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Shadows of Doubt By: Rocky Mountain News
Rocky Mountain News | Monday, June 06, 2005


University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill fabricated historical facts, published the work of others as his own and repeatedly made false claims about two federal Indian laws, a Rocky Mountain News investigation has found.

The two-month News investigation, carried out at the same time Churchill and his work are being carefully examined by the university, also unearthed fresh genealogical information that casts new doubts on the professor's long-held assertion that he is of American Indian ancestry.

The findings come as Churchill is, essentially, on trial — in the court of public opinion and in the halls of academia. Prickly debates swirl around him on the standards of academic integrity, the limits of free speech and the responsibilities of scholarly writers.

A faculty committee is working behind closed doors, conducting a detailed and time-consuming examination of four allegations — fabrication, plagiarism, mischaracterization of federal Indian laws and misrepresentation of his ancestry.

The stakes are high.

For Churchill, it's a process that ultimately could cost him his job. For Colorado's flagship university, it's a process that could bear heavily on its integrity and reputation.

Churchill has maintained a confident public posture — portraying himself as a renegade who isn't afraid to challenge commonly held beliefs, defiantly scoffing at the allegations he faces, characterizing his scholarly standards as typical and casting himself as the victim of a witch hunt.

"This may be all new and unique to you," he told the News, "and in my personal experience it is to me, too. (But) it's happened about 20 times over the last decade to people who challenge orthodoxy. And they play the script out pretty much the same. And you all are just in lock step."

Churchill has framed the CU investigation not as a look at the rigor and accuracy of his scholarship, but as a right-wing crusade and an attack on academic freedom and free speech.

While it is likely to be months before the university's faculty committee finishes its probe of Churchill's scholarship and ancestry, the News found serious problems in all four of the major areas the panel is examining:

He accused the U.S. Army of deliberately spreading smallpox among the Mandan Indians of the Upper Missouri River Valley in 1837 — but there's no basis for the assertion in the sources he cited. In fact, in some instances the books he cited — and their authors — directly contradict his assertions.

He published an essay in 1992 that largely copies the work of a Canadian professor. But the piece is credited to his own research organization, the Institute for Natural Progress. Churchill published that essay — with some minor changes and subtle altering of words — even though the writer, Fay G. Cohen, had withdrawn permission for him to use it.

He also published portions of an essay in a 1993 book that closely resemble a piece that appeared the year before under the byline of Rebecca L. Robbins. However, the News could not determine what occurred. Churchill said he initially wrote the piece and allowed Robbins to publish it under her name. Robbins did not return numerous messages left by the News.

The News also could not determine who actually wrote an essay published under the name of Churchill's former wife, Marie Anne Jaimes, who also goes by Annette Jaimes. A paragraph from that essay also was published in a Churchill essay.

He mischaracterized an important federal Indian law in repeated writings in the past two decades, saying that the General Allotment Act of 1887 established a "blood quantum" standard that allowed tribes to admit members only if they had at least "half" native blood. Churchill has accused the government of imposing what he called "a formal eugenics code" as part of a thinly veiled effort to define Indians out of existence. The News found that the law — while a legislative low point in Indian history that resulted in many tribes losing their lands — does not contain any requirements for Indian bloodlines.

In addition, the News found, Churchill similarly mischaracterized a more recent piece of legislation, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

He has repeatedly claimed to have American Indian ancestry, but an extensive examination of genealogical records that traced branches of both sides of Churchill's family to pre-Revolutionary War times turned up no solid evidence of a single Indian ancestor. In addition, the News found that DNA tests taken last year by two brothers prove that the father of Joshua Tyner — Joshua Tyner is the ancestor Churchill most often has cited for his Indian lineage — was not Indian.

During its investigation, the News also unearthed other evidence of possible research misconduct by Churchill that has not been taken to the faculty committee.

In one instance, the News discovered an obscure 1972 pamphlet written by activists in Canada that Churchill later began claiming as his own work.

