LONDON, Ontario - Ward Churchill, Cherokee professor of American Indian Studies at Colorado University, lived up to his advance publicity as "one of the most outspoken Native American activists" when he visited London's University of Western Ontario recently.
His subject, "Racism, Colonization and Genocide: The New World Order" challenged the audience of close to 150 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, mostly students, to think in a new way about indigenous history and the original peoples' relationship with both Canada and the United States.
As a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) security team at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the early 1970s, Churchill met an elder, Matthew King, who said he "admired" the young man for "the fire in your belly" but "I don't know what you're trying to accomplish. You will get your bearings from looking behind to see where you've come from, to know where you are, so you can know how to look ahead to see where you're going. A Native child will know that the elder was speaking of "the Great Mystery" Churchill said, while university students are studying "epistemology" and reading books by (MIT University professor) Noam Chomsky on "actual reality" "truth" and "accessible truth." "I speak with a harsh voice," he said, "but I speak in truth. Each person is different and we must try to find a common denominator. We need to find ways of communicating with one another."
Churchill offers definitions from the First Nations' perspective which are inclined to turn the non-Aboriginal person's views upside-down. While the settler/immigrant populations of Canada have thought of "Indians" as one race of people, in fact what "Portuguese explorers trying to circumvent the Muslim peoples to get to India" in the late 15th century encountered were "fully self-sufficient, self-governing and independent nations in Turtle Island.
"So where did we go off the rails," Churchill asked.
The power of Churchill's message is in his ability to share the history of our continent (and he indicates that the "nation" of Canada is in fact a "colony" of the U.S. since they are so dominated by U.S. policy and values).
Following his address, Churchill was asked why changes in Canada could not be accomplished through starting a new political party to promote different policies. "Not possible," said Churchill, "because you would have to build a participatory constituency" which is not possible with the current political system. "We have to learn how to think for ourselves," he said.
And here are some more "Churchillisms": Colonialism happened when states seeking "power, profit and prestige" oppressed the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. The "Indian" residential school (IRS) was intended to "deculturate" indigenous peoples, and to "reculturate" them to the dominant society. In Canada, the named and numbered treaties are not being respected although they are recognized in international law. Native people must re-channel their energy "to assert those rights." Our only "right" is to leave the world a better place for our children. That's the indigenous way of viewing our place in the world.
"I greatly value Ward Churchill's emphasis on the intellectual work that is needed alongside political activism which is the goal of the new First Nations Studies Program at the University of Western Ontario," said Dr. Regna Darnell who heads Western's First Nations department. "Ward tells his own story in ways that help others, both Native and non-Native, to move forward in mutual respect."
Frank Stilson, a non-Native community social justice activist, found Churchill's "clear analysis very inspirational" and his "action plan is clear," he said. "We must look at our history and our present reality intelligently and consider actions to bring about fundamental change to individuals and structures around us," Stilson said.