and 19th century North America, race was often referred to as something that was in the blood and part of the spirit of the nation, as largely inherited, but sometimes contagious, and as manifest in both complexion and manners, morphology and mental tendencies. The line between culture and biology was blurred.3 By becoming Christian in comportment, natives were effectively "re-raced" as European in administrative Church records.

Church records are clearly multi-layered sources that require attention to context, rather than straightforward reading, especially concerning race. However, contemporary historical demographers trust that Native Americans and First Nations peoples in the records are clearly identified as such. It is true that some priest's records have the inscription "Indian" or "savage" next to a scrawled name. Other natives are easily spotted in registers by their transliterated native surname, such as "Ethiatamikwa." However, there are countless converts to Christianity-many of them native women who married settlers-who are invisible: "Marie-Christine Bedard," "Elizabeth Stanton". They may be "native" according to the contemporary demographic logic that categorizes people by name and presumed biological ancestry but they were civilized Catholics as far as Church documents were concerned. Their European names were intended to attest to that.

As a result, the contemporary demographers have effectively overlooked the presence of non-Europeans in North American population histories, impacting the basic assumptions of subsequent genetic epidemiological studies. The demographers have generated Europeanized historical genealogies for genetic research that contradict the story of dense interactions between settlers and natives that many North American historians have documented. The genealogies estimate mixture with indigenous groups in under 1% of families. However, notarial, civil, and private records suggest an alternative narrative: Through trade, war, and missionary work, Europeans and native tribes came into regular contact beginning in the late sixteenth century. European-Amerindian sex, marriage, and extended kin networks were frequent characteristics of North American settler society from the sixteenth century well into the first half of the nineteenth century.4

Amateur genealogists who are not wed to Church records have generated countless counter-histories of mixed European-native North American families, drawing particularly on notarial records.5 Seminary and archdiocesan archives in Canada and the United States are also replete with testimonies from witnesses to native baptisms, travel diaries documenting the Europeanization of native families and the renaming of native women after conversion and marriage to settlers. These records are no less context free than the official Church records, however they at least suggest the possibility of an alternative narrative.

Yet, genetic researchers view genealogies from demography institutes and DNA databanks as highly credible representations of the bare facts of past family life. At DNA databanking projects from Salt Lake City to Evanston, IL, such genealogies have been plugged into laboratory data by genetic epidemiologists, doctors, and genetic counselors in order to explain the trans-generational trajectory of hereditary diseases. Molecular biologists took cheek swabs and recorded four-generation genealogies from recruited sample populations. In the genetics laboratory, the hand-scribed genealogies were digitized, verified, and extended back to a first North American European immigrant ancestor using the genealogical database. Staff then matched the genealogies to data on alleles for specific diseases drawn from analysis of study participants' DNA. In many instances, they have concluded that contemporary diseases emanate exclusively from Europe and are even a proxy for European origin.6

This process has consequences for patient outreach and genetic counseling and screening protocols. In parts of Canada and the United States, patients who tell their doctor or a genetic counselor that their immigrant ancestors are from a certain region in Europe may be referred for genetic screening for a block of hereditary diseases that have been genealogically tracked to that region. Conversely, patients who do not trace their ancestry back to this region cannot easily gain access to screening programs, which may be expensive or scarce. In addition, patients, once screened and diagnosed, come to understand themselves as ethnically pure. When patients seek an explanation for a disorder, genetic counselors and doctors sometimes explain it as unique to their perceived ancestral lines.

The scientific ascription of disease to certain races or ethnic groups is problematic because when these ascriptions migrate into clinical services patients who are of the "wrong" race are neglected or excluded from care. They are not given access to counseling or screening. They may not be diagnosed correctly and they may be factored out of the drug development process. These types of ascriptions also affirm divisive claims to race purity among those who have been diagnosed. This has the potential to legitimate individual or communal claims to social and political primacy and privilege.7

There has been a great deal of critique of genetic and genomic practice areas such as pharmacogenomics, admixture mapping, and genetic association and linkage analysis for how they racialize disease.8 Laboratory geneticists have been accused of operationalizing a priori definitions of the genetic makeup of ancestral populations in experimental research design.9 Doctors have been accused of using disease as a proxy for race or race as a proxy for disease.10 However, the relationship of the seemingly external work of scientists such as historical demographers to problems concerning race in genetics has not been recognized, much less addressed. The racialization of disease is clearly a multi-pronged process that involves a web of institutional actors, many of whom work beyond the confines of the clinic and laboratory.

While laboratory projects and clinical contexts have been submitted to detailed attention from oversight committees and review boards, little attention has been given to the methodologies, experimental protocols, and standards of proof that govern scientific discovery in these outlying disciplines, even though they significantly contribute to genetic knowledge. These peripheral information infrastructures can impact scientific conclusions and clinical agendas in novel, unforeseen ways that deserve our attention.


Nina Kohli-Laven is a Fulbright Fellow at McGill University and Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan. She works on issues in science, ethics, and society and specializes in the social implications of genetic technologies.



1. T.H. Hollingsworth, 1969. Historical Demography: The Sources of History, Studies in the Uses of Historical Evidence Series. London: The Sources of History Ltd in  collaboration with Hodder and Stoughton Ltd. 

2. Peter A. Goddard, 1998. Converting the Savage, Catholic Historical Review 84: 219-241; D. Peter Macleod, 1996. "Catholicism, Alliances, and Amerindian Evangelists."  Catholic Church Historical Association Historical  Studies 62: 63-72. 

3. Franz Boas, 1925. What is a Race? The Nation 120: 89-91; George Stocking, 1993. The Turn-of-the-Century Concept of Race, Modernism/Modernity 1: 4-16. 

4. Godbeer, Richard, 1999. Eroticizing Middle Ground: Anglo-Indian Sexual  Relations along the Eighteenth Century Frontier, In Sex, Love, Race: Crossing  Boundaries in North American History, Martha Hodes, ed. 91-111. New York: New York University Press.

 5. E.g. Elaine Ricard, 2002. The St-Francis Abenaki Paper Trail (1790-1900), Ottawa: Abenaki Publisher.  

6. The author bases these claims on 19 months of ethnographic fieldwork and observation at molecular genetics laboratories in the U.S. in Canada, conducted from July 2006-February 2008.

7.  Dena Davis, 2004. Genetic Research and Communal Narratives, Hasting's Center Report 34: 40-49; Alice Wexler, 2002. Chorea and Community in a Nineteenth Century  Town, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76: 495-527. 

 8. E.g. Duana Fullwiley, 2007. The Molecularization of Race: Institutionalizing Racial Difference in Pharmacogenetics Practice, Science as Culture 16:1-30; Pilar N. Ossorio  and Troy Duster, 2005. Race and Genetics: Controversies in Biomedical, Behavioral, and Forensic Sciences, American Psychologist 60: 115-128; Jonathan Marks, 2001. "We're going to tell this people who they really are": Science and relatedness. In Relative values:  Reconfiguring kinship studies, S. Franklin and S. McKinnon, (eds.), Raleigh/Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.  

9. E.g. Pamela Sankar and Mildred K. Cho, 2002. Toward a new vocabulary of human genetic variation, Science 298: 1337-1338; R.S. Schwartz, 2001. Racial profiling in  medical research, New England Journal of Medicine 344:1392-1393.

10. E.g. Keith Wailoo and Stephen Pemberton, 2006. The Troubled Dream of Genetic Medicine: Ethnicity and Innovation in Tay-Sachs, Cystic Fibrosis and Sickle-Cell Disease, Baltimore: John's Hopkins University Press.

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