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Confirmed, Ward Churchill is a Fraud, Part 4 By: Kevin Flynn
Rocky Mountain News | Friday, June 10, 2005

The following is the fifth installment of a multi-article investigation launched by the Rocky Mountain News. This installment, written by reporter Kevin Flynn, focuses on allegations of Churchill's misrepresentation of his Indian heritage. Click here to see an overview of the newspaper's findings. Click here to see part one (dealing with the charge of fraud). Click here to see part two (the charge of plagiarism). Click here to see part three (Churchill's mischaracterization of the Dawes Act). -- The Editors.

The Charge of Misrepresentation
By Kevin Flynn,
Rocky Mountain News

Eleven-year-old Joshua Tyner was hiding in a tree near his family's backwoods Georgia home when marauding Indians shot him and he fell dead to the ground.

That's how the old family legend goes.

So much for old family legends.


Searching for a link: Ken Tyner, 64, of San Diego, is a distant relative of Ward Churchill. Tyner underwent DNA testing last year and found that his ancestor Richard Tyner, who is Churchill's fifth-great-grandfather, wasn't Indian. Churchill's belief in the Tyner family legend of Indian heritage is at the core of his disputed identity as an Indian.

Joshua Tyner didn't die in that bloody raid sometime around 1778, although the Indians scalped his mother and kidnapped his two teenage sisters.

In fact, Joshua Tyner lived a long and fruitful life and produced many descendants - including University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, whose disputed claims of Indian ancestry are tied to yet another family legend:

The one that says Joshua Tyner was part Cherokee.

However, an extensive genealogical search by the Rocky Mountain News identified 142 direct forebears of Churchill and turned up no evidence of a single Indian ancestor among them - including Joshua.

The News also located two male descendants of Richard Tyner - Joshua Tyner's father - who underwent DNA tests last year. The tests showed that the Tyner line goes back to northern European ancestry with no hint of male Indian blood.

For more than a century, descendants of Richard Tyner's Georgia brood have conducted a fruitless search for proof of their rumored Indian roots, spurred on by a tantalizing story that Joshua Tyner may have spent the last years of his life living among Indians in Illinois, practicing herbal medicine.

In the 1890s, one of them pursued a case to the U.S. Supreme Court, demanding to be included in the formal allotment of land to Indians - and was rejected as a non-Indian.

In 1936, Illinois historian Nannie Gray Parks wrote to the National Archives seeking Revolutionary War pension information on Joshua Tyner, asserting the legend that he was the son of a Cherokee - a story Churchill has repeated.

Churchill has said he was 10 when his mother and grandmother passed on to him the family lore of Indian ancestry. Dan Debo, his younger half brother, backs that up.

"We were told when we were kids by our mom and grandma that we had Indian blood in us," Debo, who lives in California, wrote to the News.

Today, many of the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-generation Tyner descendants believe the legend and continue to search for the elusive Indian link. Others simply ignore it.

Churchill, though, has fashioned his life and career around it.

That decision lies at the heart of an investigation by CU, which has charged its standing committee on research misconduct with ruling whether Churchill's claim of Indian heritage has been a ruse by the professor to bolster his credibility as an Indian scholar.

Churchill has said that he is either 1/16th or 3/16ths Cherokee from his mother's side, while also claiming Creek Indian heritage on his father's side. But he has battled complaints for years - mostly from within the American Indian activist community - that he isn't Indian at all.

In 1993, when a campus news article challenged Churchill on his ancestry claims, he responded by naming several people and implying that they proved his roots.

But the News has determined that the people he named either were not Indians or were not his relatives.

Churchill also told the article's author that Joshua's father was a Cherokee named Tushali.

Records on Tushali - whose name was spelled by whites as Tsali, Toochalee and other variants - show that he was a Cherokee brave who was executed about 1838, ostensibly for killing U.S. soldiers who were removing his family from their home as part of a forced Indian exodus that came to be called the Trail of Tears.

That's the same year Joshua died at age 71.

Moreover, Tushali didn't live in the same part of the country as Joshua's family. Tushali lived near the North Carolina-Tennessee border, not in eastern North Carolina, where Joshua is believed to have been born in 1767.