And in at least three other cases, the News revealed Friday, he published works by others without their permission. Churchill credited authors Robert T. Coulter, Rudolph C. Ryser and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, but didn't notify them that he was publishing their articles.

Catalyst of controversy

Although he had been an ethnic studies professor at CU for more than a decade, it wasn't until January that Churchill's name — already well-known in some circles — exploded onto the general public's consciousness.

That's when a college newspaper reporter in upstate New York rediscovered an essay that Churchill wrote on Sept. 11, 2001, a now-infamous piece in which he referred to those who died in the terrorist attacks as "little Eichmanns" — a reference to a ranking Nazi who helped carry out the Holocaust.

Within days, talk-radio and cable-television hosts made Churchill a daily staple. Gov. Bill Owens and other political leaders called for his job, and the university's board of regents demanded a careful examination of his work.

Churchill stepped down from his position as head of the ethnic studies department but kept his faculty position.

That examination cleared Churchill of wrongdoing for the "little Eichmanns" comment and other controversial writings and public pronouncements, concluding that they were free speech, protected by the First Amendment.

But the initial review raised specific questions about his scholarship and his assertion of Indian ethnicity, and concluded that they were serious enough to refer to the standing committee on research misconduct.

That committee is now under the gun as CU administrators try — again — to extract the state's flagship school from a public relations disaster.

First, it was a football recruiting scandal, one that ultimately saw the resignations of President Betsy Hoffman, Boulder campus Chancellor Richard Byyny and Athletic Director Dick Tharp.

Now, it is Churchill.

In a wide-ranging interview in his office in the basement of the Ketchum classroom building on the Boulder campus, Churchill addressed all the issues investigated by the committee. He ended the interview, however, without addressing other issues raised in the News investigation, agreeing to look at written questions left by reporters. He later declined to answer them.

Churchill stands by work

In his defense, Churchill told the News he didn't commit plagiarism, academic fraud or research misconduct.

For example, he said he never claimed to write the essay that mirrors Cohen's, and that if there was wrongdoing involved, it was committed by someone else.

As for the instances of alleged misuse of other authors' material, including the essay linked to Robbins, the professor said he was the original author.

He said the controversy over that particular piece of writing might have merit but that it doesn't amount to plagiarism.

"I'm free to make disposition of my ideas and my material any way I see fit," he said. "That's my understanding of the situation, and I've basically confirmed that, OK? If there's an issue around that, then there's an issue around that.

"I'm perfectly happy to deal with the issue, OK? We start by calling the issue, whatever it might be, by its right name. You don't call it something else because it resonates."

He said he would not discuss his ancestry.

And on the smallpox allegation and the General Allotment Act controversy in particular, Churchill said he could make "slam dunk" cases on both.

But he did not back that up with evidence.

When he was pushed for sources on the smallpox epidemic, for example, he cited the names of books that not only don't support his allegation but, in fact, undermine it: Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn and R.G. Robertson's Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian. Both authors have told the News that Churchill has mischaracterized their work.

Churchill also insisted that he was being held to a different standard than other authors.

"You're sitting here in full knowledge that what you're sort of trying to winnow out of me in terms of a defense is not particularly required, in most instances," he said. "I've provided more citations to support what I said than Evan Connell and a couple of other people that have come up."

Genocide common theme

Churchill's voluminous writings — which span more than 100 books, essays, chapters and articles, some citing more than 200 endnotes — are at the heart of his professional being.

And they roil with the same theme: The white man, and later the U.S. government, carrying out a centuries-long war of genocide against the indigenous people who populated the North American continent before the 1492 arrival of Columbus.

There is little argument among historians that the treatment of American Indians in this country's formative years was horrendous.

Stolen land. Broken treaties. Deadly attacks. Decimation of various populations by disease and hardship, if not by gunfire.

And that is exactly why some of Churchill's claims have so perplexed some of his critics.

