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Churchill's identity revealed in wake of Nazi comment

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A public speaking engagement at an Eastern college has turned hotly
controversial for Ward Churchill, a professor and until last week the
chairman of Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Colorado at
Boulder.

Churchill, a self-professed American Indian, is a prolific and highly
polemic writer on Indian issues. Shortly after the murderous attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001 in New York, Washington, D.C. and over Pennsylvania,
Professor Churchill widely circulated an article in which he compared the
victims of those attacks to Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann, and to all
appearances called their horrific deaths a "befitting ... penalty" for the
"little Eichmanns' ... participation."

This week the Boulder professor's public representation of the 9/11 victims
became the focal point of a serious broadside. New York's Governor George
Pataki chastised Hamilton College for inviting a "bigoted terrorist
supporter" to "a forum." Hundreds of 9/11 survivors have similarly
protested to Hamilton College for hosting such a person, and the furor has
already forced Churchill to give up his department chair, as he wrote to
his superiors: "The present political climate has rendered me a liability
in terms of representing either my department, the college, or the
university." The university will allow Churchill to keep his teaching
position, which is tenured but not safe from a frontal campaign such as
Churchill is likely to continue to face. The focus of calls now is for
Churchill to resign or be fired from his tenured position.

The case of a professor or any other American exercising the right of free
speech is always important to us. We support that fundamental right more
than any other and believe that even the extreme views of others (which
sometimes become mainstream) must be defended against any force that would
silence our First Amendment rights as citizens and as free human beings.

The nature of Churchill's decidedly offensive remarks, however, forces us
to critique in general the injurious approach to scholarship and basic
human decency. We defend the right to broadcast and publish, but propose it
is reprehensible to excoriate innocent human beings who have suffered great
loss by rubbing salt in deep wounds simply to prove a political point and
simply to strike (one more time) a political posture on behalf of the far
left and under the guise of American Indian sentiment. Wrapped intimately
with American Indian themes in his writings and lectures, and shielded
apparently by his own American Indian Movement (AIM) security team,
Churchill projects the image of the quintessential American Indian activist
and/or warrior - angry, defiant, insulting, forceful and accusatory.
Churchill sometimes captures the historical truth of a thing, but only to
load it like deadly ammunition into his ideological machine gun.

In our own pages this week, Churchill asserts that his remarks have
received "widespread and grossly inaccurate media coverage." No doubt this
is happening, and a good range of commentators will have a heyday with
Churchill's attitude on the issues of terrorism and the causes and
justifications he has professed for the attacks of 9/11. No doubt he will
be vilified for his anti-Americanism and his scholarship, and there will be
much misinformation about his positions. A careful reading of his article
on the subject, however, gives a clear sense of the gist of Churchill's
words; and we submit that any reasonable and decent human being would find
them to be disgusting and cheap words, a callous insult to the dead and
wounded in the horrific events of that fateful day.

Being in the crucible of hostility is not new to the chip-on-the-shoulder
professor, who has become a celebrity for jumping into the polemic melee
over issues big and small, internal and external to the Native world. Even
in the question of personal identity, the professor's position is
controversial. Churchill's Indian status is not verifiable in the usual
ways of checking into tribal membership. We are expansive here from a
national position on recognized and non-recognized tribes, southern nations
and global indigenous people, but the question of relations and proper
belonging in the tribal circles in the United States and Canada is
generally verifiable for Indian observers and such appears to be completely
lacking in Churchill's case. He has claimed membership in the United
Keetoowah Band of Cherokee, but reliable representatives from the tribe
deny Churchill is or ever was, or has blood relatives on their rolls. He
was granted an "associate certificate" by a former leader of the tribe
(later impeached) for services supposedly rendered, not due to blood
relations - but even the tribe declines to exactly identify what that
means.

Discerning indigenous identity is not an exact science, but it has its
rules. It would not be a primary issue relative to research and writing of
producers from any quarter, except Churchill represents himself as a major
spokesman for Indian people through his participation in a branch of AIM
and his claim to Cherokee origins. So far, nothing whatsoever has surfaced
that gives evidence to Churchill's claims to having Cherokee Indian
origins. Given the intense antagonism and attention focused on Churchill,
his biography in this context is likely to be further scrutinized by the
University of Colorado, the media, and others who were led to understand he
was an American Indian professional at the time of his hiring.