Churchill's claim also is undermined by written records showing Richard Tyner was in fact Joshua's father.

Joshua is listed as a son in Richard Tyner's 1824 will. Joshua referred to Richard Tyner's farm as the home of "my father," and noted Richard's death in his family bible, calling him "my father."

Churchill reported last month to the CU committee that he meets three of the four criteria for determining whether he is Indian.

Those three criteria are self-identification as an Indian, acceptance within the Indian community, and tribal affiliation - none of which require proof of Indian parentage.

The one test he didn't cite: naming an actual Indian ancestor.

Churchill now declines to discuss his ancestry at all.

"What's to address?" he said. "No, I'm not going to spend the rest of my life talking about my ancestry. That's a slam-dunk made case."

Tracing family lore

It might not be that easy.

The News' genealogical research was conducted both in-house and in concert with several outside researchers.

Jim Paine, 51, of Hartsel, who heads several Internet database companies, maintains an anti-Churchill site at www.pirateballerina.com.

He worked with Bill Cullen, 35, a New Jersey police officer who plans to become a professional genealogist.

Jack Ott, 65, of Lakewood, a retired telecom planner, engineer and amateur genealogist, maintains an online Churchill tree at home.comcast.net/~jackott2/ahnentafel1.htm.

The investigation relied on census reports, colonial-era deeds, wills, veterans' records, draft registrations, marriage licenses, several Indian censuses, applications for Indian inclusion in a settlement of treaty violations, and state records such as lists of entrants in giveaways of former Indian lands.

The analysis also tapped into extensive research already conducted by genealogists in other branches of the family, none of whom were aware that Churchill was one of their relatives.

Photo courtesy of Ken Tyner
Ties to a past: William Cullen Tyner, one of the Tyner men who share a common ancestor with Ward Churchill — namely, Richard Tyner, a homesteader in Georgia in the late 1700s.

While the News found a large clan of Tyners among the Cherokee, they aren't related to the Joshua Tyner branch from which Churchill descends.

Dennis Ward, 65, a military career guidance specialist at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., and a registered Cherokee who is descended from the Indian Tyners, has tried for years to find any connection to Churchill's Tyners.

"I have never seen any real documentation as it pertains to Joshua Tyner having Indian blood," said Ward, one of the most active Tyner family researchers.

Ward, described by one Tyner genealogist as the most knowledgeable in the family, also had never heard of a link between Tushali and the Tyners.

On the other hand, the News' examination found plenty of evidence that Joshua - who became an Indian fighter in Georgia after the raid that killed his mother - was white, as was the rest of his family.

The legend that he went off during the last few years of his life to live as an Indian has been in the family for more than a century, although the first known mention came decades after his death.

There is no evidence to support it, just the odd circumstance that his wife of 45 years, who died in 1842, four years after Joshua, is buried alone in Wilson Cemetery in Cambria, Ill.

The legend is that Joshua was buried in an Indian-style mound by the Big Muddy River in Blairsville, Ill. In 1930, a state highway crew building a new bridge there unearthed a suspected Indian burial site. But the remains were never identified. They were reburied in an unmarked grave that is lost to history.

A local Illinois history book written in 1876, within folks' living memory of Joshua Tyner, referred to him and other pioneers as pure white with no Indian blood.

So where does the story originate?

"We're not really sure, to be candid with you," said Ken Tyner, 64, a retired Army sergeant living in San Diego who is a sixth-generation descendant of Richard Tyner. "Everybody's always speculated about having Indian blood, but I don't know where it comes from."

Ken is descended from Joshua's younger brother, Noah, and is Churchill's fifth cousin once removed - a relationship he knew nothing about until contacted by the News.

Ken Tyner and his half brother underwent DNA testing last year as part of their own genealogical research, learning that Richard Tyner was of northern European descent, not Indian.

Some descendants believe Richard's first wife - the woman killed and scalped during the Indian raid - might have been Indian herself. Still others pin their supposed heritage on Richard's second wife, Agnes "Sookie" Dougherty, although the News found evidence that she, too, was white.

In any case, Churchill is descended from Richard and Richard's first wife, variously called Eliza Jane, Elizabeth and Abigail on family trees, through their son Joshua.

