The problem of Ward and 'Indian' issues
Ward Churchill is once again making highly inflammatory statements that
have legions of people in an uproar, garnering him attention far beyond his
rather narrow-minded statements and increasing his book sales beyond
belief. Ward made his entire career off this approach, including his
coveted tenured professorship at Colorado, for which he was singularly
under qualified (he never studied for, much less got any doctorate, and
until tenure did not publish any peer-reviewed work) and which included
serious misrepresentation of his alleged American Indian ancestry.
In other words, Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder wanted
a hot-headed activist in Indian affairs with some rather well-known books,
and that is what they got. He would not have stood muster at any serious
academic committee reviewing candidates for a tenure-line position that was
open to the general community of scholars, whether American Indian or not.
With many faculty around the country calling for a common defense of his
tenured position that is under attack by the same university and state that
gave him his tenure - along with calls from the radical left for support
and the radical right for his dismissal - now we have the spectacle of
Churchill's angry statements appearing on the "Today" show for all America
to see and hear, thereby judging the American Indian Movement and many
The problem with Ward is that the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee says he is not
an enrolled member of their people and never has been (he claims this as
his primary - sometimes sole - tribal affiliation). In addition to his
meager and mostly non-existent academic qualifications, it turns out his
tour of duty in Vietnam is highly suspect, his upbringing in central
Illinois is never considered and his ongoing war with the founders of AIM
is hardly known outside Indian country. Yet, amazingly, he remains the
darling of the radical left. What are we to do?
Well, perhaps the first thing we should do is not take the bait of buying
his latest book, which he is asking us all to do, but instead inspect the
original essay that sparked most of this debate.
Turns out, he does call victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center
attacks "little Eichmanns" and he does valorize the terrorist bombers - or
should I say "combat teams," as he insists? Also, Churchill insists this
was done in the name of sanctions leading to massive Iraqi deaths and the
aerial bombing of Baghdad that he believes rises to charges of genocide.
This is grossly inaccurate, and amounts to the far left-wing version of
President Bush's right-wing linking of the United States invasion of Iraq
to the so-called "terrorism war" instigated by the World Trade Center
attacks by al-Qaida.
Bush and Churchill are wrong. In fact, Iraq was a secular state run by the
brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, who despised al-Qaida and most Muslim
fundamentalist groups that generally want Islamic governments that would
imprison or execute people like Churchill. We need to be clear about that.
However, Ward exaggerates all of his claims with wild statements that only
deepen public misunderstanding of the capitalism and empire that drive
United States interests.
Should you doubt this, consider this example of negative hyperbole from the
original essay Churchill wrote that spawned this entire conflict:
"Evil ... was perfectly incarnated in that malignant toad known as
Madeleine Albright, squatting in her studio chair like Jabba the Hutt,
blandly spewing the news that she'd imposed a collective death sentence
upon the unoffending youth of Iraq."
Churchill has conveniently omitted from his book, and the current rendition
of his work, this and other vividly derogatory depictions from his original
essay. Similarly, nearly all his academic work consists of highly
inflammatory, one-sided articles published in left-wing magazines, then
toned down a little and put into books that sell within certain markets and
are touted as American Indian thought and perspective. That, my friends, is
the problem, and why I say, "What are we to do with the problem of Ward?"
Many centrists and virtually the entire right wing of American political
and academic life now cite these examples as why serious scholarship on
genocide, indigenous struggles and U.S. imperialism linked to these through
Manifest Destiny ideologies should be discounted or dismissed.
Now that some of these forces, and the reactionary groups spawned by the
World Trade Center destruction and the rise of the Bush regime, have called
for Churchill's removal, he and many others want everyone to rise to his
defense in the name of the general good, as if our fates hinge on his. Yet
for the past decade or two, Churchill's minions have attacked anyone even
remotely critical of him and his merry band purporting to be AIM members.
What are we to do?
My thoughts range toward a few simple responses. First, we should firmly
remind the University of Colorado that they gave Churchill tenure under
wrongful conditions, and now they have to protect his tenure or revisit the
original award. Second, we should note that there are many serious American
Indian professors and other scholars who have looked at many of these same
issues and concerns, and refer to their work instead of hastily prepared,
questionable and exaggerated claims by Churchill.
Third, we should compare the rantings of Bill O'Reilly and Churchill as
polar opposites employing the same techniques of character assassination,
gross exaggeration and grandstanding. Fourth and finally, we should
consider the source - misrepresenting his indigenous identity and
projecting this identity through his work - as representative of only one
individual and not American Indians, any social movements, or even
If we can do these things, perhaps some normality can return to the
airwaves and I can watch Katie Couric and Matt Laurer give me some
mainstream morning palaver without having Churchill's rants provide a
counterpoint to the careful work of American Indian and indigenous movement
supporters in our nation and around the planet.
I need to restate the obvious: tenured faculty and freedom of speech need
to be protected, even if that means we have to accept odious and
belligerent statements by ill-prepared professors who are benefiting from
their radical stances. However, that does not mean that we are all under
attack every time one such individual takes a stand, and it certainly does
not mean that we have to accept that individual's specious charges and
insulting links to American Indians.
Mainstream America has a difficult enough time accepting our collective
history and current struggles for social justice without muddying the
waters with simplistic, mean-spirited labels and wrong-headed claims of
complicity. We should all take responsibility for our words and actions,
including a decent mixture of compassion and understanding for our own
people as well as others around the world.
Then, I can finally say what many traditional Lakota people end their
statements with: "o-Mitakuye-oyasin" (we are all related/you are all my
relatives) to show respect.
James Fenelon, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, is an
associate professor of Sociology at California State University, San
Bernardino. He is the author of "Culturicide, Resistance and Survival of
the Lakota ('Sioux Nation')" (Garland, 1998), multiple journal articles and
book chapters on related topics, and co-author of "The Futures of
Indigenous Peoples: 9/11 and the Trajectory of Indigenous Survival and
Resistance" with Thomas D. Hall (Journal of World Systems Research, Volume
IX, No. 3, 2004).
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