Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Charges Against Ward Churchill

The main point of this post, following from the debate in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and following from the previous one for today, is very simple and straightforward, so much so that critics of Churchill either miss this point accidentally or intentionally in developing their critiques of Churchill (either possibility, the accidental or the intentional, is inexcusable). The point is this:

The opposite of falsification and fabrication is not incontestable truth. The opposite of falsification/fabrication is that which is accurate and based on substantiation from other sources.

The charges laid against Churchill, and for which he was fired, were that he engaged in falsification and fabrication of evidence. In other words, he had no support for his unorthodox interpretations.

If one does not agree with Churchill, then all of the wonderful destructive energies come to naught if one fails to first understand the principles that are at work above. The accusations against Churchill are not, as some below claim (Thomas Brown for one: “not a single historian who has published on the Mandan epidemic of 1837 agrees with Churchill that the US Army committed ‘smallpox blanket’ genocide” comment #6), that no historian agrees with Churchill. That is not the issue. The issue is did Churchill make up evidence or falsify it. Who agrees, and whether they published their agreement is entirely immaterial and irrelevant. The likes of Thomas Brown make up the rules to suit their agendas, not the rules adopted by the University of Colorado, as disreputable as that institution revealed itself to be.

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Thomas Brown, who in 2006 was referred to as a professor of sociology at Lamar University (if correct, he is no longer there, and I am unable to find a university or department in which he is currently employed), has been one of the most strident and unforgivingly hostile critics of Ward Churchill. Indeed, he seems to have devoted considerable energies toward the destruction of Churchill’s reputation and volunteered to submit materials against him at Churchill’s hearing at CU. Brown recently asserted the following (see comment #6):

“not a single historian who has published on the Mandan epidemic of 1837 agrees with Churchill that the US Army committed ‘smallpox blanket’ genocide. Not a single historian has even placed the US Army within 800 miles of the outbreak. Churchill cited a book by Russell Thornton in support of his fabricated genocide. Thornton described Churchill’s tale as a ‘fabrication,’ and his view is shared by every other historian who has studied this episode.”

He then goes on to make a sweeping accusation, totally without the support of the CU investigative committee which made no such claim, and that is that Churchill engages in “habitual fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism.” Habitual. Synonyms of habitual include: constant, continual, chronic, automatic, persistent, recurrent, and regular. In other words, Churchill fabricates, falsifies, and plagiarizes pretty much all the time. And yet, the CU Report only came up with seven select instances, with reference to over 12,000 footnotes. What Brown has clearly done here is to slander Churchill. Brown makes a libellous remark. It is a sweeping statement that lacks evidence to support its reach, and it was written with the intent of harming the reputation of Churchill. I believe that Brown thinks of himself as a scholar. I think of this as academic misconduct. In another comment (#34) by Thomas Brown, Brown challenges me directly: “What line would a scholar have to cross to warrant sanctions in Max Forte’s world?” Dr. Brown, the line that you crossed, as a matter of fact.

As to the historical question at the root of the charge of falsification/fabrication. Please re-read Brown’s words again, in the block quote above. Brown says Churchill’s account is “fabricated.” Now read what the actual CU Report stated on pages 67-68 (emphasis added):

“Our investigation has found that there is some evidence in written accounts of Indian reactions in 1837 and in native oral traditions that would allow a reasonable scholar who relies heavily on such sources to reach Professor Churchill’s interpretation that smallpox was introduced deliberately among Mandan Indians near Fort Clark by the U.S. Army, using infected blankets. We therefore do not conclude that he fabricated his account.”

One may not like Churchill’s interpretation, or the way that he, as someone who is not a trained historian, uses historians as his sources — but that is entirely besides the issue. The issue is not whether Churchill speaks “the truth,” but whether he made up the account out of his own head. The CU’s Investigative Committee of the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct, whose report the quote came from, says Churchill did not fabricate his account. That charge should have been dropped right there, and not used as one of the bases for firing Churchill. The problem with that Committee, however, is that it exceeded its own charge and now decided it would become the arbiter of the historical truth.

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And what kind of arbiter has the CU Investigative Committee been? I am guided now by a critical report produced by seven professors in a document submitted to the Standing Committee on Research Misconduct in May of 2007. The first issue concerns smallpox among the Wampanoags in New England, 1614-1618 — yes, that is correct, and non-historians can be fired, apparently, for allegedly getting the events of 400 years ago wrong (as if the data were simple, straightforward, and beyond source criticism).

Professor Churchill was charged with research misconduct for stating that,  “There’s some pretty strong circumstantial evidence that [Captain John] Smith introduced smallpox among the Wampanoags as a means of clearing the way for the invaders” (p. 33 of the Investigative Committee’s Report). The Committee concluded that Churchill “fabricated his account, because no evidence – not even circumstantial evidence – supports his claim” (p. 38, emphasis added). The Committee also claimed to have done “further research to see if other sources buttress Professor Churchill’s claims” (p. 35) and asserted that there is “nothing that points specifically to smallpox. Professor Churchill does not provide even ‘circumstantial evidence’ to support his claim that the disease was smallpox or tell his readers by what logic he reached this conclusion.” (p.37, emphasis added).