Even if Joshua's mother was a full-blooded Cherokee, something for which there is no supporting evidence, Churchill, as her fifth- great-grandson, would have only a tiny fraction - 1/128th - of Indian blood, not close to the 1/16th or 3/16ths he claims.

Impact on credibility

Despite the mounting evidence that Churchill isn't Indian, academic experts differ on whether it would constitute misconduct for him to pass as one.

If Churchill's work is authoritative, it shouldn't lose its credibility if it is revealed that he isn't an Indian, said ethics expert Kenneth Pimple at Indiana University.

"To some people, I have no doubt, Churchill's work would still be considered highly valuable," Pimple said. "To others, it might be fatally tainted by such a revelation.

"But should such a revelation have any impact on the assessment of his work? If his writings have any authority of their own, it should not."

Photo courtesy of Ken Tyner
Ties to a past: Thomas Tyner, shown with wife Martha Kirk Tyner.

But Churchill gains credibility by claiming Indian status, countered scholar Russell Thornton, an enrolled Cherokee and a UCLA professor whose work Churchill is accused of misrepresenting.

"I don't think the type of people who are his audience would give him near that much attention if he were not seen as an Indian," he said.

There's still another way to look at the question, according to Pimple, and that's what Churchill truly believes about his background, regardless of the objective truth of it.

"If Churchill's mother told him that he had Native American ancestry, it is reasonable for him to believe this to be true," Pimple said. "Even if further research should show that his mother had been wrong, it would be difficult to make a case that Churchill intended to fool anyone by claiming Native American ancestry."

Belief in the Tyner Indian legends is widespread among the descendants. The News found true believers in Illinois, California, Florida and Georgia.

"All the family believes, earnestly, they are descended from Indians," said Charla Schroeder Murphy of the Williamson County, Ill., Historical Society.

"I don't believe Mr. Churchill was trying to pass himself off as something he's not, but something that generations of Tyners have embraced and believed."

CU, however, could have cause for action if it found the legends are untrue and that Churchill knew it, Pimple said.

"I should think that in general, intentionally lying about one's credentials, which in this case might reasonably include ancestry, would be considered academic misconduct," Pimple said. "The key is demonstrating, by an appropriate standard of evidence, intent to deceive."

Putting claims to the test

In his response to CU's investigation, Churchill said he qualifies as an Indian under three of the four methods his attorney said are commonly used for determining Indian heritage.

One, Churchill calls himself an Indian, although experts say such self-identification is the least meaningful. CU, however, said in 1994, in response to a complaint about Churchill's claimed ethnicity, that it recognizes self-identification.

The second test is whether a person is regarded within the greater Indian community as a member, although this acceptance doesn't need to be based on demonstrated Indian bloodlines, either. Churchill's acceptance primarily comes from a confederation of Indian rights activists who support his writings and teachings. One of them is noted Indian activist Russell Means.

"Ward is my brother," Means has said. "Ward has followed the ways of indigenous people worldwide."

The third test is whether someone is enrolled in a tribe. Churchill says that his May 1994 associate membership in the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma fulfills this requirement. But as the Keetoowah noted during a war of words with Churchill last month, the associate membership was not an actual tribal enrollment, but more of an honorary membership "because he could not prove any Cherokee ancestry."

"Mr. Churchill was never enrolled as a member," the Keetoowah said, making a distinction between tribal enrollment and the associate status that didn't require proof of Indian ancestry.

The tribe voted a month after granting Churchill's associate membership to stop giving them out, and said it erased all of the existing ones.

Churchill said the tribe is free to revoke his 1994 associate membership, but not to deny giving it.

"What it does not have a right to do is falsify history at its own convenience," he said.

Churchill obtained his Keetoowah membership shortly after being involved in a run-in with a rival faction of the American Indian Movement led by Vernon Bellecourt, who accused Churchill of masquerading as an Indian.

The final method for determining Indian heritage is to identify an Indian ancestor - the only method Churchill didn't use in his 50-page report to the university's investigating committee, according to a description of the confidential response by Churchill's attorney, David Lane.

