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The safety of the people requires calm minds

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Leaders of an older generation always counseled their people to become perfectly calm before sitting down for an important meeting. Big decisions required a clear mind and emotional self-control. This advice is just as important today, when Indian country faces serious if more subtle and sophisticated threats.

Protests and polemics can serve very useful purposes, but it is no insult to the bravery and skill of the people who conduct them to say that emotion is no substitute for strategic thinking. Their purpose should be the ultimate good of the Indian people, and it should never be overwhelmed by the excitement of the moment.

These thoughts came up during the recent drama at the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, but they apply whenever and wherever emotion clouds foresight and clear perception. The occupation of the Douglas Creek Estates construction site has a rational purpose: to reclaim territory that was wrongfully taken from the reserve and, at longer range, to force a more just and timely handling of the many Native land suits. These goals in recent weeks have seemed overwhelmed by violent eruptions that have done no one any good.

Of course, the violence in the first place came from the Ontario provincial government. The early-morning raid on the occupation site April 20 by the Ontario Provincial Police can only be called botched. It swelled the ranks of the protesters, who forced the police to retreat within hours. It escalated the confrontation and sent it spinning dangerously close to chaos.

No one can excuse the surge of raw racism at the neighboring town of Caledonia, whether homegrown or whipped up by outsiders. But some of the Haudenosaunee warriors at the site fell into the trap and responded in kind.

The periodic outbreaks of fighting and property destruction are eroding the moral high ground that the Six Nations ought to hold. More tactically, the incidents seem to be catching Native negotiators by surprise, disrupting meetings and undercutting their position. The traditional chiefs and clan mothers have struggled heroically to keep things under control, but they face even more severe trials as police begin to arrest protesters on warrants from the earlier incidents. Further disruptions would have the character of tragic irony, since there are signs the occupation might win its original point. On June 21 it emerged that the Ontario government is negotiating to buy the construction site from its developers, a move that portends a settlement with Six Nations.

This prospect should summon all the protesters to control their emotions, even in the face of repeated racist provocations. Let the townspeople bear the shame of showing the world an ugly, hate-twisted face. Supporters from outside should look to the Six Nations leaders for direction and restraint. The Internet, for instance, shows the full range of helpful and harmful assistance. The Six Nations Solidarity Web site at has been a model of thorough coverage, with links to all sides, reviving a great service it performed during the New York state tax protests in 1997. (We only hope that it keeps its earlier archives available, in the press of new material.) Other sites, however, have become so emotional that even sympathizers dismiss their contents as rumor and rant.

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Overwrought polemics might gratify some psychological needs, but they bring no true help to the needs of Indian country. Distortions of the truth do little but obscure the genuine case. Take the example of Ward Churchill. Whatever one can say about his credentials, and we have said plenty, he has succeeded in making himself one of the best-known faces of Indian country in the mind of the mainstream culture. The likes of Bill O’Reilly gleefully give him airtime while completely ignoring serious national leaders like Joe Garcia and Tex Hall and a legion of thoughtful, highly intelligent Native scholars and intellectuals. His hate-filled effumations against the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City were repugnant to Indians everywhere, but nowhere more than to Mohawk steelworkers who built the Twin Towers in the first place and worked heroically in the dangerous cleanup. Now it turns out that his academic career is threatening to discredit the vast body of solid Indian studies.

Native voices have complained about Churchill’s distortions for years, publishing careful articles in Native academic journals and trying to get the heavyweights at Churchill’s employer, the University of Colorado at Boulder, to read them. It took the national furor over Churchill’s three-year-old “9/11” essay to get the university finally to consider these complaints. Two reports have finally resulted from its process for investigating “research misconduct.” Although politics might have tainted the origin of the investigation, the reports are well worth some study.

In particular, the 124-page report of the Investigating Committee, an independent group of leading scholars, features a careful review of some of Churchill’s best-known, and now apparently false and fabricated, atrocity stories. The longest section of the report, some 45 pages, goes over his often-repeated claim that the U.S. Army deliberately caused the horrific 1837 smallpox epidemic among the Mandan, Arikawa and Hidatsa peoples by distributing infected blankets. (This charge has even appeared in our own pages.) Adding what might be some new information, the report thoroughly refutes the charge that the Army or government had any hand in the outbreak or that it was even deliberate. The source of the disease, all scholars seem to agree, was an infected passenger on the American Fur Company trading boat the St. Peter’s. The report even produces a possible name for the smallpox carrier: James Beckwourth, a mixed-race mountain man and “war chief” with the Crow of Montana. Blame for the epidemic falls on the captain of the boat, Bernard Pratte Jr., who refused a government agent’s request to put the infected person ashore, apparently for fear of having the boat placed in quarantine.

Churchill’s own citations gave this version, and he was convincingly refuted by the Native scholar Thomas Brown. But he continued to blame the Army through at least six articles. His dishonest polemics have done this damage:

* They discredit the well-documented account of the time smallpox blankets did appear as a weapon of biological warfare, at the suggestion of Lord Jeffrey Amherst during the 1767 siege of Fort Pitt.

* They obscure a very serious charge against Army Secretary Lewis Cass, who in 1832 had ordered smallpox vaccine be made available to tribes along the lower Missouri but not to the Arikara, because of their hostility. This order deserves the greatest condemnation, but it has been largely overlooked in the controversy over the 1837 outbreak.

* They undermine the credibility of Indian scholars and Indian studies in general, even though Native scholars, writing in Native academic journals, have carried the burden of refuting Churchill.

We certainly share the indignation that underlies Churchill’s polemics and the violent eruptions at the Six Nations occupation. We in no way mean to disparage the honorable and courageous recent history of Indian activism. Our models, however, are men like Billy Franks Jr. and Hank Adams, both recipients of our American Visionary Award, who have put themselves on the line time and again, yet have the magnanimity and balance to conciliate and negotiate. These are the people who achieve lasting good for the people, and they do it by subordinating action to strategic foresight and emotion to calm thinking.