The Churchill episode: Two unfortunate currents
Controversial professor Ward Churchill, whose objectionable opinions on the
fate of some 3,000 innocent souls have cost him the chair of a university
department and who has been vilified by the range of usual right-wing
pundits, is now in danger of losing his tenured job at the University of
The right-wing pundits are, as everyone should know, attack dogs whose
primary job is always to pile all possible pressure on Democrats and
left-of-center thinkers whenever they exhibit foot-in-mouth expressions
that can trigger emotional responses. Expectedly, they have found in the
Colorado professor's repugnant remarks an easy straw man with which to
condemn all manner of American freedoms. Thus some want the professor fired
- despite tenure - for what he said, and what he feels and thinks. The
University of Colorado may eventually reach that conclusion based on their
research of Churchill's body of work and other factors, such as the
controversy surrounding his claimed American Indian identity, but the
controversy has primarily been used by the right-wing to discredit liberal
academic expression. Ad nausea, they have made Churchill a symbol of all
that is wrong with liberal university faculty, even though most objective
scholars are also appalled at the professor's ideas.
The conservative politicians are not far behind the talking heads.
Resolutions, denunciations and actual legislation are springing out of the
controversy in calling for the head of Churchill. The sport has quickly
become the best way for stateside politicians to declare their undying
faith for the flag and the American way of life. Ah, easy patriotism! May
it ever be seen as the last and first refuge of scoundrels. One does not
have to be a scoundrel to decry the insulting and dismissive approach that
Churchill took in describing the 9/11 victims, but the extent to which the
controversy has been used for partisan political purposes is as troublesome
as it is ridiculous.
This direction we stand up against, and we would urge every Indian and
every non-Indian academic, as well as professionals of all cultures, to
resist this easy logic of attack on academic freedom. Academic freedom
relative to any topic, once established by a professional based on research
from which to write and lecture, is and should remain a respected value -
one of the most profound and established principles - of any democratic
In academia, from which we need free and independent objective research,
tenure is the most cherished level of professional protection. It is
grounded upon a hugely important principle, one we hold to be fundamental
to the free development and diffusion of knowledge. Americans should not
tolerate such a direction in public life and discourse, even as this
particularly unfortunate episode continues to gain steam.
There is, however, a second issue at play in the Churchill controversy
which for many people constitutes a grave matter; one that, in fact,
deserves the respect of those involved and must be considered essential to
the whole story. That is the issue of Churchill's self-developed history of
how and why he should be considered an American Indian and thus be further
legitimized as a spokesman for Native peoples in the views he spouts.
To seemingly manufacture an identity, bargain for it as an individual and
then pose from such a dubious base within a university the most vocal and
radical of positions on behalf of North American Indians, gives the
appearance of impropriety and perhaps even professional deception. This is
also a matter for the university to decide.
Last week, we analyzed Churchill's ill-delivered remarks about the 9/11
victims. These revealed an animus and a sense of disrespect in society that
appalls, particularly when coming from the mouth or pen of a professor. Why
anyone would want to so blatantly provoke the righteous anger of millions
and millions of people is beyond any reasonable comprehension.
But the second issue at play, the question of a particular Indian identity
- specifically as an "enrolled" or "associate member" of the United
Keetoowah Band, as claimed by Churchill, as part and parcel of his public
persona and as part and parcel of his basis for writing a large body of
work - becomes the major important question about the trustworthiness of
this professor's position. His university must consider now if he has
directly misled and misstated in describing his background and ethnic
Churchill's claim is so seriously in question, in this most public of
cases, that it offends some as much as the galling insults and the
opportunistic political reactions. Churchill, it would now seem, is neither
claimed by sensible liberal scholars nor by any of the American Indian
tribes, including Cherokee and Creek, to which he has claimed affiliation.
That bona fide Indian tribes are not given more respect by Colorado
University and by the media in general when they state that the professor
is not in fact what he professes to be, reminds us of the paternalistic
approach so many times directed at tribal authorities throughout history.
Why is there such confusion around the context of honesty in stating one's
background and one's roots and origins - genealogical, geographic and
cultural - as defined by birth and bloodline realities and as described by
family, clan, community and nation? These definitions, in fact, are quite
discernable in Indian country and in the Native Americas. Indian tribal
opinion in these cases deserves much more respect and consideration, by
universities and governmental institutions in particular.
We earlier stated in these pages that we hold a position of wide latitude
about identity, its legacy and construction in the modern world as many
sectors of society and once-fragmented families, clans and nations re-group
and rebuild their fractured societies. An identity grounded in indigenous
existence, however, requires either documented and authorized tribal
citizenship or enrollment; or, barring that, simple and yet tangible
evidence that direct relatives and relations exist or existed that provides
proof of the identification of the individual. We would welcome any
evidence in this respect regarding Churchill, upon whom the burden of proof
clearly rests - not because it is meant to add discomfort to an already
unfortunate episode, but because Churchill himself made it an issue by his
own claim to being an American Indian before, during and after his
controversial essay and subsequent remarks.
It's not a question of either/or, although sometimes it is easily discerned
that way. More importantly, as any scholar should appreciate, it is a basic
question of clarity.