BOULDER, Colo. – A storm of controversy surrounding an ethnic studies professor whose claims of Indian ancestry have been widely repudiated in Indian country, came to a head July 23 when University of Colorado officials fired Ward Churchill over allegations of academic misconduct involving plagiarism and falsification.
The firing came more than two and a half years after Churchill’s comments comparing victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to Nazi Adolf Eichmann sparked a national furor, and more than a year after an investigation by a 12-member committee at the University of Colorado at Boulder found Churchill guilty of recurring, deliberate plagiarism; misuse of others’ work; falsification; and fabrication of authority.
Although the firestorm surrounding Churchill’s comments, which appeared in an essay called ”Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” and a follow-up book, instigated the investigation, University President Hank Brown said the firing was based solely on the findings of academic misconduct, according to an Associated Press report.
”The individual did not express regret, did not apologize, did not indicate a willingness to refrain from this type of falsification in the future,” Brown said.
”New game, new game,” Churchill said, vowing to sue after the 8 – 1 Board of Regents vote to oust him was announced, according to the report.
The single no vote was cast by Cindy Carlisle, who Regents Chairman Pat Hayes said agreed with the findings, but not with the penalty.
The investigation into Churchill’s academic misconduct did not consider a much more prolonged controversy that has outraged scholars and others in Indian country, who charge that Churchill has fraudulently advanced his academic career over the last 20 years by misrepresenting himself as an American Indian, a claim disputed by the Cherokee Nation, Keetoowah Band and Muscogee (Creek) Nation when Churchill claimed Cherokee and Creek ancestry.
The investigative panel refused to consider the charge that Churchill had falsely claimed Indian ancestry, even though it noted that several Native leaders had made this complaint to the university in the mid-’90s and had been disregarded.
”Ward Churchill is a fraud and, unfortunately, cannot be defended by Indian Studies professionals. It is unfortunate because many people in the field believe his role as an ‘advocacy Historian’ for Indian Studies has been crucial to achieving some influence in declaring how destructive the colonial ”master narrative” of America has been to Native populations. He has spoken out against colonialism all of his professional life. His unsubstantiated claim to Indian identity, though, is a destructive act and it is an academic fraud that we have struggled against in Indian Studies for decades,” said Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, professor emerita at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash. Her newest book, ”New Indians, Old Wars,” is published by the University of Illinois Press.
It is indeed Churchill’s ”ethnic fraud issue” that is problematic, agreed Dr. James Riding In, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma. Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, and editor of Wicazo Sa Review: A Journal of Native American Studies.
”It is very problematic in terms sovereignty and credibility when someone claims to be Indian and cannot support that claim with any degree of certainty. Indian nations, not individuals, have the sovereign power to determine who is a member. Anyone who engages in ethic fraud is not trustworthy,” Riding In said.
Churchill’s research has taken a critical look at federal Indian policy, however, Riding In noted.
”Why couldn’t he write as a white man?” Riding In said.
Although plagiarism and falsification of research data are serious charges, ”rarely have universities punished violators with termination of employment,” Riding In observed.
Since Churchill was in an ethnic studies department, Riding In said he did not think the controversy would impact American Indian Studies, but ”others may see this matter as a black eye for Indian studies because Churchill is allegedly an Indian who writes from an Indian perspective. It may give far-right knee jerk conservatives such as David Horowitz more ammunition to lash out at legitimate Indian scholars who follow the rules of scholarship.”
In its report, the investigative committee said it did not consider Churchill’s remarks about the Sept. 11 victims because they are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment, but David Lane, Churchill’s attorney, said the firing was retaliation for his client’s Sept. 11 remarks and that he would file suit the next day.
”For the public at large, the message is there will be a payback for free speech. It sends a message out to the academic community generally that if you stick your neck out and make politically inflammatory comments, you will be dragged through the mud for two years and you will ultimately have your tenure terminated,” Lane said.
The American Civil Liberties Union backed Churchill’s claim that Colorado politicians and the public were so outraged by his Sept. 11 comments that there was no way his scholarship could be fairly evaluated.
But Churchill maintains a steady group of supporters. According to a posting on www.insiderhighered.com, at a press conference after the vote, Churchill repeated his argument that the board fired him primarily because of his political views, which he said are ”inconvenient and uncomfortable” to the powerful. He vowed to keep ”fighting the fight” and said that the impact of the case goes ”way beyond Ward Churchill” and will hinder freedom of expression generally. A group of his supporters attended the press conference, which featured American Indian drumming and chanting, according to the report.
While Churchill’s firing takes effect immediately, he is entitled to received one year’s salary, which is just under $100,000.
Churchill has been working at Boulder since 1978. The investigating committee last year said the Churchill scandal was of the university’s own making.
”We believe that the University of Colorado may have made the extraordinary decision to hire Professor Churchill, a charismatic public intellectual with no doctorate and no history of regular faculty membership at a university, to a tenure position without any probationary period in part because at that moment in the institution’s history, it desired the favorable attention his notoriety and following were expected to bring,” the committee wrote.
Cook-Lynn did not let the university off the hook for its responsibility in providing an arena for Churchill to spread his views about tribal nations.
”It is sad that Churchill continues to be stubbornly influential in telling the world that American Indian tribal citizenship is an oxymoron. Nothing could be further from the truth. The struggle for tribal nation citizenship rights is essential to sovereignty. It goes without saying that the University of Colorado is not blameless and has behaved as one would expect a mainstream university in an era of multinational capitalism to behave,” Cook-Lynn said.
Riding In said that ethnic fraud is a growing problem and he wishes that universities would go after those who falsely advance their careers as aggressively as the University of Colorado went after Churchill. He pointed to a recent study showing that a thousand historians are now claiming to be Indian compared to a decade ago when there were less than two dozen Indian historians.
”If this information presented in this study is accurate how can one explain such a dramatic jump in numbers without considering the specter of rampant ethic fraud in university hiring processes? This means that non-Indian cheaters who make false claims about their ethnicity have obtained a position of hegemonic control over the writing of Indian history. This situation is scary,” Riding In said.