The Headhunt for Ward Churchill

churchill-book2Ward Churchill is an American Indian writer and activist. He is a member of the United Keetoowah Cherokee (through his mother’s side) and also has Creek heritage (through his father’s side). Primarily, his work focuses on the historical treatment of political dissenters and Indians by the American settler government and proxy organizations/governments. His work often features controversial and provocative claims, written in a direct and very often confrontational style, such as the claim that the cumulative policies of the United States concerning its Indian population amounts to genocide as is defined under international law. His works are numerous and include A Little Matter of Genocide, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens (shown to the right), Pacifism as Pathology and Since Predator Came (a full bibliography can be found here).

Most recently, and most importantly as far as this post is concerned, his recent work, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, itself initially an essay that was expanded into book form, has achieved widespread circulation which in turn has resulted in both great publicity and condemnation from American conservatives and liberals alike.

The essay, which takes as its subject the World Trade Centre attacks and the ensuing academic and personal witch hunt against him, is the subject matter I plan to visit during this post.

It began back in 2001, when on September 12th he penned an op-ed piece published online for Dark Night Field Notes in which he gave his “gut reaction” to the attacks and their possible causes. This op-ed piece is what would later be expanded into On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality. It be noted that both the initial op-ed essay and 2003 book initially received little public attention.

However in January 2005, when Churchill was planning to attend and give a lecture at Hamilton College in Syracuse, NY a local paper published an article focusing on Churchill’s upcoming speech at the college (which was sponsored by the Kirkland Project) and two specific words used in the above mentioned article, “little Eichmanns.” As a quick aside on the Kirkland Project – it had already been attacked by a number of right-wing conservative organizations, including Lynne Cheney’s American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) and David Horowitz’ Center for the Study of Popular Culture and its spin-off, Students for Academic Freedom (an organization which actually seeks to crush academic freedom). Previously a well coordinated attack plan at Hamilton College had resulted in the cancellation of a class which was to have been taught by former political prisoner Susan Rosenberg (who was to speak on a panel with Prof. Churchill).

As is usually the case, the Syracuse paper’s story and its out-of-context focus on the “little Eichmanns” phrase was picked up by both the AP and the national conservative media outlets like Fox News, in particular Bill O’Reilly, who urged his viewers to contact Hamilton College to complain about the event.

The result was both Churchill and Hamilton College receiving thousands of phone calls, emails and letters including threats of violence and death.

In then went about that despite its initial vows to protect freedom of speech, Hamilton College President Joan Hinde Stewart cancelled the program on January 31. The reason for the cancellation was initially attributed to concerns over security. However it later came to light that the primary force behind the cancellation was threats from alumni to withdraw financial support. The director of the Kirkland Project was soon removed and the Project threatened with de-funding.

Following this series of events, Colorado University’s interim chancellor Philip DiStefano (where Churchill was at the time a professor), despite its policies concerning academic freedom, moved to immediately denounce Churchill’s comments as “abhorrent” and “repugnant.” It followed that two days later Colorado Congressmen Bob Beauprez demanded Churchill’s resignation. Beauprez would later boast on talk-radio that he had discussed the Churchill case with President Bush himself on Air Force One. Within the same week, Colorado Governor Bill Owens also demanded that Churchill be fired, and both chambers of the Colorado legislature passed resolutions condemning Churchill and threatening to withhold funds from Colorado University.

Following this the Colorado University Board of Regents convened an emergency meeting to discuss the now snowballing controversy. Although the meeting was billed as a public one, an undergraduate student who attempted to read a brief statement on behalf of his fellow students at the meeting was immediately arrested. That particular student later had the charges against him dropped, but community activist Shareef Aleem would go on to face a sixteen-year prison term for allegedly assaulting officers who attempted to forcibly eject him when he asked why the students were not being allowed to speak. A public meeting indeed!

Following the emergency session, the Regents issued a blanket “apology” to the entire country for Churchill’s statements, and accepted Chancellor DiStefano’s proposal that he, Law dean David Getches, and Arts & Sciences dean Todd Gleeson convene an “ad hoc” committee to determine within 30 days whether any of Churchill’s public writing or speeches “crossed” some undefined boundary of protected speech. The Regents’ own rules on academic freedom and Colorado University’s internal faculty procedures – to say nothing of the First Amendment – were to be completely disregarded. Colorado University then posted DiStefano’s statements prominently on its website.