"The history is bad enough," said Russell Thornton, a professor at UCLA. "It doesn't need to be embellished."

For Thornton, Churchill is more than a passing curiosity.

Thornton is a member of the Cherokee Nation. He wrote the book, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, which Churchill has repeatedly cited as the basis for his allegations about the U.S. Army and smallpox.

But a careful examination of Thornton's book — and other source material cited by Churchill — reveals nothing to support his accusation that the U.S. Army shipped blankets from a St. Louis smallpox infirmary to Fort Clark, located in present-day North Dakota, in 1837.

The goal, Churchill charged, was to infect the Mandan tribe with smallpox as part of its larger campaign of genocide against American Indians.

Although there is no dispute that a smallpox epidemic ravaged the tribes of the Upper Missouri River Valley in 1837, Churchill takes a view not shared by the scholars he cites, pinning its origins on the Army.

Sources contradict story

In at least seven published works in the past 13 years, Churchill has told essentially the same story, with new details and characters emerging over time. In three of the works, he attributes the core of the story to Thornton. In two others, he cites the UCLA professor's book for parts of the story.

But neither Thornton's book nor the others cited by Churchill support his assertion.

In fact, each contradicts it, attributing the arrival of the disease to infected passengers on a steamboat, the St. Peters, which was operated by the American Fur Co.

Churchill mentions the boat in some versions of his story but has argued that it was used by the Army to ship the infested blankets. However, the authors of the original works, and others who have written about the smallpox, dismissed Churchill's allegations involving the Army.

Lesley Wischmann, a Wyoming writer and author of the book Frontier Diplomats: The Life and Times of Alexander Culbertson and Natoyist-siksina, put it bluntly:

"The Army was not involved in the 1837 smallpox epidemic," she said. "It was totally the responsibility of the American Fur Co."

Wischmann, who has written extensively on historical topics, studied journals of fur traders and other historical documents while preparing the biography of Culbertson. Many of them dealt with the smallpox epidemic.

And Wischmann doubts that the trading company spread smallpox to the Indians on purpose.

"It just doesn't make sense to me," she said. "You know, the American Fur Co., you can blame them for a lot of things — but it just doesn't make sense to me they would willingly and knowingly try to kill off their trading partners. Because that's where they made their money."

Thornton, who said that Churchill mischaracterized his work on several other occasions, said he had "never heard" of allegations that the Army was to blame.

He said his book is based on the "standard stuff" available on the subject, including journals from traders and trappers who were there. Placing the blame on an infected steamboat passenger is a standard interpretation, he said.

"If there is new information, why didn't he cite it?" Thornton asked.

Churchill responded that he attributed to Thornton only the "demographics" of the epidemic — estimates of the numbers of various tribe members who died. When told that one of his books, Since Predator Came, attributed the entire story to Thornton, Churchill said that either his footnote was misread, or it was "incomplete."

Says writing is his

The smallpox allegation is only one of the areas where the News discovered problems with Churchill's work.

Churchill has claimed the writings of others as his own — more than once, the News found.

The CU investigation includes plagiarism charges that center on two versions of largely the same essay. The first was written by the Harvard-educated Canadian professor, Cohen, and then edited by Churchill. The second appeared in a 1992 book of essays compiled by Churchill's then- wife, Jaimes.

Churchill told the News he rewrote Cohen's work and added the work of others at Jaimes' request.

Churchill stands accused of stealing Cohen's work and words for his version.

Two experts who reviewed the essays at the request of the News reached the same conclusion, with one calling it a "textbook example" of plagiarism.

Cohen is a tenured professor at one of Canada's top universities, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her essay focused on Indian treaty fishing rights in the Northwest and Wisconsin.

Dalhousie attorneys have alleged that after Cohen denied Churchill permission to print it in the book he was working on, it was taken anyway and credited to his own research organization.

Both experts who read Cohen's original piece and the Churchill-prepared version that appeared in the book said it constituted plagiarism.

