Friday, April 10, 2009

Remember Ward Churchill?

Gara Kamiya has a good article on the infamous Ward Churchill, who just won a jury finding that he had been illegally fired from a tenured position at the University of Colorado in connection with his "little Eichmanns" article about the 9/11 attacks in New York: Ward Churchill's win is scholarship's loss Salon 04/09/09. In it, Kamiya relies heavily on the findings of an independent academic committee that the University convened to examine the quality of Churchill's professional scholarship, which appeared dated 05/09/06 under the title, Report of the Investigative Committee of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct at the University of Colorado at Boulder concerning Allegations of Academic Misconduct against Professor Ward Churchill. Short version: his scholarship is dishonest. This article, The General Allotment "Eligibility" Hoax: Distortions of Law, Policy and History in Derogation of Indian Tribes (14 Wicazo Sa Review 251; Spring 1999) by John LaVelle of the University of New Mexico, had touched on a particularly problematic claim of Churchill's years before the jingo wingnuts had discovered him as a cause of the week.

It was four years ago, after the re-election of Cheney and Bush but before Katrina blew out most of their remaining credibility with the public, when the residents of wingnuttia dredged up the article Churchill had done just after 9/11 in 2001. They went into a frenzy about his being un-American and various superlative degrees of contemptible.

I first heard about Ward Churchill in a rant by Nashville's wannabee arbiter of Patriotic Correctness, Charlie Daniels. Chuckie got himself pretty worked up over Ward Churchill. I didn't even know what the controversy was about, so I looked up his Web page. Looking through the articles he had linked there, he struck me as some kind of ethnic-nationalist and maybe a Holocaust denier. I posted about him several times in 2005: 02/01/05, 02/10/05, 04/11/05 and 04/20/05.

And this article, The Tragedy of Ward Churchill by Matthew Rothschild The Progressive 03/04/05 provided examples showing that Churchill was using arguments about the Holocaust right out of the Holocaust denier playbook.

Digby also wrote a notable commentary on the flap in Witnessing History Hullabaloo blog 02/06/05. Among other things, she noted there:

And, of course, the true irony is that all this breast beating and calls for dismissal and censorship comes on the heels of years of braying about political correctness in academia squelching free speech and dissenting points of view. It seems like only yesterday that I was reading conservative intellectuals like Walter Williams saying universities are "the equivalent of the Nazi brownshirt thought-control movement" and Paul Hollander calling it "the most widespread form of institutionalized intolerance in American higher education." (I won't even mention that champion of intellectual diversity David Horowitz.) Well now, it would appear that "political correctness vs academic freedom" comes in all flavors.
What Kamiya does not do in his article is to look at the ideological perspective in Churchill's work, which in my mind is a rightwing, ethnic-nationalist viewpoint. But John LaVelle includes a discussion about the political/ideological implications of Churchill's work. He discusses both Churchill's work and that of his close collaborator M. Annette Jaimes.

The General Allotment "eligibility" hoax of the title of LaVelle's paper has to do with the General Allotment Act of 1877, which incorporated the then-prevailing policy of assimilation of Native American tribes. It is also called the Dawes Act. Churchill claims that the law imposed a racial test based on blood ancestry to determine the membership of a person in an Indian tribe. But, as LaVelle writes in italics, "the General Allotment act in fact contains no such requirement".

But in addition to the empirical problem, LaVelle describes how Churchill and Jaines use that claim to argue against such a procedure that is commonly used by tribes today to determine whether a person qualifies as a tribal descendant. These days, when Indian reservations contain not only valuable mineral resource to exploit but profitable casino businesses, giving someone legal rights to be part of a tribe based on "adoption" would open the door to various kinds of mischief that could be very costly to the tribes. They argue that reliance on such criteria today is wrong and even racist because the Dawes Act included such a requirement (which in reality it did not) and this requirement of evil intent by the federal government should not be perpetuated by Native Americans today.

LaVelle argues that "James-Guerrero and Churchill apparrently have fabricated this 'requirement' in order to foment, through the presentation of false and misleading information, popular hostility toward Indian tribes." (my emphasis) he talks about "Churchill's distinctive anti-tribal ideology".

