Ward Churchill's win is scholarship's loss

The ethnic studies professor should not have been fired for speaking out about 9/11. The problem remains his slanted work on Native American history.

Published April 9, 2009 10:38AM (EDT)

Last week, a Denver jury found that Ward Churchill, the former head of the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado, had been improperly fired and awarded him $1 in damages. A judge must now decide whether Churchill should be reinstated in his job or receive back wages. The verdict was justified, but Churchill's victory offers scant cause for celebration. To put it mildly, Churchill was not an ideal poster child for the cause of academic freedom. If right-wing critics of the university had set out to create a perfect caricature of a tenured radical who sacrifices scholarship for advocacy, they couldn't have come up with a better one than Churchill. The Churchill case was a train wreck pitting the First Amendment against academic standards in a zero-sum game.

The debacle began the day after the 9/11 attacks, when Churchill, a widely read and influential activist scholar who specializes in American Indian issues, published an essay, "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens." Churchill argued that the 9/11 attacks were payback for America's ongoing "crusade" against the Arab-Muslim world, an onslaught manifested in such actions as the decade-long sanctions against Iraq that are estimated to have cost the lives of 500,000 Iraqi children.

Churchill was sticking his neck out to go that far. Now that 9/11 hysteria and its attendant myth of American innocence has faded, many commentators have belatedly acknowledged that the terrorist attacks did not emerge out of thin air, that America's Mideast policies were in part responsible for them. (Even PBS travel guide Rick Steves has made this point.) But in the days after the attacks, anyone who dared to suggest U.S. actions might have fomented Arab/Muslim rage against America was virtually excommunicated. Susan Sontag was called a traitor for saying the same thing in the New Yorker. Bill Maher's ABC show "Politically Incorrect" was canceled after he mockingly compared the bravery of Americans firing missiles from a distance to that of people flying planes into buildings. As someone who also publicly criticized U.S. Mideast policy in the days after the attacks, I can attest from personal experience to the reaction.

But Churchill went further than Sontag, Maher or just about any other public intellectual. Churchill not only blamed American policies, he essentially said that the people who were killed in the World Trade Center deserved their deaths. Drawing on Hannah Arendt's concept of "the banality of evil," he compared the people who worked in banking and finance to Nazi-like functionaries, whose work supported the American killing machine. They didn't see the consequences of their evil actions, Churchill wrote, because they were "too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it."

Churchill's incendiary essay might have vanished from view. But when he was invited in 2005 to speak at Hamilton College in New York, conservative activists dug it up. Right-wing talk-show hosts like Bill O'Reilly smelled blood and suddenly Churchill's screed became national news. The then-governor of Colorado called for Churchill to be fired. The university's interim chancellor, Phil DiStefano, said, "While Professor Churchill has the constitutional right to express his political views, his essay on 9/11 has outraged and appalled us and the general public." The regents of the University of Colorado came under intense pressure to ax Churchill, who had been tenured since 1991. The controversy over the "little Eichmanns" essay spurred a formal university investigation into Churchill's scholarship.

Churchill had every right to say or write anything he wanted about 9/11 or anything else. It was outrageous that anyone suggested firing him over his statements. The very definition of academic freedom is the freedom to take positions that offend people. And the investigation of Churchill's academic bona fides would probably never have taken place without the furor over his "little Eichmanns" essay. That tainted origin doomed the university's legal case against Churchill, and rightfully so.

However, the fact that the investigation would probably never have taken place had Churchill's essay not become notorious does not mean that Churchill did not engage in serious academic misconduct. The report that resulted from the investigation shows that he did -- and it implicitly indicts not just Churchill, but the University of Colorado. It should not have taken a public outcry to make the university look into Churchill's dubious scholarship. Beyond that, the portrait of Churchill that emerges from the report raises serious questions about why he was hired in the first place.

Churchill's academic background is unorthodox. He holds a B.A. in technological communications and an M.A. in communications theory from Sangamon State University. According to Wikipedia, he began working as an affirmative action officer at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1978. In 1990, despite the fact that he did not hold a doctorate, C.U. hired him as an associate professor, and granted him tenure in the communications department in 1991. He moved to the new ethnic studies department in 1996, was made a full professor in 1997, and became chairman of the department in 2002. He received these promotions despite having no formal graduate training in the fields he works in. (Churchill was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1992 by Alfred University after giving a speech there.)

Churchill's self-described ethnic identity played an important, perhaps crucial, role in his academic career. He has stated that he is of Indian ancestry, and was granted tenure in a "special opportunity position," later described as a program to"recruit and hire a more diverse faculty." However, an exhaustive investigation by the Rocky Mountain News found no evidence that he had Indian ancestry. The Denver Post confirmed the same finding. (Churchill was awarded honorary associate membership in the United Keetowah Band in 1994, as were Bill Clinton and others, but such membership does not indicate Indian ancestry.)

