It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Ward Churchill. After being savaged by
the corporate media for an essay he wrote over three years ago, then
finding himself abandoned by an academic culture that used to profess
belief in freedom of thought and expression, it was finally revealed that
… gasp … Ward Churchill might not even be an Indian. Stop the presses!
Outside of his personal circle of aging enemies, did anyone really care
that much about Churchill’s enrollment status before this controversy? For
the record, the Keetowah Band of Cherokee gave Churchill an “associate
membership” in the early ’90s, but did not bestow the rights and privileges
accorded to fully-enrolled band members. He has recently gone on record as
three-sixteenths Cherokee – which, incidentally, would be one-sixteenth
more than legendary Cherokee Chief John Ross of the 1820s. Unlike the
fullblood “Treaty Party” who signed the illegitimate agreement with the
Americans, thereby paving the road we now call the Trail of Tears, the
light-skinned Chief Ross is fondly remembered by many Cherokee today as a
great leader who fought hard against the ethnic cleansing that eventually
took place. Ross, too, was very critical of Americans and their policies.
At the very least, even the toughest identity police among us will have to
admit that, as a United States citizen, Churchill has the right to
ethnically self-identify in any way he wants, as is the official policy of
the U.S. Census Bureau. But even if he is a white man (which I am not
prepared to admit as fact, since all the “evidence” seems based on
hearsay), my question is: so what? It’s not like an author of his stature
and reputation needs the helping hand of affirmative action to land a job.
He doesn’t write about himself. And I definitely don’t get the sense that
he wants to make his living as a painter. If Churchill is in fact 100
percent white – which no one will ever know for certain – then what exactly
would that make him? Seems to me he would then occupy that time-honored
position of a colonizer “going Native;” that is, taking on the habits and
perspectives – not to mention the politics – of the colonized. He would be
what racial theorists call a “race traitor;” one who denies and decries
“white privilege” by refusing to participate in “whiteness” as a system of
privilege. How exactly would that harm Indian people? I know real Indians
who do a lot worse.
Frankly, I was always more interested in what Ward Churchill had to say
than in playing the tiresome “Is he really Indian?” game. In fact, what I
have found most frustrating about this witch hunt is the sense that hardly
anyone has actually read his now infamous essay, “Some People Push Back: On
the Justice of Roosting Chickens.” Instead of musing about what Churchill
allegedly is not – “un-American,” “non-Indian” – shouldn’t we be talking
about what he actually wrote?
Published no later than Sept. 12, 2001, Churchill’s essay made the simple
argument that, as he later summarized, “If U.S. foreign policy results in
massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some
of that destruction is returned.” His point of departure was the 500,000
Iraqi children who died as a result of our 1991 bombing of water and sewage
facilities. Churchill quoted former Secretary of State Madeline Albright
shamefully remarking on “Meet the Press” that the death of those children
was “worth the cost” of achieving U.S. interests.
Add to that indifference toward other people’s children the continued
American support for Israel over Palestine, U.S. military bases located on
sacred ground in Saudi Arabia, and the constant creation of ruthless
military and theocratic dictators who keep Americans rolling in oil – all
the while contributing to more pain and death for poor brown people in the
Middle East – and you have a recipe for disaster.
Predictable, painful, pointless disaster – not just for “them,” but
occasionally for “us.”
Because sometimes people push back.
Churchill also made the rational point that from the point of view of a
suicide bomber, the Pentagon and the World Trade Center constituted
legitimate military targets. They were the “command and control
infrastructure” of a globalized but U.S.-led military and economic system
that is at the root of so much of the world’s pain. From that same suicide
bomber’s perspective, the occupants of those buildings were either
justified military targets (in the case of stockbrokers and generals) or,
using Pentagon-speak, “collateral damage” (in the case of janitors and
secretaries). The attackers did not target the Super Bowl.
It is in this context of Churchill’s attempt to read the scene of 9/11 as a
calculated military assault – as opposed to the random attack of “evil
terrorists” – that he used those oft-quoted expressions “little Eichmanns”
and “combat teams.” He wasn’t “siding” with the attackers or against the
victims when he used those terms; he was simply trying to make people
understand that 9/11 was a strategic military initiative, not some
fanatical bloodbath committed by crazy, civilization-hating savages.
These ideas, presented with Churchill’s usual wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee
blunt-ness, are supported by uncontroversial facts and clear logic. One
doesn’t have to agree with the argument to admit this. He didn’t “lie”
(which is a whole lot more than we can say about Bill O’Reilly’s
well-documented program of deceit); and any “disrespect” folks might find
in the essay would be their own interpretation as much as anything else.
The essay most certainly contradicts the official party line on 9/11 (“You
are either with us, or you are with the terrorists”), but most people on
the planet find that orthodoxy repellent. I think that’s the real reason
people are now howling for Churchill’s head: he committed the cardinal sin
of asking Americans to consider the facts and think for themselves, when
what we are supposed to be doing is worship at the altar of American
exceptionalism. Well, that and the fact that few have ever read the essay.
Remember that question everyone was asking after the 9/11 attacks: “Why do
they hate us?” That was such an important question, but it was buried as
quickly as it emerged. Churchill’s essay was one of the few public attempts
to answer it. He tried to start a national discussion about
anti-Americanism; and while his tone might be abrasive, the answers he
offered were (as always with his work) well-supported and reasonable:
Americans are hated not because of some vague notion of their “freedom,”
but for the specific reason that the United States is engaged in truly
despicable practices abroad. Alongside those already mentioned, we can now
add the return of such medieval practices as detainment without charge,
“trial” without attorneys, and worst of all, torture.
Ultimately, Churchill’s point was to wake Americans up to the impending
Israelification of this country: the making of an absolute security state
defined by perpetual cycles of militarism, attack and response. Do you want
to live in a country like that? It doesn’t have to be that way, but the
United States is hurting the planet and its peoples.
If we live in a democracy, Churchill implies, then we need to take
responsibility for the actions of our government. Otherwise, some people on
the receiving end of U.S. brutality will see no viable option but to push
back, as did past figures like Crazy Horse, Geronimo and Tecumseh. Remember
Hey, come to think of it, those Indians were “unenrolled,” too. But I
Let there be no mistake, the forces of censorship currently afflicting
Churchill for committing the crime of truth-telling will not be satisfied
with only his demise. Churchill had no sooner been skewered when the Right
quickly turned its attention to Shahid Alam, a soft-spoken professor of
economics at Northeastern University who had the gall to suggest in an
op-ed that the 9/11 attackers may have believed they were fighting against
foreign occupation of their homelands. All critical educators are now at
risk of being targeted including, I might add, Native American Studies
professors (who are not exactly known for pro-American cheerleading).
Unless citizens raise up a firm, collective “No,” this witch-hunt is likely
to continue. The goal of the Right is to make our universities sound
exactly like “Fox News.”
The last thing we should do right now is try to terminate Ward Churchill by
haggling over his identity. It’s a red herring. Bill O’Reilly, Rush
Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are already making hay out of the ethnic fraud
allegations, and anyone who thinks they are doing so to promote tribal
self-determination ought to have their head examined.
Meanwhile, politicians and university administrators are trying to remove
him from his post in Colorado – which would set an extremely dangerous
precedent – and O’Reilly has raised the question of charging him with
treason. I hope Ward resists every step of the way.
And despite nagging questions of ethnic exaggeration, which have by no
means been conclusively answered, I believe Indians should support him.
After all, with all these attempted terminations and removals in his life,
how could Ward Churchill, that great warrior of the pen, be anything but an
Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, is assistant professor of Writing
and Rhetoric at Syracuse University, where he also teaches Native American