As a high school teacher and a collector of oral history for my tribe, I find it troubling that professor Michael Yellow Bird of The University of Kansas would jeopardize the validity of oral history in his support of Ward Churchill. Ward Churchill’s scholarship is factual on many levels but his “identity theft” as an indigenous person only serves to place that scholarship and real history in serious doubt in the minds of the general population.
I’m not sure if American Indians are aware of the landmark Canadian Supreme Court decision, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997), which ruled tribal oral history was just as valid as European written history in a court of law involving land claims. A neo-con journalist up here in Canada picked up the story on Churchill’s defense that oral history supported his assertions that smallpox was intentionally introduced to the Mandan Nation by the American army. The Canadian journalist used this as an example that tribal oral history was based on “vague claims.”
My fear is lawyers will quickly use the Churchill saga as proof that oral history can be manipulated or fabricated. The end result is to discredit oral history in any future tribal land claim. Also, did Churchill ever interview the last Mandan speaker, Edwin Benson, to verify his assertions? Did the Mandan Nation ever mandate professor Yellow Bird or Churchill to speak on its behalf?
Professor Yellow Bird has surely contributed to the colonization of tribal oral history in his defense of Churchill.
– Craig Fontaine
Sagkeeng First Nation