Yet, as the seven professors argued:

“There are, in fact, numerous readily accessible sources which describe the disease as smallpox, thus refuting the conclusions of the Committee. To quote only a few examples:”

  • “For example, the first smallpox epidemic, in 1616, sharply reduced populations of Indians along the northeast Atlantic Coast.” John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) p.503.
  • “Importation of smallpox also decimated the native peoples of North America, facilitating the European colonization of the continent. In 1616-1619, a smallpox epidemic cut down almost nine-tenths of the Indian population in the Massachusetts Bay area. . . .” Jonathan B. Tucker, Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2001) p.11.
  • “New England Indians, from Massachusetts to Maine, suffered a smallpox from 1616-1619.” Sana Loue, Gender, Ethnicity, and Health Research (New York: Kluwer Academic, 1999) p.136.
  • In addition, numerous timelines of early American history list a 1616 smallpox epidemic in the northeast as a seminal event. See, e.g., John W. W right, ed., The New York Times Almanac 2007: The Almanac of Record, (New York: Penguin, 2006) p.78; Larissa Juliet Taylor, ed., Great Events from History: The 17th Century (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2005) (Table of Contents, “1617ff., Smallpox Kills Native American Populations”); David Lea, et al., A Political Chronology of the Americas (London: Europa, 2001), p.225.

Remember, the Investigative Committee stated very bluntly: “no evidence – not even circumstantial evidence – supports his claim….nothing that points specifically to smallpox.” Instead, there is evidence, and it points specifically to smallpox.

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The same critical report from which I quoted above, proceeded to outline its case against the CU Investigative Committee on the issue of “the 1837 smallpox epidemic among the Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara and the withholding of vaccine.” They note the following, and their quotes from the CU Report I have verified as correct:

The Committee acknowledges that it didnot find academic misconduct with respect to his general claim that the U.S. Army deliberately spread smallpox to Mandan Indians at Fort Clark in 1837, using infected blankets” (p. 81, emphasis added). In other words, the Committee acknowledges that Professor Churchill’s interpretation is fundamentally sound. Yet the Committee devotes 44 pages to justifying its conclusion that Professor Churchill “has created myths under the banner of academic scholarship” with respect to the manner in which this was accomplished and the numbers killed by the epidemic (pp. 81-82, emphasis added).

In addition, the seven professors find the following in criticism of the CU Investigative Committee:

The Committee states that it “found no evidence” supporting Professor Churchill’s claims that vaccine intended for Indians was withheld at Forts Union and Clark and, therefore, concluded that he had “fabricated those statements” (p. 78, emphasis added).

This statement is directly contradicted by the Committee’s own acknowledgment of two sources referenced by Professor Churchill, Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn (pp. 74-75) and R.G. Robertson’s Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian (pp. 76-77). [my emphasis]

The Committee acknowledges that Professor Churchill’s account “accords in part” with Connell’s work, and we note that putting various pieces of evidence together to come up with a distinct analysis is the essence of scholarship. However, the Committee then proceeds to dismiss this source as “problematic” because “Connell’s description does not agree with the primary evidence and the accounts provided by other historians.”(p. 75)

Not only that, but the CU Investigative Committee also suppressed evidence that supported Churchill’s interpretation, preferring to impose its own interpretation, even while contradicting itself with a map that strengthens Churchill’s argument:

On the following page, the Committee acknowledges that, according to Robertson, Army personnel took cowpox vaccine to Fort Union. It then summarily dismisses this evidence as well: “That is a surprising statement, since it is in direct contradiction to the orders sent out by the government concerning which Indians were to be vaccinated. . . . Careful examination of the train of citations indicates that Robertson is incorrect” (p.76). In footnote 199, the Committee gives its analysis of the sources cited by Robertson.

In other words, Professor Churchill did provide evidence but the Committee performed an independent assessment of the reliability of his sources, and decided to hold Professor Churchill accountable to its interpretation of the facts. The Committee thus exceeded its charge, which was to determine if there was “any reasonable basis” for Professor Churchill’s statements, and then misrepresented and suppressed evidence by claiming to have found no evidence that supported Professor Churchill. [my emphases]

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Thomas Brown also alleges that Churchill “invented historical characters who never existed, fabricated dialogue for those imaginary characters.” I found this particular accusation to be ironic, since it is a tactic that is consciously used by Brown in one of his papers excoriating Churchill, where he has lines such as the following, attributed to no one, mere inventions that serve to put words into Churchill’s mouth: “But Professor, I didn’t plagiarize Janie’s term paper. I just ‘rewrote’ it!” (p. 2). Brown then creates imaginary dialogues between fictitious characters: “Detective: ‘But we caught you standing over the corpse with a bloody knife in your hand. If you didn’t do it, then who did?’ Suspect: ‘I don’t know. Some dude’.” Often, the words in quotes, attributed to no one but suggestive of Churchill’s thoughts, are written to ridicule the imaginary speaker of the words. Churchill’s words and actions are not good enough, Brown has to introduce imaginary play friends.