"It's plainly a clever rip-off," said Peter Hoffer, a legal historian who helped write the national standards on plagiarism for the American Historical Association.

Churchill's version appeared in the 1992 book The State of Native America under the credit line of the Institute for Natural Progress, a research organization that Churchill has said he co-founded 10 years earlier. In the contributors section of the book, Churchill is credited with taking the "lead role in preparing" the essay for publication.

But he denied to the News that he had done anything wrong, contending only that he edited it on behalf of Jaimes.

"I had a role in that, and it was to take what was handed to me by the authors, specifically by Jaimes, which may or may not mean she was the lead author, I don't know," he said.

He likened his role to that of a "rewrite man" at a newspaper — an editor who molds several different reporters' work into a coherent piece.

That version of the essay appeared under the banner of the Institute for Natural Progress, which he said he co-founded with well-known Indian activist Winona LaDuke.

But LaDuke told the News that the institute was "mostly just an idea."

Whether Churchill published the essay under his own name or that of his own institute, the responsibility lies with him, said Stuart Green, director of the Pugh Institute for Justice at Louisiana State University.

"It doesn't matter . . . who published it," Green said. "If it was substantially written by another scholar and she's not attributed, that's clearly plagiarism."

In comparing the two essays, the News found that in addition to similarity in structure and wording throughout the two pieces, the version Churchill prepared repeats a mistake found in Cohen's original essay, cites the wrong title and misspells Cohen's name in an endnote reference to the original, and subtly twists the overall message.

As for an essay published under the name of former Arizona State University professor Rebecca Robbins, a paragraph of which Churchill later published under his own name, the News could not determine who actually wrote it.

The case is muddled. Churchill said he wrote the Robbins essay and allowed her to publish it under her name. Robbins did not return repeated messages left at her Montana home. And Jaimes has told the News that Churchill did not write the essay and that she saw an early draft written by Robbins, who was her doctoral thesis adviser.

Churchill also said he wrote the essay originally published under Jaimes' name — a paragraph of which he later published under his own name.

Jaimes has denied that to the News, calling her former husband a "liar."

Churchill said that anyone who compared his work to the Jaimes piece would conclude they were written by the same person.

"You tell me who's writing this," Churchill said. "We don't need to get into forensics to do it. Anybody that's competent in textual analysis in any way at all can pick this up."

Churchill was asked why he would let others publish his work as their own.

"Why not?" he answered.

'Blood quantum' theory

The News found that Churchill's treatment of the 1887 General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, is fraught with problems.

The act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, called for tribal holdings to be divided into allotments for distribution to Indian families, who would then become farmers, like white homesteaders.

Dawes and his backers saw themselves as humanitarians, according to historians, thinking they were helping to blend Indians into the American melting pot.

In practice, much of the land distributed to Indians — and some that was supposed to have remained with the tribes — was quickly snapped up by white farmers and speculators.

But Churchill has said repeatedly that the Dawes Act contains an even more sinister provision.

"The act also imposed for the first time a formal eugenics code — dubbed 'blood quantum' — by which American Indian identity would be federally defined on racial grounds rather than by native nations themselves on the basis of group membership/citizenship," Churchill wrote in a 1993 essay.

Eugenics code is the term used to describe the laws adopted by the Nazis to preserve the purity of the Aryan race. Comparisons between the U.S. and Nazi Germany have been a staple of Churchill's writings and speeches.

Churchill charged that America's racial code was designed to eliminate Indians, just as the Germans worked to eliminate Jews. Through intermarriage, future generations of Indians would have progressively less Indian blood, until the tribes disappeared, he wrote.

The theory had one problem: The plain wording of the Dawes Act contains no such provision, either directly or by reference to other portions of the law.

"You won't find anything," said Carole Goldberg, a UCLA law professor and an expert on federal Indian law. Tribes decide who is a member, she said.