C.U.'s failure to do due diligence on Churchill, both before it hired him and later, reflects the peculiar relationship between college administrations and the various identity-based programs -- ethnic studies, gender studies, queer studies -- that sprang up in the 1970s and 1980s. These are legitimate academic fields. But by their nature they are tinged, and often more than tinged, with advocacy. This sets them apart from other academic disciplines and can have problematic consequences. Many students enroll in these programs not just to learn about a subject but to affirm their identity as a member of a "subaltern" group. And some professors in these fields were hired less because of their scholarship or qualifications than of their identity and their passionate advocacy on behalf of that identity. Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that some hires were not always held to the highest academic standards.

If C.U. had been paying attention, or had wanted to pay attention, it would have looked into Churchill's record long before his controversial essay. Serious questions about his research had been raised as far back as 1996 by John LaVelle, now a professor of law at the University of New Mexico Law School. But C.U. failed to look into LaVelle's allegations that Churchill was slanting and fabricating evidence about Native American history.

However, spurred by public outrage and political pressure after the "little Eichmanns" essay, C.U. appointed a committee of five distinguished academics, including the director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas, two professors of law, a historian and a sociologist, to look into allegations of academic misconduct against Churchill. Their report, released in May 2006, found that Churchill had fabricated historical claims, cited sources that did not support his allegations -- including several papers that he ghost-wrote but that did not appear under his name -- and plagiarized at least one other paper. The committee explicitly affirmed Churchill's right to free speech, saying "the fact that Professor Churchill published those controversial essays was not part of the charge to the Committee and played absolutely no role in its deliberations."

The committee did not reach a unanimous conclusion about what sanctions should be taken against Churchill. Two members said he should not be fired but suspended for two years. Three members said his offenses merited dismissal, but only one actually voted for firing him; the other two voted to suspend him for five years.

Responding to the criticism first raised by LaVelle in 1996, the report found that Churchill misrepresented the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, which regulated distribution of land to Native Americans in Oklahoma. The Dawes Act is one of the landmarks of official U.S. injustice toward native peoples. It was an intentional attempt to destroy Indian communal culture by forcing tribes to assimilate to the white, Western ideals of the nuclear family and private ownership. As the report notes, the historical era with which it is associated, from 1887 to 1934, is commonly known as the "Allotment Period."

The report found that Churchill falsely claimed that the act imposed for the first time a federal "eugenics code" that mandated Indian blood quantum requirements, rather than letting tribes decide who was an Indian, for the purposes of allotting land. Churchill defines this alleged blood quantum requirement differently in different places, but several times, he claims that to be eligible, the applicant had to have one-half Indian blood. In fact, the act did not impose any blood quantum requirements at all.

As the report points out, the way the act was implemented in practice limited eligibility to those of Indian blood. It also points out that white racist assumptions dominated the entire Allotment period. But it found that Churchill got "virtually all of the historical details wrong." The bottom line: The Dawes Act simply does not say what Churchill says it does. Churchill made a serious and fundamental historical error about one of the most important documents in his own field.

The report also found that Churchill deliberately tried to "create the appearance of independent verifiable support" for his unsupportable claims. He engaged, the report stated, in a "consistent research stratagem to cloak extreme, unsupportable, propaganda-like claims of fact that support Professor Churchill's legal and political claims with the aura of authentic scholarly research by referencing apparently (but not actually) supportive independent third-party sources." Of the three sources Churchill cited to support his claims, one did not support them at all, and the other two, published under the name of other scholars -- one of them Churchill's ex-wife -- were ghost-written by Churchill himself.

The report notes: "Were Professor Churchill a scientist, rather than a researcher engaged in social science research in ethnic studies, the equivalent would be (1) the misstatement of some underlying data (i.e., his mischaracterization of the General Allotment Act) and (2) the total fabrication of other data to support his hypothesis (i.e., the ghostwriting and self-citation of the Robbins and Jaimes essays)."

The report also found that Churchill fabricated all or parts of his accounts of the causes of two dreadful epidemics that almost wiped out a number of Native American peoples. The first deals with Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame. Churchill asserted that "there's some pretty strong circumstantial evidence" that in 1614 Smith "introduced smallpox among the Wamponoags as a way of clearing the way for the invaders."

But the report found that there is no evidence, circumstantial or not, that Smith did this, and concludes that he fabricated his claim. It notes that it is indisputable that Smith treated the New England Indians brutally, but he wanted their labor, not to wipe them out. Moreover, there is no historical evidence that the Indians died of smallpox -- and if they had, it would have been a very odd type of smallpox, since it appeared at least 18 months after Smith's departure, and the incubation period for smallpox is 8 to 14 days. Finally, Churchill again cites as corroborating sources texts that not only do not corroborate his assertions, but do not even deal with the specific subjects he is discussing -- an obvious case of misrepresenting his sources. As the committee members document, Churchill engages in this pattern of false citation so habitually that it cannot be excused as an error and must be regarded as intentional falsification.

