NEW YORK - National attacks on University of Colorado professor Ward
Churchill are raising questions of false pretenses as much as free speech.
A number of Native scholars and activists are challenging his posture of
speaking for American Indians in his inflammatory writings on the 9/11
terrorist attacks and even his claim to be an American Indian. Others
support his right to free speech in the face of ferocious attacks in the
national press and television and political calls for his dismissal from a
tenured position at the University of Colorado.
The furor centers on an essay entitled "On the Justice of Roosting
Chickens" that Churchill published on an Internet site several weeks after
the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was a highly
emotional screed filled with loathing for the United States government and
most of its citizens. It called the attacks a payback for what Churchill
described as "genocide" against Iraqi children and denied that the
perpetrators were cowards or Islamic fanatics, saying they were more like
soldiers. It also denied that the casualties at the World Trade Center were
innocent civilians, saying they were the technocrats of the financial
empire underlying the U.S. military machine.
He described them as being "busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly,
into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions,
each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling
distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a
better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty
befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the
sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing
Even though the article can only be described as anti-American propaganda,
crudely argued even by the standards of radical academics, it was almost
totally ignored at the time. It came back into view after Churchill and
seven other protestors were acquitted in late January of charges from a
protest at the Denver Columbus Day parade last year.
Supporters of Churchill charge that some radio talk show hosts, angry at
the acquittals, began to circulate the essay in retaliation. Its
reemergence coincided with a scheduled appearance by Churchill on a panel
at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Excerpts from the essay appeared
in national press reports, including the "little Eichmanns" reference to
Adolph Eichmann, the administrator of Hitler's attempt to exterminate
European Jews. Bill O'Reilly devoted two segments of his Fox Television
show, "The O'Reilly Factor," to the Hamilton engagement.
Churchill claims that the stories distorted his essay and took words out of
The stories struck a nerve, which Churchill's self-defense seems to have
aggravated. The governors of Colorado and New York denounced him, and
Hamilton College and members of the Colorado Legislature called for his
dismissal from the university.
The Oneida Indian Nation, which has historic ties to nearby Hamilton,
issued the following statement:
"It's disturbing that anyone would use such hateful speech, and do so while
claiming to be an American Indian when there is significant evidence that
he is not. Professor Churchill caused many in the media to falsely believe
an American Indian scholar could besmirch the lives of those who died on
9/11. Because of this, he owes every American Indian an apology.
"Likewise it is sad that he would perpetrate this apparent hoax on Hamilton
College, an institution founded to help educate Indian students." (Hamilton
College was founded by Samuel Kirkland, 18th century missionary to the
Oneidas, and the famous Oneida Chief Schenandoah is buried on its grounds.
The Oneida Nation owns Four Directions Media, publisher of Indian Country
Churchill resigned his position as head of the CU Ethnic Studies program
but kept his $96,000 per year teaching post. After initially planning to
move the panel to a larger auditorium, Hamilton College cancelled it,
citing credible threats of violence.
The Colorado University Board of Regents called for an emergency session
but, according to reports just before press time, had decided it did not
have legal authority to fire Churchill summarily from his tenured position.
Although the national furor struck with the unpredictable suddenness of a
Great Lakes storm, Churchill has long been a divisive and somewhat feared
figure in Indian country, especially among his former colleagues in the
American Indian Movement. Some prominent activists involved in earlier
confrontations have devoted a great deal of energy to investigating his
claim to be an American Indian himself and have found no evidence to
At various times, according to press reports, Churchill has described
himself as Cherokee, Keetoowah Cherokee, Muskogee, Creek and most recently
Meti. In a note in the online magazine Socialism and Democracy he wrote,
"Although I'm best known by my colonial name, Ward Churchill, the name I
prefer is Kenis, an Ojibwe name bestowed by my wife's uncle." In
biographical blurbs, he is identified as an enrolled member of the United
Keetoowah Band of Cherokees. But a senior member of the band with access to
tribal enrollment records told Indian Country Today that Churchill is not
listed. George Mauldin, tribal clerk in Tahlequah, Okla., told the Rocky
Mountain News, "He's not in the data base at all."
According to Jodi Rave, a well-known Native journalist and member of the
Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Three Affiliated Tribes, Churchill was enrolled as
an "associate member" of the Keetoowah by a former chairman who was later
impeached. The one other known member of the same program, since
discontinued, was President Bill Clinton. Rave said that she made this
discovery as a student in a journalism class at the University of Colorado.
She was also in a class taught by Churchill. When her article came out, she
said, he dropped her grade from an A to a C minus.
Suzan Shown Harjo, a columnist for ICT who has tracked Churchill's career,
said that aside from the in-laws of his late Indian wife, he has not been
able to produce any relatives from any Indian tribe.
Beyond the question of his personal identity is the question of his
standing to represent Indian opinion, not only on 9/11 but also in his
other published works. Mohawk ironworkers helped build the World Trade
Center and other monuments of the New York City skyline, and one crew was
actually at work in the flight path of the plane that struck the second
tower. St. Regis Mohawk Chief James Ransom noted that they joined rescue
teams at great personal risk.
Churchill's other writings repudiate not only the U.S. but also most Indian
tribal institutions. In one 1994 essay, he described tribal self government
as a "cruel hoax" carried out by "puppets" of "an advanced colonial
setting." He equated the status of Indian tribes in the U.S. to that of
European colonies in Asia and Africa. His analysis reflected an extreme
version of European left-wing ideology.
Far from suffering for his views, Churchill appears to have been sought out
by many in the universities as a representative of American Indian
thinking. But to many Native intellectuals, he is traveling under false
pretenses, both in his ideology and his personal identity.