King: Ward Churchill — Questionable identity and questionable scholarship

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Ward Churchill has convinced many people that he is the ultimate expert on Indian affairs, yet he has neither the character nor the eloquence to lead.

Throughout history, dynamic Indian leaders have honed their skills on the experience of loss, devastation, and a sincere desire to find paths to survival for future generations. Shunning pretension or self-aggrandizement, they excelled as leaders because they had a common stake in the affairs of Indian country.

As members of tribes, communities and extended families, they stood to benefit or lose as a direct result of their leadership. They were respected because their people knew they did their best to make a positive contribution.

Churchill, a postmodernist, lacks a believable Native identity and family history. He can't empathize with Indians because he has nothing at stake. Having appropriated his Indian identity, he is unaffected by the commotion he causes when he behaves outrageously. He utilizes postmodern techniques, plunging into Indian matters he does not fully understand and attempting to represent them. Sadly, the Indian community will suffer the consequences of his recklessness again.

Churchill does not now, nor has he ever, represented Indians. His complex, overly-academic rhetoric clarifies how little he has in common with Native people. His acid tongue, dirty-mouthed sarcasm, self-important posturing, and preachy fanaticism contribute nothing to the challenge Indians face to establish a satisfying position in contemporary society.

Churchill portrays Indians as hapless victims, repressed and demoralized by the crafty American government. These characterizations only serve to impede Indian social progress. He combines hackneyed stereotypes, postmodern gibberish, and radical buzzwords to coax naive individuals to accept his authenticity. Such characterizations are the antithesis of empowerment.

Now Churchill is trying to convince the unwitting public that his current troubles stem from an infringement on his right to free speech. He also says that he is being targeted by racist Indians because he is not enrolled.

Claiming to be ''one-sixteenth Cherokee,'' he has opposed the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act, a law protecting Indian artists from unfair counterfeit competition. His Indian claim further enabled him to secure his lucrative teaching position (over $94,000 annually) at the University of Colorado, where he beat out several fine Indian scholars for the coveted job.

He claims to be Cherokee and Creek, although the Okmulgee Creek Agency, the Muscogee Creek Nation and the Cherokee Nation contend he is not a member and is not known among their people.

Nevertheless, non-Indian educators pay handsomely to hear him speak. If placed in the same position, would other ethnic communities accept an imposing white radical as their representative? Would they remain silent while he misrepresented their people?

Identity theft is only the tip of the problematic iceberg. Free speech is not the issue either. The issue is questionable scholarship.

Churchill's historiography is neither fair nor objective. It is extreme revisionism designed to promote his suspicious agenda through academic fraud. Academic fraud is more than simple error: it encompasses false attribution and fabrication of facts.

A 1992 essay, ''Federal Indian Identification Policy,'' co-authored with his former wife, Marie Annette Jaimes, has long concerned Indian legal scholars. It asserts the 1887 Dawes Allotment Act required individuals to be one-half or more Indian to be eligible for land allotment. Jaimes chastises tribes for adopting Dawes blood quantum requirements for tribal membership. Churchill has continuously berated tribes and enrolled Indians, viciously referring to them as ''ethnic cleansers'' and ''racists'' for participating in blood-based tribal enrollment. He repeatedly attributes his theories to Jaimes' blood quantum/Dawes Act claim in ''Federal Indian Identification Policy.''

Blood quantum, however, is never mentioned in the Dawes Act.

Such shoddy scholarship immediately raises a red flag. Are we to believe that a man who has written dozens of books and nearly 100 essays - a foremost authority on Indians - has never read the Dawes Allotment Act? The act is one of the most prevalent and important documents of American Indian legal history and is brief and easy to read.

Numerous other examples of his questionable scholarship have been exposed by historians, political scientists, and Native scholars over the years.

Churchill's lack of authenticity, sensitivity, and manipulative rhetoric became apparent some 13 years ago. In retaliation against those who criticized him, he hurled insults and accusations, often against Indian women.

The University of Colorado was contacted on more than one occasion after his erratic behavior became dangerously volatile. Yet Indian concerns fell on deaf ears. One department head said, ''What Mr. Churchill does off-campus on his own time is his own business.''

Churchill's goal is the disempowerment of American Indians. What better way to achieve this objective than to masquerade as a member-advocate of the very group he seeks to enfeeble?

His motivation remains a matter of speculation. Some believe he is a ''wannabe'' - a man of generic ethnicity striving for authentication through the theft of a more ''exotic'' Indian identity.

Others believe he is an opportunist who astutely positioned himself as a specialist in a field with few experts and sketchy criteria for determining expertise.

Needles to say, if the University of Colorado had heeded past Indian concerns, they would not be in the uncomfortable position they are in today. They must move decisively to correct the situation.

Churchill does not belong in a classroom. American civil liberties will continue to ensure his right to publish his extreme revisionist rhetoric, but his essays and books should never be considered acceptable texts for state-sponsored educational programs. Maintaining impeccable standards of scholarship, particularly in the field of American Indian studies, is critical to the protection of our history, rights and future.

University of Colorado, terminate this deplorable imposter.

Patti Jo King is a journalist and historian. She holds an extended bachelor's of science degree in history and a master's degree in history of the American West.