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Ward Churchill's No Indian By: Jim Adams
Indian Country Today | Monday, February 07, 2005


NEW YORK - National attacks on University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill are raising questions of false pretenses as much as free speech.

A number of Native scholars and activists are challenging his posture of speaking for American Indians in his inflammatory writings on the 9/11 terrorist attacks and even his claim to be an American Indian. Others support his right to free speech in the face of ferocious attacks in the national press and television and political calls for his dismissal from a tenured position at the University of Colorado.

The furor centers on an essay entitled ''On the Justice of Roosting Chickens'' that Churchill published on an Internet site several weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was a highly emotional screed filled with loathing for the United States government and most of its citizens. It called the attacks a payback for what Churchill described as ''genocide'' against Iraqi children and denied that the perpetrators were cowards or Islamic fanatics, saying they were more like soldiers. It also denied that the casualties at the World Trade Center were innocent civilians, saying they were the technocrats of the financial empire underlying the U.S. military machine.

He described them as being ''busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.''

Even though the article can only be described as anti-American propaganda, crudely argued even by the standards of radical academics, it was almost totally ignored at the time. It came back into view after Churchill and seven other protestors were acquitted in late January of charges from a protest at the Denver Columbus Day parade last year.

Supporters of Churchill charge that some radio talk show hosts, angry at the acquittals, began to circulate the essay in retaliation. Its reemergence coincided with a scheduled appearance by Churchill on a panel at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Excerpts from the essay appeared in national press reports, including the ''little Eichmanns'' reference to Adolph Eichmann, the administrator of Hitler's attempt to exterminate European Jews. Bill O'Reilly devoted two segments of his Fox Television show, ''The O'Reilly Factor,'' to the Hamilton engagement.

Churchill claims that the stories distorted his essay and took words out of context.

The stories struck a nerve, which Churchill's self-defense seems to have aggravated. The governors of Colorado and New York denounced him and members of the Colorado Legislature called for his dismissal from the university.

The Oneida Indian Nation, which has historic ties to nearby Hamilton, issued the following statement:

''It's disturbing that anyone would use such hateful speech, and do so while claiming to be an American Indian when there is significant evidence that he is not. Professor Churchill caused many in the media to falsely believe an American Indian scholar could besmirch the lives of those who died on 9/11. Because of this, he owes every American Indian an apology.

''Likewise it is sad that he would perpetrate this apparent hoax on Hamilton College, an institution founded to help educate Indian students.'' (Hamilton was founded by Samuel Kirkland, 18th century missionary to the Oneidas, and the famous Oneida Chief Schenandoah is buried on its grounds. The Oneida Nation owns Four Directions Media, publisher of Indian Country Today.)

Churchill resigned his position as head of the CU Ethnic Studies program but kept his $96,000 per year teaching post. After initially planning to move the panel to a larger auditorium, Hamilton College cancelled it, citing credible threats of violence.

The Colorado University Board of Regents called for an emergency session but, according to reports just before press time, had decided it did not have legal authority to fire Churchill summarily from his tenured position.

Although the national furor struck with the unpredictable suddenness of a Great Lakes storm, Churchill has long been a divisive and somewhat feared figure in Indian country, especially among his former colleagues in the American Indian Movement. Some prominent activists involved in earlier confrontations have devoted a great deal of energy to investigating his claim to be an American Indian himself and have found no evidence to support it.

At various times, according to press reports, Churchill has described himself as Cherokee, Keetoowah Cherokee, Muskogee, Creek and most recently Meti. In a note in the online magazine Socialism and Democracy he wrote, ''Although I'm best known by my colonial name, Ward Churchill, the name I prefer is Kenis, an Ojibwe name bestowed by my wife's uncle.'' In biographical blurbs, he is identified as an enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees. But a senior member of the band with access to tribal enrollment records told Indian Country Today that Churchill is not listed. George Mauldin, tribal clerk in Tahlequah, Okla., told the Rocky Mountain News, ''He's not in the data base at all.''

According to Jodi Rave, a well-known Native journalist and member of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Three Affiliated Tribes, Churchill was enrolled as an ''associate member'' of the Keetoowah by a former chairman who was later impeached. The one other known member of the same program, since discontinued, was President Bill Clinton. Rave said that she made this discovery as a student in a journalism class at the University of Colorado. She was also in a class taught by Churchill. When her article came out, she said, he dropped her grade from an A to a C minus.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a columnist for ICT who has tracked Churchill's career, said that aside from the in-laws of his late Indian wife, he has not been able to produce any relatives from any Indian tribe.

Beyond the question of his personal identity is the question of his standing to represent Indian opinion, not only on 9/11 but also in his other published works. Mohawk ironworkers helped build the World Trade Center and other monuments of the New York City skyline, and one crew was actually at work in the flight path of the plane that struck the second tower. St. Regis Mohawk Chief James Ransom noted that they joined rescue teams at great personal risk.

Churchill's other writings repudiate not only the U.S. but also most Indian tribal institutions. In one 1994 essay, he described tribal self government as a ''cruel hoax'' carried out by ''puppets'' of ''an advanced colonial setting.'' He equated the status of Indian tribes in the U.S. to that of European colonies in Asia and Africa. His analysis reflected an extreme version of European left-wing ideology.

Far from suffering for his views, Churchill appears to have been sought out by many in the universities as a representative of American Indian thinking. But to many Native intellectuals, he is traveling under false pretenses, both in his ideology and his personal identity.

Jim Adams is associate editor of Indian Country Today.


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