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Harjo: Ward Churchill, the white man's burden

Ward Churchill wants you to believe the University of Colorado fired him from a tenured professorship because he wrote an inflammatory essay calling people who were killed in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, ''little Eichmanns'' who were a ''technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire.''

CU would have you think that its July 24 firing had nothing to do with what Churchill wrote in that essay and everything to do with what he didn't write in his books, but claimed he did.

The CU Board of Regents fired Churchill by an unambiguous 8 - 1 vote for academic misconduct, including alleged plagiarism and lies about historical facts.

Churchill and CU will finish the fight in court and the focal point will be, as it has always been, about money.

Churchill first distorted historical facts to CU in his resume, when he claimed to be Cherokee and Creek. CU accepted those claims as gospel and gave him a communications professorship and an ethnic studies chairmanship, with promotions adding up to a $96,000 annual salary.

This gave Churchill the time and means to write books and sell them on the lecture circuit. Former students maintain that he required them to buy and read his books, and to validate his perspectives.

For a while, he also sold paintings whose subject matter and styles were lifted from works by other artists. When the Indian Arts and Crafts Act was amended with increased penalties for promoting products as made by Indians when they were not, he not only stopped marketing his artwork, but he started attacking the Native artists and leaders who were responsible for the amended law.

Churchill falsely claimed that the Indian Arts and Crafts Act imposed a federal standard of Indian identity. In fact, the federal law bows to and depends totally on tribal law about who is and who is not a tribal citizen or member.

While Churchill wrongly says that the arts law is rigid and unforgiving, it actually has a compassionate standard for unfair or unfortunate exclusions. It provides for inclusion under the law for anyone a Native nation certifies as an Indian artisan, even if that person cannot meet tribal citizenship or membership standards.

When Churchill started attacking real Native people behind that law, he opened his own life and identity to scrutiny and criticism.

Native peoples found that Churchill's claims to be a tribal person were baseless and informed CU that he was not a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation or Cherokee Nation.

At the same time that Churchill was dissing ''card-carrying Indians,'' he started waving around something that purported to be an ''associate membership'' in the Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, which translated into English as ''not even close to being Native.'' The Keetoowah Band does not claim Churchill as one of its own.

Churchill struck out at anyone and everyone who would not validate him as a Native person, exhibiting a virulent attitude against Native people of a kind rarely seen beyond the rings of anti-Indian hate groups.

When Churchill was exposed as non-Indian, CU defended him and high-handedly dismissed the Native nations and people who refuted his claims. Self-declaration of Indian identity is good enough for the academy, said the CU officials.

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CU's stance allowed Churchill to wrap himself in a borrowed identity while appearing to be a courageous insider chastising his own. Both CU and Churchill took the position that no Indians were going to tell them what to do or to be the final word on who is a Native person.

While Churchill is primarily marketing himself as a free-speech martyr, he's also creating a subsidiary brand: ''Indian-rights martyr.'' He's selling the idea that he was such an Indian advocate that CU and American society generally wanted him canned.

But that doesn't square with the facts of his employment at CU. CU hired him because he was ''Indian'' and because it believed his ''Indian-ness'' enhanced its faculty's cultural and ethnic diversity profile.

CU hired him and gave him promotions and tenure without the academic credentials it usually required of its faculty members. CU has consistently maintained its defense of Churchill as an Indian against actual Native peoples.

Not only did Churchill use ''Indian-ness'' to land a job that he would not have gotten as a white man, he has publicly blamed lapses in research judgment on a lack of Indian studies standards.

Why is it important for Native peoples to continue to tell the world that Churchill is not a Native person? Churchill is now a cause celebre and there are a lot of people who are angry with Native people because of him.

Some Churchill supporters are mad at Native peoples for being mean to a ''fellow Indian.'' Some Churchill opponents are mad at Indians because Churchill claimed to be one.

Some folks are against Indian studies because Churchill says there aren't any Indian studies standards. Some folks are opposed to Indian studies because Churchill has been part of Indian studies.

There are even a number of well-meaning people who think that, by supporting Churchill, they are supporting Native peoples and Native rights.

Like it or not, Churchill is like gum on the bottom of your shoe and we're stuck with him for a bit. All we can do for now is to defend our Native nations and people against his attacks, and take up for Indian studies, too.

Another thing we can do is to ask a series of questions along these lines:

What makes you think Churchill is a Native person? His sunglasses and, if so, why? His lack of graciousness and, if so, why? His lack of support by or contact with any of the Native nations he claims?

By reminding people that Churchill should not be the Indians' burden, you might not win any popularity contests, but I guarantee you some memorable conversations.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.