Another of Churchill's claims is that the U.S. Army deliberately spread smallpox to Mandan Indians in what is now North Dakota in 1837 by giving them infected blankets. This claim is important not just because the results of the epidemic were devastating, but because it is widely believed: Buffy Sainte-Marie referred to it in a song, and it has been widely asserted by American Indian activists. This widespread belief, as the authors note, probably originates in the fact that British troops did in fact attempt to infect Indians at Fort Pitt in 1763.

But aside from some vague and divergent oral traditions among native peoples that whites deliberately spread the infection, there is no evidence that the devastating epidemic was intentional. In fact, the report found that all the hard evidence points toward it being accidental. Trying hard to be fair to Churchill and nontraditional modes of evidence like oral traditions, as they do throughout the report, the scholars conclude that Churchill did not fabricate his account of the causes of the epidemic . This hyper-cautious conclusion appears to have been intended to inoculate the committee against charges of racist insensitivity, but it seems highly dubious.

Oral traditions have evidentiary status, but in the absence of other supporting evidence, they should be treated with extreme wariness -- especially if all other evidence contradicts them. If unsupported oral traditions are given the same evidentiary status as harder empirical evidence, such as written records, a historian could assert virtually anything so long as someone remotely connected to the event claimed or once claimed it was true.

But with the single exception of that politically correct exoneration, the scholars indict Churchill on every other point. They find that he fabricated his claim that the U.S. Army distributed infected blankets taken from a military infirmary in St. Louis, fabricated another claim that someone advised the Indians to scatter (thus spreading the epidemic), and misrepresented his sources. They also note that Churchill did not even interview the native people whose oral traditions supposedly buttress his claims: He only cited them as authorities after his work was challenged. The authors write, "The Committee concludes that this behavior shows considerable disrespect for the native oral tradition by employing it as a defense against research misconduct while failing to use or acknowledge it in his published scholarship. In doing so, he engaged in a kind of falsification of evidence for his claims."

As the scholars point out in their conclusion, one of the most unfortunate outcomes of Churchill's academic misconduct is that it brought disrepute not only upon himself, but upon the field of ethnic studies in general and Native American studies in particular. "Plenty of reliable evidence supports the conclusion that Native Americans were on more than one occasion subjected to racist genocidal campaigns by some of these actors," the report notes. "There is no need for any scholar to exaggerate data to support that conclusion. Those who do so inflict harm on other scholars doing meticulous work that documents aspects of the racism and genocide inflicted on Indian peoples of the Americas by the settler society, and on the enterprise of such scholarship more generally."

By overreaching, Churchill did damage to his field -- and that is the thing that is hard to forgive. Along with slavery, the destruction by whites of the Native American peoples and cultures is the greatest stain on the history and conscience of America. It is a tragedy and a crime that can never be undone, one that calls out for unflinching historical research. By making bogus claims about the crimes committed against American Indians, Churchill gravely harmed the cause he purports to support.

It seems clear that Churchill distorted the historical truth about the Dawes Act and the causes of the epidemics because the story of white genocidal intent was the story he believed in and wanted to tell. That is understandable: It is an absolutely plausible and defensible position that whites had genocidal intentions against native peoples. But it is not defensible to make up facts and distort the historical record so as to create specific examples of genocidal behavior for which there is no empirical evidence.

In a larger sense, the Churchill case reveals the problematic nature of advocacy scholarship. Passionate advocacy has a place in academia, but not if it leads to falsifications. The rise of advocacy scholarship was understandable and has generated much legitimate research and worthy polemics. But it also opened the door to hacks and ideologues. Ethnic studies and gender studies departments are always in danger of falling into breast-beating advocacy and identity-group solidarity. It is the responsibility of universities to make sure they don't.

In the conclusion of their report, the authors write, "If there is one crucial pattern that most affects our assessment ... it is a pattern of failure to understand the difference between scholarship and polemic, or at least of behaving as though that difference does not matter."

The ultimate lesson of the Churchill case is that no cause, however just, benefits from being taken up by a propagandist. Scholarship must be sacrosanct. Rules of evidence must be followed. You can't assert things that you want to believe are true, no matter how morally right or practically beneficial those assertions may be, and then distort or make up evidence to support them.

Ironically, and sadly, Churchill's approach to history and truth is remarkably similar to the Bush administration's. The only difference is that his propaganda is on the left, and theirs is on the right. For both, "reality" is what they say it is, and empirical evidence is just a bunch of meaningless window dressing. The Bush neocons "knew" that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 and had weapons of mass destruction, just as Churchill "knew" that the U.S. Army intentionally spread smallpox among the Mandan Indians. The senior Bush aide who famously told Ron Suskind that "we create our own reality" could have spoken for Churchill.

In a polarized age, when it has become increasingly difficult for people to agree on the simplest facts, the academy remains the most powerful bulwark against the rising tide of relativism. As the reality-creating Bush administration proved, the disappearance of objectivity serves the interests of the powerful far more than it does the interests of the powerless. It's tempting for advocates to put their thumb on the scales, to make the oppressors look even worse and the victims more innocent. But when they do, they sacrifice their most precious possession, the one thing they have a duty to defend: the truth.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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