Colorado University students in Boulder sponsored a speech by Churchill on their campus which Chancellor DiStefano attempted to cancel at the last minute, citing “security” concerns, but the possibility of a federal court injunction persuaded him otherwise. More than 1500 people attended; they were orderly and extremely supportive of Churchill.

Despite on-going efforts by Bill O’Reilly, David Horowitz and his “Students for Academic Freedom,” and even personal communiqués from Governor Bill Owens to College Republican around the country to have his speeches cancelled, during the spring Ward Churchill speaks to large and overwhelmingly supportive audiences at the University of Hawai’i, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, the University of California-Berkeley, Reed College, Pitzer College, the University of California-Monterey Bay, and at numerous public events in Denver and the San Francisco Bay area. President Jordan of Eastern Washington University, then vying for a job in Denver, cancels a talk; he is unanimously rebuked by his faculty and his students bring Ward Churchill to speak anyway. Ironically, only the very “liberal” Antioch College and Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon actually cancel scheduled appearances.

As a show of defiance against the Chancellor and the Reagents, nearly 200 tenured faculty members at UC-Boulder take out an ad “demanding that school officials halt their investigation of Ward Churchill’s work.” On March 22 this is followed by a full-page open letter endorsed by hundreds of scholars across the country, demanding that the Regents’ and administration’s “utterly gratuitous and inappropriate action[s]” be reversed. During this period thousands of individuals sign petitions supporting Churchill and hundreds write letters of protest to Colorado University officials.

Also in defiance of the Reagents and Chancellor, Colorado University President Elizabeth Hoffman herself warns an emergency session of the Boulder Faculty Assembly of a “new McCarthyism,” pointing out that there is “no question that there’s a real danger that the group of people [who] went after Churchill now feel empowered.” Within 5 days of her warning she announces her resignation from Colorado University.

By mid-March, having bought time with its “ad hoc” investigation of his every word, the University negotiates with Churchill. Churchill states that he is willing to go into an early retirement in exchange only for nominal compensation on the condition that the Regents formally and publicly affirm the University’s processes of academic review and their own rules on academic freedom. They refuse.

Following this farcical attempt at negotiations, Interim Chancellor DiStefano, who never had never actually consulted Ward Churchill himself on his own defence or even officially informed him of the investigation, publicly announces the findings of the “ad hoc” committee. To no one else’s surprise, but apparently to his own surprise, the Interim Chancellor discovered that all of Churchill’s writings and speeches are protected by the First Amendment. But in the meantime, he states, other allegations have surfaced which require further investigation.

Beginning in late January, the “Churchill controversy”, as it was dubbed by conservative commentators, is highlighted by O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Joe Scarborough, and other neo-conservative media personalities. Also a Denver Clear Channel radio station (closely aligned with Fox News) began devoting 6-8 hours a day to disparaging Ward Churchill, and The O’Reilly Factor highlights Churchill in over 40 segments. The two major Denver newspapers as well as the two Boulder dailies (three of the four now owned by Scripps-Howard) engage in uniformly negative coverage, running 400 stories in the next two months.

Following typical conservative political tactics, this “news” coverage rapidly turned into an all-out attempt at character assassination. The coverage chose to highlight the opinions of an ex-wife, former in-laws, and long-term political adversaries, such as Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt and the American Indian Movement-Grand Governing Council (Churchill, like Russell Means is associated with the Autonomous American Indian Movement). Other irrelevant details such as Churchill’s driving record, credit history, employment and military record, high school football team, and even baby pictures are scrutinized by the “news”. One week the theme is vague accounts of heretofore unreported “intimidation” supposedly occurring a decade or two earlier; then supposed misrepresentations of his academic credentials; then claims that he attempted to incite violence. As each set of claims was proven false, reporters simply moved on to another.

By this time the Chancellor chose to invoke existing faculty procedures and refers numerous allegations culled from this media barrage to Colorado University’s Standing Committee on Research Misconduct (SCRM). One set of allegations that were highlighted concerned Churchill’s interpretation of the U.S. Army’s participation in the spreading of smallpox to Indians and about the implementation of “blood quantum” requirements pursuant to the 1887 General Allotment Act and the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. A second set of accusations is widely characterized as “plagiarism,” by the Chancellor and other witch hunt fellows, although these claims primarily derived from a claim that Churchill wrote material published under someone else’s name. In addition, Chancellor DiStefano instructs SCRM to investigate Churchill’s American Indian identity. Disregarding the University’s own rules on confidentiality, the allegations are released to the press even before Prof. Churchill receives them.