Churchill makes reference to a blood-quantum provision of federal law at least 18 times, beginning in the mid-1980s, but never cites language in the law to back up the allegation.

In 1994, he charged that the blood code also appears in the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a measure designed to outlaw bogus Indian art.

A key sponsor of the law was Colorado's former U.S. congressman and senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

That law, which is posted on the U.S. Interior Department Web site, says only that tribes determine who is an Indian.

"He's been pretty much discredited," Campbell said.

Churchill has used the blood-quantum theory to bash tribal governments. Because none of them recognize him as an Indian, it is illegal for him to market his paintings as Indian art. And because some tribes use blood quantum to define membership, Churchill derides them for rolling over for the federal government.

Churchill acknowledged that the phrase blood quantum doesn't appear in the Dawes Act, but he said the law — and subsequent legislation — clearly required Indians to prove themselves in the eyes of the federal government. The blood-quantum requirement, he said, was "self-evident."

He also said that he did nothing wrong. Asked why he didn't spell out what is and isn't in the law in his writings, Churchill replied:

"Because I didn't write an essay on it. I wrote a paragraph in passing in a broader narrative."

Tracking down ancestry

Churchill's scholarship isn't the only part of his life that has generated controversy.

At the core of the questions surrounding Churchill is this: Is he who he says he is?

He has repeatedly said that his mother and grandmother passed on to him the often-told story that there was Indian blood in the family. He's believed it since he was 10, he has said.

In speeches Churchill has given this year, he has introduced himself this way: "I bring you greetings from the Elders of the Keetoowah band of Cherokee, my mother's people."

At times, he has suggested that he is 3/16ths Indian. That would be the equivalent of three of his 16 great-great grandparents having been 100 percent American Indian.

But from all indications in an extensive genealogical study by the News, there is no evidence of a single Indian ancestor in Churchill's long family history in America.

Churchill isn't the only member of his family who heard the same story.

Many of his wide array of relatives have been searching for more than 100 years, through records that go back before the Revolutionary War, seeking the elusive link that would confirm the family legend of Indian parentage somewhere along the line.

So far, they haven't found that link.

Churchill points to an associate membership given to him 11 years ago by Oklahoma's Keetoowah band of Cherokee, but the tribe has since said the membership was honorary and that Churchill didn't show any proof of Indian ancestors.

Pressed on the question by the News, Churchill said his ancestry is a "slam-dunk made case" and that he would not discuss it further.

As the process of examining Churchill's work and his ancestry continues, the professor presses on.

He walks the campus in his trademark blue jeans and wraparound sunglasses. He works at the computer in his basement office, where two walls are lined with books and videotapes. He lectures students — his most recent class, "Topical Issues/Native North America," ended May 26.

He waits to see whether a student-voted teaching award, withheld while the investigation is ongoing, will be bestowed upon him.

And he spars with reporters and detractors alike, arguing that he did nothing wrong, saying that his practices are standard in the academic world.

All the while, the faculty committee works on.

It will answer the main questions before it: Did Churchill commit research misconduct and academic fraud, and did he misrepresent his heritage to gain a wider audience for his work?

If it finds that he did, it can recommend discipline — up to firing.

Only then will the university answer the bigger question that has been looming ever since Churchill's name burst onto the scene a little more than four months ago:

What is Churchill's future at the University of Colorado?

Churchill's history

Early years: Born in 1947 to Jack and Maralyn Churchill in central Illinois. Raised by mother and stepfather in Elmwood, near Peoria. Graduated from high school in 1965, drafted into Army, served nearly a year in Vietnam in 1967.

Academic years: Earned bachelor's degree in 1974 and a master's degree in communications theory in 1975 from Sangamon State University in Springfield, Ill. First teaching job in 1975 was as an art instructor at Black Hills State College in Spearfish, S.D.

Indian involvement: Developed a lasting relationship with American Indian Movement leader Russell Means around the time of the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee. Became his aide and speechwriter. Has engaged in long-running feud with national AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt; Suzan Shown Harjo, former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians; and others.