In an earlier article on Churchill's work, a book review of Churchill's Indians Are Us?: Culture and Genocide in Native North America in American Indian Quarterly 20/1 (Winter, 1996), he writes:

Through the course of all his writings, Churchill gradually has emerged as a spokesman of sorts for those persons derisively referred to as Indian "wannabees"-individuals with no American Indian ancestry or tribal affiliation who nonetheless hold themselves out to the public as "Indians" by aggressively inserting themselves into the political affairs of real Indian people. Churchill's appeal among the "wannabees" lies both in the boldness with which he expresses contempt for Indian tribes, and in the scholarly facade he gives his anti-tribal propositions; indeed, many Churchill fans appear to have been won over by the mere fact that Churchill's books contain an abundance of endnotes. By researching those copious endnotes, however, the discerning reader will discover that, notwithstanding all the provocative sound and fury rumbling through his essays, Churchill's analysis overall is sorely lacking in historical/factual veracity and scholarly integrity.

In Indians Are Us? this problem is best illustrated in Churchill's recurring denunciations of the right of Indian tribes to determine their own members. Tribal self-determination is, of course, an inherent attribute of tribal sovereignty, cherished and fiercely guarded by Indian people against all efforts to deprive tribes of this fundamental right. What is intriguing about Churchill's assault on tribal self-determination is that Churchill launches his attack, ironically, under the guise of championing Indian rights, invoking, in the process, an altogether remarkable revisionist depiction of the history of relations between Indian tribes and the United States government. [my emphasis]
And that "revisionist depiction" is based on the false claim about the Dawes Act that DeVelle describes in his later article linked above.

In other words, behind his militant ethnic posturing, Ward Churchill actually takes positions opposing many of the actual efforts that Indian tribes have made to protect their tribal rights and their heritage. In the 1996 review, LeVelle gives this example:

In "Nobody's Pet Poodle," Churchill calumniates Indian rights advocates who successfully lobbied Congress to enact the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a piece of anti-fraud legislation widely praised by Indian leaders and detested by Churchill. In the course of his tirade, Churchill compares Indians to dogs, suggesting that like poodles and Afghan hounds, tribal members "also sport their pedigree papers" (p. 90, emphasis in original). [my emphasis in bold]
Churchill opposes the concept of Indian tribes and even the use of the word "tribe" itself, in the book reviewed by LaVelle. And, apart from specific legal issues and strategies, LaVelle lays out why the political outlook Churchill advocates is essentially hostile to efforts for self-empowerment for Indians in America:

Genuine self-empowerment for Indian people ... is inextricably attached to the dignity accorded Indian tribes themselves as such, for real Indian self-empowerment is made manifest only when Indian tribes are granted their due respect as sovereign nations, with an inherent, inalienable right of tribal self-determination. Any attempt to dislodge the principle of Indian self-determination from the sovereignty inhering in Indian tribes as such is, in reality, an attempt to tear asunder and destroy the unique tribal values that make up the very essence of Indian people's continuing existence as Indians.

The inherent right of Indian tribes to determine their own members is, of course, the most critical factor in the process whereby Indian self-determination is transformed into Indian self-empowerment, for if non-Indians can succeed in usurping this fundamental tribal prerogative and themselves seize control of the right to ascertain who is and who is not an Indian, then by their sheer numbers these non-Indians will quickly overwhelm whatever tenuous political power real Indian people have retained in American society. In this disastrous scenario, non-Indians will rapidly supplant tribal values with their own invasive non-Indian values, in accor- dance with dominant societal norms permitting and even encouraging individuals to accrue political power by any artifice whatsoever-including that of opportunistically and capriciously defining themselves to be "Indians." [my emphasis]
I agree with Gary Kamiya's take on this that the jury finding in Churchill's favor on his dismissal is a good thing for academic freedom, because in the end he was fired for expressing a controversial opinion. However, the academic committee that examined his scholarhip found that it was bad enough, and even downright dishonest enough, that there was cause for dismissal from his tenured position. I hope he'll either clean up his act in a major way, and that the University will revisit his case if academic misconduct continues. And why anyone should regard Ward Churchill as a "leftist", much less a "liberal", is beyond me. But the minds of Rush's dittoheads work in strange ways.


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