Churchill protested the investigation as pretextual punishment of protected speech and contests the convening of a racial purity board, but provided SCRM with evidence countering each allegation, including evidence that he met three of the five standard federal definitions of “American Indian – self-identification, genealogy, tribal enrolment, blood quantum and community recognition. Contrary to popular claims that he has identified with different groups at different times, the record is clear that he has always identified as Cherokee, later adding Creek (after meeting his father), and now lists Creek/Cherokee Métis (Métis meaning one of mixed ancestry and culture), however, as I’ll talk about a bit later, the jury is still out on Churchill’s “Indianess.”

As a result of this assault on Churchill’s “Indianess”, the office of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Tahlequah, Oklahoma was overwhelmed by media inquiries concerning Prof. Churchill’s status as an enrolled member of the tribe. On May 17 Churchill learned that, in the face of ongoing pressure, the Band had issued a statement asserting that he was never on the band’s membership rolls. Churchill issued a response documenting his May 1994 enrolment as an Associate Member; on May 19 the Band confirms this as fact. In fact, in the 1990s, according to the Cherokee Band Chief John Ross, “When Ward applied for enrolment, and it should be pointed out that we invited him to do so, he had to provide documentation just like anybody else. We checked it out. He’s who he says he is. End of story.” Further the band went onto verify that Churchill is “at least 3/16 Cherokee Indian by blood.” Further, according to Churchill, “I was asked if I wanted to try to document my father’s [Creek] side of things, because he was at least as much Indian as Mom. But he’s dead now. I never knew him, and I don’t know my relatives on that side. So I just let it go. I make the reference in my self-identification out of respect, but I’ve never claimed the quantum because I don’t believe in [quantum]. To me, it’s no different whether I’m 3/16 or 3/8. You don’t measure identity by either pounds or percentage points unless you’re some kind of Nazi.”

As a short digression on Churchill’s community recognition as an Indian (meaning recognition as an Indian by other Indians) I would just like to point a few things out. Churchill has long been recognized as an Indian by not just the Colorado Indian community. In Boulder, where he lived for over twenty years, Churchill’s record speaks for itself on the subject. He was hired as an Indian by the ‘committee of the Boulder Valley School District’s Title-IV Indian Education Project in 1977. He was hired as an Indian by the all-native staff of the American Indian Educational Opportunity Program at the University of Colorado Boulder campus in 1978. “He has always been accepted as an Indian by the Indians in this town,” according to Norbert S. Hill, Jr., an Oneida and former director of the Educational Opportunity Program, now head of the Boulder-based American Indian Science and Engineering Society. Hill cites that Churchill has been repeatedly honoured by the Oyate Indian Student Organization at University of Colorado over the years. “I don’t agree with him on a lot of things,” Hill concludes, “but I’ve never known anybody who worked harder for Indian rights.”

As could have been easily foreseen, the ongoing media feeding frenzy combined with organized right-wing writing campaigns resulted in a barrage of e-mails, telephone calls and letters to Churchill and Colorado University’s Department of Ethnic Studies. While many faculty members express support for Churchill and the Department, each receive several thousand hostile and usually virulently racist e-mails. Students of colour on the Boulder campus experience a heightened level of racist hostility as well. Churchill also received a steady stream of death threats and also had his home vandalized. The University witch hunt ignored all of this; the racist attacks were never condemned and the Department received no additional support or security. The Ethnic Studies faculty finally decided to send an Open Letter to the Regents and all of the relevant University administrators, requesting support and attaching excerpts of e-mails which are racist, homophobic and threatened violence. Again, in surprise to anyone else, DiStefano apparently founds these threats to be neither “abhorrent” nor “repugnant.” The Department never receives acknowledgement of its Open Letter from any University official.

During the summer term Churchill also teaches a Maymester course. He went on to win a 2005 teaching award, voted on by students, but its sponsor (the Colorado University alumni association) withholds the award “pending the outcome of the investigation,” despite the fact that the allegations have nothing to do with teaching.

The Rocky Mountain News, having put at least 5 reporters on “special assignment” for several weeks, runs a 5-part, multi-page series with its conclusions on each allegation being investigated by the SCRM in its purportedly “confidential” process. In response to this the University’s spokesperson asserted that only allegations from individual complainants, not news reports, could be investigated. Immediately thereafter, DiStefano, as complainant, sent 59 pages of stories downloaded off the Rocky Mountain News website to the SCRM, which forwards the entire package to Churchill with instructions to answer “any new allegations.” The farce continued.