For Churchill's claims of 1/16th or 3/16ths Cherokee blood to be true, between one and three of his 16 great- great-grandparents would have to be full-blooded Indians, or six of his 32 third-great-grandparents and so on.

If it all came from his mother, as he has sometimes said, she would have to be nearly half Indian herself.

But all of Churchill's 16 great- great-grandparents are known. Not a single one was a full-blooded Indian, nor is there evidence any were part Indian. All but two are listed as white on census records from the 19th century. For those two, who could not be located on a census, their children were listed as white.

'I met my father one time'

Churchill has said he derives Creek Indian heritage from his father, the late Jack Churchill.

But in a 1993 interview with the CU student who wrote the campus newspaper article questioning his heritage, Churchill said he knew nothing about his father's ancestry.

His father and mother divorced when Churchill was an infant. Jack Churchill became a high school teacher in Petersburg, Ill., dying in 1989 at the age of 65.

"I met my father one time," Churchill told then-CU student Jodi Rave. "I didn't ask him too many family questions or other questions, and I really never tried to pursue it, or never really pursued him, because it seemed kind of bad for him."

Yet the next year, when he was up for associate membership with the Keetoowah, Churchill told the tribe that his father had Creek Indian heritage. The Creek Indians inhabited the area that became the southeast U.S., bordering Cherokee lands. They frequently warred with the Cherokee.

"I was asked if I wanted to try to document my father's side of things," Churchill said in a July 1994 statement published in an Indian newspaper after the Keetoowah meeting, "because he was at least as much Indian as mom. But he's dead now. I never knew him, and I don't know my relatives on that side. So I just let it go."

The News' genealogical search, however, found that his father's ancestors came not from Creek Indian territory, but from New England, Virginia, Tennessee, Iowa, Canada, Ireland, Scotland and England.

Great-great-grandmother Jane McNeeley, for instance, told an 1880 census taker in Illinois that her father was born in Scotland and her mother in Ireland. She was born in Canada.

McNeeley's husband, Nicholas Gorsuch, came from parents born in Maryland, census records state, and the family hailed from England.

Photo courtesy of Ken Tyner
Ties to a past: Brothers Felix and Jesse Tyner .

The Churchills themselves go back to 1600s Connecticut.

His father's father, also named Ward Churchill, is listed as white in the 1920 census, His draft card listed him as "Caucasian." He and his wife, Ethel Janes, were restaurant keepers in Rushville, Ill., where he later served several terms as city clerk.

In the 1930 census, they were still in Rushville, as was their 5-year-old son, Jack Churchill, who became Ward's father 17 years later. Jack is listed as white.

Churchill, in his 1993 interview with Rave, also was mistaken about the record for Joshua Tyner.

Churchill moved Joshua up at least one generation, misplaced him in Indian lands and said that Joshua was moved from Tennessee in the mid-1830s, implying that he was part of the forced removal of Cherokees along the Trail of Tears.

"Now on my mother's side, their people coming up north, well, they got moved, they didn't just come north out of southern Tennessee," he told Rave. "Beginning about 1835, to around 1845, that's when they shifted."

That's not what the record shows.

Tracking down family roots

Joshua and his brother, Noah, married sisters Winifred and Priscilla Teasley. Together they left Georgia between 1800 and the fall of 1801, according to family historians, moving to Tennessee's northern border with Kentucky - not the Cherokee lands of southern Tennessee as Churchill said. The area where Joshua and Noah went had been settled by whites 20 years earlier.

Contrary to what Churchill told Rave, Joshua wasn't moved out of Tennessee in the 1830s, but left with his family about 1816 and is recorded as being one of the first white settlers in what soon would become Franklin County, Ill.

By the mid-1830s, when the government forced Cherokees, half Cherokees and white spouses of Indians from Georgia, Joshua was actually at the end of his pioneer life in Illinois.

Facts surrounding the infamous U.S. Indian Removal Act of 1830 give more indication that the Georgia Tyners were not part-Indian.

Descendants of Richard Tyner and both his wives remained in northeast Georgia rather than being rounded up and sent to Oklahoma.

Joshua Tyner was 71 when he died near Blairsville, Ill., on the day after Christmas in 1838, leaving behind his wife and numerous children who went on to have families of their own in the area.