Ethnicity claims: On 1978 CU application, checked box for "American Indian." Two years later, his resume noted he was "Creek/Cherokee." Bellecourt approached CU, questioning Churchill's claim, in 1986 and again in 1994. CU declined to pursue in 1994. "Given the fact that equal opportunity is the law of the land and that positions in the public sector are to be awarded to all persons regardless of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and based only on their ability to do the job, the university does not believe that any attempt to remove Mr. Churchill because of his ethnicity or race would be appropriate," former CU-Boulder Chancellor James Corbridge wrote. "Further, it has always been university policy that a person's race or ethnicity is self-proving."

Churchill has said he is at least 1/16th Cherokee; also has said he's Creek. Named an associate member of the Tahlequah, Okla.-based Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in 1994. Tribe has said membership was honorary.

CU: Hired in 1978 as an administrative assistant in the American Indian Equal Opportunities Program, which counseled Indian students. Over the next 10 years, he also lectured on Indian topics.

Tenure: Appointed associate professor in 1991 in the communications department. Received tenure in 1991 in same department after sociology and political science departments rejected him. Memo to communications faculty said that by adding Churchill, the department would be "making our contribution to increasing the cultural diversity on campus (Ward is native American)." CU skipped the traditional six-year period of writing, teaching and reviews by outside scholars at three and six years. Former Dean of Arts and Sciences Charles Middleton pushed for tenure, fearing Churchill would accept offer at California State University at Northridge. But no offer was made by Northridge because he lacked a doctorate and his writings contained more advocacy than scholarship, said George Wayne, a former Northridge official. Appointed full professor and his tenure transferred to ethnic studies department in 1997.

Criticism: Work first came under attack by small academic journals and some American Indians in the early 1990s. Peter Spear, dean of arts and sciences from 1996 to 2001, says he doesn't recall allegations. In 1996, University of New Mexico law professor John LaVelle published an essay accusing Churchill of misrepresenting portions of federal Indian law.

Accolades: Named chairman of ethnic studies department in 2002. Resigned in January 2005 in wake of Sept. 11 essay controversy. Received raise to $92,000 in 2004. "We are pleased to recognize your outstanding contribution to scholarship and teaching in the area of Native American Studies," Arts and Sciences Dean Todd Gleeson wrote. Ranked above-average on annual reviews. Won campus award for social science writing in 1992. Students voted him winner of Boulder Faculty Assembly teaching award in 1994.

Glossary

Plagiarism: Presenting another author's work as your own. The American Historical Association says it's not limited to using someone else's words verbatim, but also includes using ideas, sources or notes "disguised in newly crafted sentences." It also includes citing the plagiarized source in a footnote, then extensively copying from that source without further credit, and suggesting that you reviewed original documents and sources when you simply read about them in someone else's work.

Scholarship: The rigorous methods scholars use to find, analyze, interpret and share information in a trustworthy way to add to a body of knowledge.

Endnote: Similar to a footnote, but appears at the end of a piece of scholarly writing to show the sources the author used or suggests reading for further inquiry.Source: American Historical Association, Wikipedia, Southhampton Institute Handbook

Standards of professional conduct

"Although historians disagree with each other about many things, they do know what they trust and respect in each other's work. All historians believe in honoring the integrity of the historical record. They do not fabricate evidence. Forgery and fraud violate the most basic foundations on which historians construct their interpretations of the past. An undetected counterfeit undermines not just the historical arguments of the forger, but all subsequent scholarship that relies on the forger's work. Those who invent, alter, remove, or destroy evidence make it difficult for any serious historian ever wholly to trust their work again."Source: American Historical Association'S Statement On Standards Of Professional Conduct

Charlie Brennan, Kevin Flynn, Laura Frank, Berny Morson and Kevin Vaughan wrote this article for the Rocky Mountain News.




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