Next Churchill filed a formal grievance with the faculty Privilege and Tenure Committee concerning the pretextual nature of the investigations against him and the University’s violations of his academic freedom, First Amendment, and due process rights. He subsequently filed additional grievances concerning the University’s persistent violations of confidentiality and its refusal to grant him a sabbatical. He was eventually informed that the P&T Committee will only consider the grievances about the investigative process after the process has been completed.

Finally, after this, the SCRM completed its “inquiry” phase. It decided to drop or disregard numerous allegations, including the charge of “ethnic fraud,” but forwards seven allegations for “investigation.” These involve matters of historical interpretation (Prof. Churchill’s attribution of intentionality with respect to two smallpox epidemics and his characterization of the blood quantum requirements of the 1887 General Allotment Act and the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act) and questions of attribution of authorship regarding three articles (one he never claimed authorship of; another a pamphlet which a long-defunct political organization had asked him to use; the third a piece which he readily acknowledged to have ghostwritten).

By late August 2005 Denver newspapers reported that Churchill was scheduled for a sabbatical in the spring semester of 2006. Interim Provost Susan Avery immediately announces that although Churchill’s sabbatical had been approved by Dean Todd Gleeson almost a year earlier, she had never forwarded it to the Regents for approval. Prof. Churchill filed a grievance and, pending its outcome, announces his intent to “un-bank” two of the six overload courses which he had already taught and for which he was owed the equivalent of “comp time.” In October, 2005 Dean Gleeson refuses to allow Prof. Churchill to un-bank more than one course in the spring. He stated that this was because Churchill needed to be present on campus, but then contradicted himself by suggesting that Churchill take an unpaid leave. After Churchill notifies University officials that he will file suit, they concede that he can un-bank courses in the spring and fall of 2006.

In the fall-winter period of 2005 the SCRM appointed the investigative committee. Because of the poisoned atmosphere within the University, Churchill requested an entirely external committee including experts in his field of American Indian Studies. Given the prior actions of law dean David Getches, Churchill specifically objects to the inclusion of the Colorado University law faculty. SCRM chair Joseph Rosse appointed a committee dominated by 3 Colorado University insiders and chaired by a law professor. The two outside members included an American Indian Studies expert and a native professor of federal Indian law. Local media pundits immediately began to attack the two outsiders for having previously made general statements acknowledging the importance of Churchill’s work. Within 48 hours of their appointment and subsequent media backlash, the two outside members resigned, leaving the committee without an expert in the field and without any persons of colour. Two additional members are eventually appointed, a white federal Indian law scholar and a Chicano anthropologist. The committee proceeds without any American Indian scholars or experts in American Indian studies.

The next year, in the winter-spring period, Churchill submitted voluminous responses to, and meets with, the investigative committee. Because of the committee’s lack of knowledge in Churchill’s field, much of his time is devoted to basic questions of history and methodology. Four American Indian scholars appeared as witnesses to confirm his interpretation of historical matters, as well as the methodology and standards employed in American Indian Studies and in native oral traditions. The committee refused Churchill’s repeated requests for extensions of time to submit responses, and only allowed him to question witnesses, his own, by typing questions and e-mailing them.

In May, 2006 the investigative committee issued a 124-page report which, despite its many concessions to the flaws in the process, concluded that Churchill did engage in research misconduct on the seven allegations. Contradicting the evidence presented by all of the American Indian witnesses, the entirely non-Indian committee accuses Churchill of “disrespecting” American Indian oral traditions. Obscenely, the committee concludes that these are offences for which a tenured faculty member can be fired, and the members recommend that Churchill be terminated or suspended for several years. The severity of recommended sanctions appears to be a result of what the report described as Churchill’s “bad attitude.” The report was immediately criticized on many grounds, both substantive and procedural. (See here for problems with the report.)

Following this culmination of the witch hunt and resulting academic and public lynching of Churchill by both the university and conservative media, DiStefano, who had thus far publicly condemned Churchill, convened an inquiry into “every word” he has published or publicly uttered, solicited allegations and then forwarded them to the SCRM as “complainant,” now served as the sentencing judge, and proceeded to sanction the investigative committee’s report and recommended that Churchill be fired. DiStefano, too, chose to cite Churchill’s “attitude.”

In response to this outcome Churchill filed an internal appeal with the Privilege & Tenure Committee and later a law suit against the university.

