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Lesson of Churchill fiasco: Indian studies needs clear standards

Many of the scandals in academia these days are media events, melodramatic and sensational: just the ticket for someone like Ward Churchill, a man who loves center stage and has recently been outed as a wannabee Indian and a plagiarizer after a successful 20-year professorship based in fraud and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Sensational examples like Chagnon or Margaret Mead or Stephen Ambrose come to mind, but who remembers?

Sooner or later, these scandals ebb and wane and stars flicker out. At long last, though, one of the many Indian impersonators in academia has become the focus of the most significant scandal to reach Indian country since Red Fox. This impersonator at the University of Colorado has been described as a plagiarizer and a fraud by an investigative committee made up of his colleagues and is, thus, charged with those crimes. Unfortunately for Indian studies, that same committee has refused to call his claim to Indian-ness or Indian identity either a “hoax” or a “crime.” This would seem to indicate that this committee of anti-historical intellectuals carries on the misguided belief that there is no such thing as tribal nation citizenship.

What it all means to ethnic studies is fairly predictable, but what it means to Indian studies, always the “orphan” of academia as the late Vine Deloria Jr. named it, is much more frightening. For those Indian scholars who have spent the last 30 years developing what they call an “empowerment model” of education at U.S. universities across the land and particularly in the West, this Churchill matter has ushered in what might become a shameful period inherent in the predictable and necessary Churchill disgrace.

Masquerading as an Indian, professionally engaging in an “enrollment” fiasco with a Cherokee tribe, marching in the streets of Denver as a member in good standing of the American Indian Movement, using other scholars’ work as his own and interpreting his own version of history from an unfettered imagination, professor Churchill has disgraced himself and the people he presumes to represent. The shame of this fiasco is that the alternative historical narrative of America, which Churchill has claimed as his own research domain, does not have to be exaggerated or falsified. It is there for anyone to see and recount in all its bloody reality.

Indeed, the awful historical experience of American Indians of the last 500 years is a verifiable history of genocide and disenfranchisement and bare survival. The crimes of identity theft and academic lying perpetuated by Churchill are not just a matter of disrespect for an emerging discipline, as the committee suggests. They are in danger of becoming institutionalized if the University of Colorado does not understand that American Indian studies as interpreted through the ideological filter of the colonial paradigm of ethnic studies provides the impetus for such crimes.

I would like to say that the Churchill matter will not affect Indian studies and that the substantial academic work that Native scholars have achieved in the past decades will continue. Yet that is for the future to behold. We in Indian studies have often worried that our autonomous academic disciplinary development over the past 30 years has not been taken seriously by related disciplines, and we therefore have often failed to embrace ethnic studies because of its colonial ambiguity and comparative approach.

There is plenty of evidence that Indian studies has been damaged by its involuntary inclusion in the ethnic studies for two reasons: 1. Indians, first of all, are not “ethnics” in American society; rather, they are indigenous populations with a particular political, cultural, and historical status different from any other population in the United States. They have signed treaties, reserved lands and rights and resources; and 2. ethnic studies has always been driven more by administrative functions and assimilative sociology than by the defensive, regulatory and transformative disciplinary interests of Indian studies.

In short, Native studies has been badly served by much of what goes on in the academic world in general terms, and by ethnic studies in particular.

It is up to Indian scholars in the discipline to propose academic mechanisms for maintaining disciplinary order; they must form scholarly associations for regulating deviancy; and, more than any other work, Native scholars must convince their university regulators that “ethnic studies” centers have proved to be assimilative and corrupt as far as the autonomous world of Indian studies is concerned. If there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, it can be seen only through an event like the Churchill fraud which, hopefully, will shine its awful glare toward more realistic and transformative postmodern territories. By returning the fraudulent glare and diagnosing its causes, Indian studies can develop its own histories and possibilities.

<i>Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is a professor emerita at Eastern Washington University, Cheney, Wash., and a visiting professor in Indian studies at the University of California – Davis and Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. Cook-Lynn’s latest book is “Anti-Indianism in Modern America: A Voice From Tatekeya’s Earth,” 2001: University of Illinois Press. She lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota and can be reached at