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Native Currents

Recognition and defense of tribal-nation citizenship rights

The future of Indian country is in the land. Yet blood, race and sovereignty provide the most controversial and heated debates these days. Speakers at Federal Bar Association meetings don't talk so much about land theft as they talk about identity issues and gaming. If that seems unfair, just ask the Seminoles, or the Cherokees of Oklahoma. A few anonymous comments from the latest FBA meeting illustrate the banality of what passes for law theory: ''I really hope tribes can get away from this notion of blood as the essence of Indian identity.'' And, ''There might be some kind of long-term benefit for Indian country if we can adopt some expansive notion of Indian identity.'' And, ''We need other blood in our cultures.'' Taku? Taku?

The ongoing struggle for what can be claimed as tribal-nation citizenship rights seems to provide a never-ending battleground for ignorance, self-centeredness, individualism and fraud. In the case for dismissal from his university position, Ward Churchill provides a case in point.

Churchill had falsely claimed to be an Indian for decades. He got a professorship in the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado in 1973, perpetrating a fraud through that claim, and got away with it for years and is still getting away with it. After he made his now-famous ''little Eichmann'' remark, the university has been trying to fire him for inadequate research credentials but NOT because his claim to Indian identity was unsubstantiated. In the subsequent investigations, Churchill was not charged with identity fraud by CU - Boulder in their effort to dislodge him from his position, yet that is what critic John P. LaVelle, professor of law at New Mexico School of Law, as well as countless other Native scholars throughout the United States, contend it was.

This failure on the part of CU to charge this academic with fraud reveals how little is understood of American Indian citizenship protocols and how without sympathy, such protocols are held by those in academia and elsewhere. Substantial investigations have shown that Churchill has no citizenship in any Indian nation and possesses no blood quantum or a blood relative to tie him culturally, politically or legally to a tribal legacy. Yet the charges against him ignore that particular aspect of his case, the aspect that is of utmost importance to indigenous rights activists, scholars and tribes.

One reason for the failure to sustain the charge of fraud against Churchill is that fraud, we are told, not only has to be based in deception but it also has to cause harm, and there must be documentation showing to whom it is harmful. There is no doubt that Churchill's claim was based in deception (many researchers say he duped the university into giving him a professorship through his unsubstantiated claim to Indian legacy, in spite of his inability to produce citizenship papers from any officially documented tribe in the United States), but that deception was a matter of indifference to CU.

Tribal citizenship has been recognized by the tribes since time immemorial, but certainly since 1934 and even before, and formalized ways to identify tribal citizens have been based in codified tribal law. Think what you want about the system. It exists and awards a political standard to those who qualify. It is possible that CU may not have even asked for credentials at all. The academic dilemma brought about by the Churchill case has underscored the fact that universities have been lending their supposed credibility to such fraudulent behaviors in violation of the law.

This may be the perfect moment for Indian Studies scholars throughout the country to demand that American universities stand by the side of the indigenous populations of this country in defense of First Nation citizenship. The defense of citizenship is one of the most important functions of any sovereign nation. But make no mistake. If we choose to defend tribal-nation citizenship rights at American universities, we will have a fight on our hands. The truth is, there is a powerful stream of thought in our society that persists in believing that American Indians are just some kind of romantic and savage and doomed race condemned to vanish without citizenship rights, neither American nor tribal, without land and Native legacy. This thinking has been at the heart of the Churchill dilemma; and Churchill himself, while claiming a position of advocacy historian to Natives, has been blindly influential in shaping this absurd notion.

The Churchill case should offer insights into this ongoing threat and we must come to some agreements about what we expect of the academies of learning in this country. That is what Indian Studies is all about and we have much to gain from the careful study of this particular moment. It is not about ''right-wing pressures.'' It is not about the ''relentless pursuit of and punitive approach'' toward a man who made unacceptable statements. It is not about speaking out on controversial issues. We all do that.

It is about whether or not tribal citizens in America stand as members of the nations-within-a-nation against fraud and aggression. There are few rules for these kinds of influential offenses against us, but the lack of precedent does not mean that we cannot find meaning in this case. When indigenous citizenship rights in America are threatened, as they often are, we are all harmed. Change could, miraculously, come out of this fiasco, but only if we stand on the principles that defend tribal-nation citizenship.

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Crow Creek Sioux, is professor emerita of Native American Studies at Eastern Washington University, Cheney, Wash., and visiting professor at Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz. Her new book is ''New Indians, Old Wars,'' from the University of Illinois Press. She makes her home in the Black Hills of South Dakota.