With that lengthy summation of events now done, I would like to say a few more things about these most unfortunate and enraging events carried out by the conservative bourgeoisie and their academic attack dogs.

We are now living in a time when our basic civil and human rights are curtailed and endangered, in the name of security, by a ruling class that seeks to stamp out all dissent. Now more than ever it is critical to resist those who would have us believe that the current state of affairs is inevitable. We cannot allow ourselves to be silenced.

I do not believe, and I feel it is clear as day, that the University of Colorado fired Professor Churchill as the result of “research misconduct.” I feel he was the subject and victim of a right-wing witch hunt by the patriarchal, white supremacist capital-imperial state. The attack on Churchill and his work is part of a wider attempt by organizations like Lynne Cheney’s American Council of Trustees and Alumni and David Horowitz’ Center for the Study of Popular Culture to silence criticism of government policies and to discredit alternative, particularly Indigenous, histories and perspectives.

The attack on Churchill is an attack on all Indians, all dissenters and all those who may even think of saying or doing something critical of the current neo-con government and agenda. As an Indian I find it particularly obscene that a committee with not one single Indian present on it would seek to pass negative judgement on Churchill’s research methods concerning Indian history and oral traditions. Indians everywhere should be up in arms over this attack on our people and history, and indeed many are, as can be seen by the accusations of academic misconduct against the committee by professors and scholars of indigenous ethnicity (here and here). Regardless, any attempts by the bourgeoisie state to silence any criticism of America’s founding mythology or status as the eternal beacon of democracy and most peace loving of nations must be opposed. Truth is truth, regardless of the distortions one side may try to spin on it and access to pure truth must always be defended. However, it can only be with the destruction of the bourgeoisie state, and its replacement with a new society based on true participatory democracy, socialism, respect for indigenous people and all peoples of colour, the end of patriarchy, and the defence of the environment that such doors to truth can be kept open for all times.

One other thing I would like to discuss is that for some people, the jury is still out on Churchill’s exact ethnic identity. Churchill has his claims, his opponents have theirs, I tend to come down on his side, but I still reserve some space for final judgement. I do find it interesting, and somewhat disturbing, that the UKB of Cherokee would go back on their previous public statements concerning his membership. As I pointed out, during the whole mess of events, they publicly stated he was not a member (later retracted), and that the statement flatly contradicted statements in the previous decade that were very much positive that he was a Cherokee by blood. I do feel that it was a result of political and likely economic, pressure that the UKB spurned him, but as I am Menominee, not Cherokee, I cannot claim to have any inside knowledge. All we have is their past and current statements to go by. However, with that said, I would like to say that it is my view, as both an Indian and an anthropologist, that Churchill, more than any other contemporary author or scholar, presents an Indigenous view of the history of the United States from Columbus’ confused “discovery” down to the current day. Many Indians, who are undeniably Indians, such as Russell Means (Lakota), Michael Yellow Bird (Arikara/Hidatsa) and Carrie Dann (Western Shoshone) have to come to his defence, writing and saying that his views are unequivocally those of American Indians. So in the end it does not matter what ethnicity Churchill is, because as I said before, truth is truth, no matter the mouth that speaks it. So if one day it is demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Churchill does not hold Indian blood, then so be it, but it will not change the fundamental truths contained in his words.

All Indigenous people and all those concerned with the maintenance of our basic human and civil rights need to oppose this witch hunt against academic freedom and freedom of speech. Some people may hold unpopular views, but as the great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg said, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” If we abandon this to the winds, then Churchill’s claim that Americanism and Nazism are essentially the same will become true, if, as Churchill claims, it hasn’t already come to pass.

There are many fronts in the struggle to preserve access to truth and the freedom to think and speak critically. In addition to whatever avenues you are already pursuing to redress injustice, or even if you are yet to become involved in such a moment, I urge you from the depth of my heart to support Ward Churchill’s lawsuit against the University of Colorado.

For more information please check out the Ward Churchill Solidarity Network (WCSN), from whom this time-line of events is largely derived (with some alterations and additions by me, as well as further information from organizations such as the American Indian Movement – Autonomous Chapters).

On a final note, you can find the petition to have him reinstated here.

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Bob Robideau, Steve Robideau, Joe Stuntz, Bobby Garcia, Roque Duenas, Nilak Butler, Anna Mae Aquash, , and all the others who gave of themselves for our People.

Mitakuye oyasin


Posted on August 12, 2008, in Anti-Police, Indigenous Struggles, State Repression. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Headhunt for Ward Churchill.

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