Why Native identity matters: A cautionary tale
I met Ward Churchill 15 years ago, before he gained his present infamous
reputation. My friend, a college professor, said this Cherokee-Creek guy
wanted to meet me. I expected to meet an earnest young student who would
relate to me as Creek (I'm Hodulgee Muscogee on Dad's side and enrolled
Cheyenne on Mom's).
Instead, there was Churchill. Caucasian in appearance and in his mid-40s,
he was wearing dark glasses and going for the look of an Indian activist
I asked him who his Creek people were and other questions we ask in order
to find the proper way of relating. Churchill behaved oddly and did not
respond (it's unusual to find Indians so deficient in social skills).
Churchill now refers to that as an "interrogation," which tells me he still
does not know how to be with us.
Most Native people want to know each other's nation, clan, society, family,
Native name - who are you to me and how should I address you? It's an
enormously respectful way that we introduce ourselves and establish
It wasn't much of an encounter, but it was enough to tell me that he was
not culturally Muscogee or Cherokee and had not been around many of our
The next time I heard his name was from Native artists at the Santa Fe
Indian Market. Churchill was peddling a scandal sheet, railing against
White Earth Chippewa artist David Bradley and the New Mexico and federal
Indian arts and crafts laws, which Bradley and other Indian artists helped
It turned out that Churchill was a painter - not a good one, but bad art is
not illegal - who would face stiff penalties if he promoted his work as
made by an Indian if he were not, in fact, an Indian.
The Indian arts laws bow to tribal determinations of tribal citizenry or
membership. There's also an "artisan" category as a way for a Native nation
to claim an artist who does not meet its citizenship criteria, but who is
part of one of its families.
People began to check out Churchill's claims. Cherokee journalist David
Cornsilk verified that Churchill and his ancestors were not on the Cherokee
Nation rolls. Creek-Cherokee historian Robert W. Trepp did not find them on
the Muscogee (Creek) Nation rolls.
Churchill lashed out against tribal leaders, sovereignty, citizenship and
rolls, attacking Native people who did not support his claims as
"card-carrying Indians" and "blood police."
Then, he went tribe-shopping. He added Metis, then Keetoowah, variously
claiming to be an associate member, an enrolled member or 1/16 or 3/16
Oneida comedian Charlie Hill recalls Churchill interviewing him in 1978. "I
asked him, 'Are you Indian?' And he said, 'No.' Later, I heard that he was
saying he was Indian and wondered just how that happened."
Churchill started listing his various "Indian" credentials on resumes as he
moved into academe. He also moved into American Indian Movement circles,
but most of the activists did not accept him as an Indian or as an
AIM founders and leaders Dennis J. Banks and Clyde H. Bellecourt, both
Ojibwa, state that "Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an
Indian, and a member of [AIM], a situation that has lifted him into the
position of a lecturer on Indian activism. He has used [Denver AIM] to
attack the leadership of the official [AIM] with his misinformation and
Churchill took up ghostwriting for Oglala actor/activist Russell Means.
Together with a small following, they protest the annual Columbus parade in
As Churchill has lurched through Indian identities, he has not found a
single Native relative or ancestor. He is descended from a long line of
Churchills that Hank Adams has traced back to the Revolutionary War and
Europe. Adams, who is Assiniboine-Sioux and a member of the Frank's Landing
Indian Community, has successfully researched and exposed other
Adams traced Churchill's ancestors on both sides of his family, finding all
white people, including documented slave owners and at least one spy, but
The United Keetoowah Band has disassociated itself from Churchill, so he
will have to stop flashing that "associate member" card that has enabled
him to bully his way around campuses and newsrooms.
The reason it's important for Native nations to speak out about Native
identity issues is that they are the only ones who can say who their
citizens are and are not. If they don't speak out, other people and
entities will fill the silence.
It's important for Native mothers and fathers to speak out because
pseudo-Indians do things that affect our children.
Churchill will not be discriminated against on the basis of being Indian,
but he is placing our children and grandchildren in harm's way by creating
ill will and hostility against Indians. Native kids and elders who actually
look Native are the ones who suffer from the blowback.
It's important for Native people to speak out in order to counter the sort
of thing that Churchill, even after being so very publicly unmasked, is now
telling reporters: that he is Indian by virtue of community acceptance over
a prolonged period. While some people in Colorado believe one or another of
his stories, no Native nation and no Indian community of interest accepts
him as one of their own.
Native artists never knew nor embraced him, either as an artist or as a
Churchill once worked for news outlets, but has not been accepted as a
Native journalist, particularly by those he's viciously attacked after they
reported what they found: that he could not substantiate his Indian claims.
(This note is for any reporters and editors who are confused: Churchill is
the Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley of American Indian studies,
but without their talent. Churchill simply makes it up, too, plus he
invents Indian credentials. Keep in mind that no one accused their papers
of violating free speech when they fired frauds for cause.)
Colorado and all universities should respect Native nations at least as
much as they respect schools and other employers, but they don't. They
frown on people who falsify their written material and wrongly claim
degrees they did not earn and jobs they did not hold. But when people
falsely claim to be Native, it is seen by some as less serious, less
offensive and something anyone besides the Indians ought to decide.
Churchill got jobs, promotions, tenure and the Ethnic Studies chair at the
University of Colorado because he portrayed himself as American Indian.
Now he's wrapped himself in the First Amendment, carefully draped over his
Indian blanket. He's threatening to sue if he's fired for breach of
contract or for the shameful things he said about the 9/11 victims.
The university should fire him because he has perpetrated a fraud, and
moral turpitude is a deal breaker. The university shielded him from those
who tried to reveal the truth and looked the other way as he attacked a lot
of decent Native people.
If he sues, he will have to come into court as the American Indian man he
has claimed to be, and how is he going to do that? It is time for the
university to end this charade.
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the
Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for Indian