One of those descendants, Maralyn Allen, married Jack Churchill and gave birth to their son, Ward, in 1947.

Analyzing the DNA

While some family speculation has centered on Joshua's mother - the unfortunate woman scalped by Indians - the scant history on her indicates she was white.

The most prevalent version of the legend is that Joshua's mother was kidnapped as a girl by Cherokees in South Carolina and forced to marry a Cherokee chief. She bore him a son, said to be Joshua, and when he was 3, the girl's father tracked them down and rescued them.

This account is improbable. Joshua's mother was not a girl at the time he was born; she had at least three older children and had been married in North Carolina to Richard Tyner.

Photo courtesy of Ken Tyner
Ties to a past: Felix Tyner, shown with wife Cora.

But could she have been Cherokee, as some think?

That's unlikely, too. A baby born to a Cherokee mother and white father in late 1700s Georgia would have been raised as Indian, according to Indian scholar John Finger, a retired University of Tennessee historian. All of the Tyner children, including Joshua, were raised as white.

Last year's DNA testing on Richard Tyner's male descendants is silent on whether Joshua's mother was or wasn't Indian. That would require a different test.

The DNA test on a male descendant can only trace the male's Y chromosome to one of the 18 major groupings of human ethnicity, according to Bennett Greenspan of Family Tree DNA, the organization that did the Tyner testing.

DNA mutations can mar efforts to link male lines, cautioned Ranajit Chakraborty, professor and director of the Center for Genome Information at the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine.

But the male Tyner DNA test matched northern European markers, Ken Tyner said.

Even if Churchill tested his own DNA, it couldn't show Indian heritage from the Tyners. That's because there are four female ancestors in the line of seven people from Joshua to Churchill.

To find out if Joshua's mother was part Indian, Greenspan said, the mitochondrial DNA of a direct female descendant must be tested.

Ken Tyner said that is a dead end for now.

"I know of no direct female descendants," he said.

With the DNA trail to Richard Tyner showing that he was white, turning to the paper trail indicates much the same.

Richard Tyner was a slave owner. While some Cherokees owned slaves as time went on, that would have been rare in the late 1700s.

"It would be unusual for Cherokees to hold slaves that early," historian Finger said.

There is also evidence that the legend of Richard Tyner's second wife being part Cherokee is untrue. Old Georgia records list several of "Sookie" Dougherty's offspring as white. Richard Tyner Jr. is listed with his father as an entrant in the 1807 Georgia Land Lottery. That giveaway of land that the state acquired from Creek Indians was restricted to free white males or their widows.

Marriage records from the early 1800s show the Tyner sons and daughters listed in the pages of "whites" rather than "coloreds."

And in another lottery in 1827 to parcel out former Cherokee lands - also restricted to whites - three Tyner descendants were eligible.

While these are strong indications that there was no Indian blood in the Tyner family, it is not clear and final proof.

But of all the records that make a racial distinction, not a single one says Indian.

Considering 'cultural' facts

What complicates the written record is the "cultural" fact that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were instances of mixed- blood Indians passing for white.

Finger, the Tennessee historian, said it is possible that backwoods whites who had children with Indian women could pass them off as white.

"In a frontier area, there may be more acceptance of a person of mixed blood being perceived as white," he said.

Still, none of the documentation that Joshua Tyner left indicates that he considered himself part Indian.

Joshua identified himself as white to census takers in both the 1820 and 1830 Illinois censuses. He later wrote an account of fighting Indians in Georgia as part of the Revolutionary War army.

On Sept. 3, 1832, shortly after his 65th birthday, Joshua applied for a federal pension based on his military service. In court testimony, Joshua said he was a private and enlisted as a spy, "ranging the frontier against the hostile Indians."

Joshua received his pension, $71.66 annually.

In an 1876 history of Williamson County, Ill. - which was formed from the part of Franklin County that Joshua Tyner homesteaded - author Milo Erwin minced no words in his praise for the area's pioneers, Joshua included, who he said settled on the Eight Mile Prairie in 1816.

They were all pure-blooded white men, Erwin avowed. "They were poor, but of unmixed blood. There were no half-breeds, neither of Indians nor other obnoxious races."

The Series 

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