Russell: Churchill’s third jury
Ward Churchill’s second jury has spoken. That would be the jury in his wrongful termination lawsuit that found, not irrationally, that Churchill would still be a tenured full professor at the University of Colorado if he had not written an essay faulting the victims of the World Trade Center bombing for the location of their employment.
“Little Eichmanns,” he called them, in some half-witted parody of Hannah Arendt’s observations in her masterful work “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” (1963). Arendt, unlike Churchill, was an intellectual of substance and great accomplishment, and I doubt that he’s read much of her writings. Had he understood “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951), much of what he published in his career would have been done differently.
|American Indians are oppressed peoples, but the way out for us is community organizing rather than gunplay.|
In keeping with my normal practice of revealing my biases, I admit to being most offended by Churchill’s “Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America” (1998). It is, perhaps, his justification for that famous photograph of the learned professor with an assault rifle. My complaint comes from having worked with Cesar Chavez, admired Martin Luther King Jr., and spent no small amount of my life urging young Indians to train as “briefcase warriors.” American Indians are oppressed peoples, now as well as historically, but the way out for us is community organizing rather than gunplay.
This fundamental disagreement about the role of an American Indian university professor colors my views of Churchill. Eichmann, Arendt famously observed, was not a particularly bright cog in a genocidal machine. Assuming everyone agrees that capitalism is a genocidal machine (although I, for one, do not), the idea that one who happens to be present in the World Trade Center is a cog in that machine is preposterous.
A college student doing an internship at a stock brokerage? A college student waiting tables at Windows on the World restaurant? Forgive my fixation on college students, but Churchill is supposed to care about them. Toting an assault rifle requires no college degree, but he is – or was – a professor.
The “little Eichmanns” absurdity brings me back to Churchill’s first jury, American Indians. Maybe I don’t get out enough, but I know very few Indians who were not offended enough by that remark to ask “Who is this Indian professor?” All of the mainstream reporting styled Churchill an Indian.
While I too was offended, I remember seeing that card from the United Keetoowah Band on a Web site, so I did not have anything to say about Churchill’s bona fides. If the Keetoowahs wanted to claim him, I support their right to do so. It turns out they didn’t; he abused their trust, and this public insult to the victims of Sept. 11 was more than they could stand. When they told their story, Churchill’s last shred of cover as an Indian was gone.
|Churchill’s idea of self-identification means individuals get to draw the circles. I say tribes get to draw the circles.|
Churchill’s first jury was the Indian community, to the extent that it is a community, and that jury was not unanimous. There are individuals who are willing to claim Churchill as Indian. Last I looked, however, no individual could confer a tribal identity.
In anticipation of Churchill’s apologists, let us incinerate a straw man: blood quantum.
Make a Venn diagram. One circle is Indians by blood without regard to how much blood. The other is Indians by citizenship. They overlap, but not completely. The Cherokee freedmen, those without Cherokee blood anyway, are Indians by citizenship, a Cherokee citizenship they had under Cherokee law before the 14th Amendment gave them U.S. citizenship and, indeed, before Cherokees maintaining tribal relations had U.S. citizenship.
The issue is not whether those two circles completely overlap. They don’t. The issue is who gets to locate the circles. Churchill’s idea of self-identification means individuals get to draw the circles. I say tribes get to draw the circles, and this is why I was willing to recognize Churchill as a citizen of the United Keetoowah Band if they were.
What about people who are not enrolled but claim they are “part Indian?” Count me among the wags who like to ask “Which part?” Whatever your attitude, there is nothing wrong with claiming tribal descent rather than tribal citizenship if the claim is true. It seems to me that a claim of descent, when true, carries only the legal effect a tribe says it does and protection under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That is, if somebody discriminates against an individual because they are thought to be Indian it doesn’t matter whether they actually are. The act protects everyone from invidious discrimination, even when it’s mistaken.
So the real world is divided into Indians (tribal citizens), descendants (without regard to blood quantum), and imaginary Indians.
The imaginary Indians become particularly threatening when, like Churchill, they become highly visible in a manner that discredits everything they touch. As we speak, the Cherokee Nation is erecting a veteran’s center to serve and honor returning veterans. Is this the act of a nation that considers Sept. 11 a deserved case of chickens coming home to roost?
What can real Indians do to protect themselves against imaginary Indians? This is a lot more complicated than it sounds, and will require another column. In the meantime, Churchill is getting to be the age when most people consider what will be his third jury: his legacy.
It is a good thing that people remember you as somebody who made the world better than you found it.
It is a good thing that people remember you as somebody who made the world better than you found it. Individuals who write and teach certainly understand that at some point, but it’s easy to forget in the hurly-burly of hundreds of students and “publish or perish.”
Churchill is eligible for Social Security right now. Even if the court gives him back his job, he is close enough to the end of his career to sum it up or at least consider summing it up. It’s at this stage when Indian people begin to be regarded as “elders,” in the sense of having lived a good life of contribution to the tribal community. Or not.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and an associate professor of criminal justice at Indiana University. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Bloomington and can be reached at email@example.com.