In the Native Studies field, Churchill has been one of those
scholar-spokesmen who lead with the idea that Indian peoples are best
served by constantly pushing the button of contradiction and the memory of
every ill that has ever been inflicted against the tribes. To endlessly
cite the misdeeds of the American Empire - while layering the legend of
Nazi Germany over it - has the constant method of the Churchill
scholarship. Producing a stream of abundant texts all wrapped around his
brand of anti-colonialist rhetoric, Churchill has been - by far - the
loudest and most obvious remonstrator against the Euro-American Empire's
historical (and contemporary) evils inflicted on Native peoples. One can
argue Churchill has projected the image of an angry Indian who became
notorious for being in the face of non-Indians as much as possible - even
though the evidence builds that he is, himself, non-Indian.

Churchill has made a reputation and a career out of these themes and in
some circles has come to represent the Indian view to various national and
international publics. This is unfortunate for the vast majority of Native
people who do not at all share his opinions about the brutal murder of some
3,000 innocent people during the events of 9/11. Churchill has claimed the
media is now misquoting him and he is even parsing "technicians" (his bad
guys) from the "janitors, service people, etc." (his good guys). It doesn't
play any better that way.

Here is what we read in his original article, perhaps the more troubling
for his own admission that it was written in a "stream of consciousness"
expression. Churchill, about the victims of 9/11:

"True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break.
They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global
financial empire - the 'mighty engine of profit' to which the military
dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved - and they did so both
willingly and knowingly. Recourse to 'ignorance' - a derivative, after all,
of the word 'ignore' - counts as less than an excuse among this relatively
well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the
costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in - and in
many cases excelling at - it was because of their absolute refusal to see."

The victims' crime, according to Churchill, was to be ignorant of the
crimes of the American Empire. This ignorance of real international
reality, he further recriminates, was "likely ... because they were too
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." For this, the logic apparently follows, they
deserved to be murdered.

This is the clincher of Churchill's troublesome message, which has him now
running up a tree from the barking dogs: "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 about
it."

In our opinion, Churchill hurts himself with this kind of callous thinking.
This is not the way to represent American Indian peoples. What Churchill
and his thinking-cap buddies seem to miss is the necessary and much more
compelling need of the families and communities of Indian people to find a
way forward for the survival and prosperity of their future generations.
Men and women leaders who understand the world and actually represent
bodies of social and political life never take this type of insulting tack.

Churchill's remarks on the subject reflect easy ideological posturing in
the face of horrible personal tragedies that befell so many families. His
lost real point, that Americans need to pay more attention to the suffering
they cause in the world at large, has been made by others in much more
perceptive and eloquent ways, so that those who should hear it most will be
able to receive it more readily. The Churchill approach - to beat the
audience over the head with his arguments, as if people had no right to
make their way in the world as best they can for their families and tribes
- has always been counterproductive. These days, it has him in serious hot
water.

We will defend a good Indian argument in these pages any time. But, again,
there is no evidence that Churchill is Indian. Further, Churchill's
statements are obviously devoid of even the most basic humanity that
American Indian peoples hold dear. In no way does his insult reflect the
views of Indian country. To know the response of Indian country to the 9/11
tragedies is to reflect on the humanitarianism shown by Eastern Native
communities: from the Mohawk to the Oneida, the Pequot, Mohegan and many
others who immediately put their people - ironworkers, ferry-boat crews and
medical personnel - into the rescue and recovery operations, to the
California Indian nations that expressed their solidarity with America and
donated generously to the rescue efforts, to the Lakota families who
brought their Sacred Pipe to pray at the site, leaving their quiet
offerings early one dawn. This is always the preferred way of human beings
- to understand the kind of empathy required to belong to the human race is
essential in all political and economic discourse. To call the people who
were murdered on 9/11 "little Eichmanns" is a hideous expression that when
combined to Churchill's mistaken Native identity can only poison the public
discourse concerning American Indians.

Churchill writes that his life has been threatened since the controversy
began over his published characterizations of the 9/11 victims. Churchill
deserves police protection. We applauded the initial steadfastness of
Hamilton College in sponsoring the forum and initially sustaining a First
Amendment position on the controversy, yet understand that security
concerns did cause the cancellation of the event. Now Colorado Gov. Bill
Owens has requested Churchill's resignation from his teaching position. The
hounding of the professor intensifies.

Ward Churchill would do himself some good to express a profound apology to
people he has offended and misled. He should also come clean about his
appropriated American Indian identity. This is not advice he will likely
take. Churchill has jumped on the cougar of controversy ever since he came
onto the Indian scene as Russell Means' main speechwriter in the early
1980s. Churchill thrives on riding that controversial cougar, but this time
he poked it in the eye.