In fact, Brown quotes only one single document by Churchill. Instead of interviewing Churchill, which would be the commonly accepted, expected, scholarly practice of fairness, validity, and good judgment, Brown instead quotes Churchill in secondary sources. That is questionable judgment at best, when Churchill is still living, writing prolifically, and has his own website. Churchill is not allowed to be mistaken about sources 400 years in the past, but Brown allows himself to avoid Churchill as a source in the present.

Moreover, Brown turns to the National Science Foundation for federal definitions of plagiarism. He fails to consult the University of Colorado’s plagiarism policy, which is what was in effect and ruled over Churchill as all others at that university. The only statement that University repeats across various pages of its website is the following: “Plagiarism is defined as the use of another’s ideas or words without appropriate acknowledgment. Examples of plagiarism include: failing to use quotation marks when directly quoting from a source; failing to document distinctive ideas from a source; fabricating or inventing sources; and copying information from computer-based sources, i.e., the Internet.” (Incidentally, that is meager, compared to my university’s policy.) Brown thus succeeds in creating an imaginary dialogue between fictitious characters in response to policies that were not the ones in play.

To heighten the irony, Brown writes his article to clearly ridicule Churchill — this is a case, however, where the boomerang returns to clobber the thrower. And what was that about research misconduct?

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The Bigger Picture: The Politics

Let us keep our minds focused on the actual sequence of events. A political controversy preceded the investigation against Ward Churchill by the University of Colorado, which came under pressure from the Governor, the state legislature, and the mainstream media, to fire Churchill over his political statements. It was a political process that then found an academic guise by which it could be pursued, on very shaky grounds, as an academic investigation. But there was nothing academic to begin with. The CU Investigative Committee approached its work as one that was looking for any excuse, any excuse at all, any infringement, any shade of doubt, that could be turned into an “a-ha!” for firing Churchill. The University administration was determined to fire Churchill in advance, all it needed was something it thought would seem wrong in Churchill’s research record (it found nothing wrong in his teaching and service records, but apparently these activities are secondary, at best, at the University of Colorado).

Without even getting into academic details, I suspect that any sober judge who pretends to be objective will clearly see that there would have been no investigation of Churchill to begin with, by the same university that awarded him tenure on the basis of the same work, if it had not been for the political controversy. That fact relocates the focus to constitutionally protected freedom of speech, over which the University clearly sought to punish Churchill.

I expect Churchill to win his court case, but I am prepared for all possibilities.

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12 thoughts on “Misunderstanding and Misrepresenting the Charges Against Ward Churchill

  1. thanks so much for posting this. i wish there were more people writing about ward and making people aware of the real context. there are too many lies perpetuated against him. it is like there is a whole zionist propaganda machine deliberately, constantly smearing his name.

  2. Thanks very much Marcy for reading this and leaving your comment. Churchill certainly did not win any friends in powerful positions when he used the term “holocaust” to speak of the genocide of the American Indians, and it seems to have spawned a small academic cottage industry of writers whose sole preoccupation seems to have become that of detailing each and every little way the two differ, and why the suffering of American Indians “trivializes” (can you believe this?) the suffering of Jews in WWII.

  3. Well, well, well….Ward Churchill finally gets exposed for the fraud that he is, and no doubt, his small but loyal band of minions has to cry conspiracy. Yes, CU, that “bastien of conservatism” (right) conspired. The committee of his peers, the regents, yes, all of them….

    Churchill isn’t even Native American. He gained his position at CU by claiming to be one. This arrogant and hateful man doesn’t represent anything about us Native Americans. Ask one. Meanwhile you wanna be revolutionaries who’ve found a cause celebre can keep blindly following this petty man.

  4. From AIM:

    AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT GRAND GOVERNING COUNCIL

    MINISTRY FOR INFORMATION
    P.O. Box 13521
    Minneapolis MN 55414
    612/ 721-3914 . fax 612/ 721-7826
    Email: aimggc@worldnet.att.net
    Web Address: http://www.aimovement.org

    Ward Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York on February 3, 2005. His appearance was canceled by the college after he caused a public furor over his loathsome remarks about the 9-11 tragedy in New York. AIM’s Grand Governing Council has been dealing with Churchill’s hateful attitude and rip-off of Indian people for years.

    The American Indian Movement Grand Governing Council representing the National and International leadership of the American Indian Movement once again is vehemently and emphatically repudiating and condemning the outrageous statements made by academic literary and Indian fraud, Ward Churchill in relationship to the 9-11 tragedy in New York City that claimed thousands of innocent people’s lives.

    Churchill’s statement that these people deserved what happened to them, and calling them little Eichmanns, comparing them to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who implemented Adolf Hitler’s plan to exterminate European Jews and others, should be condemned by all.

    The sorry part of this is Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement, a situation that has lifted him into the position of a lecturer on Indian activism. He has used the American Indian Movement’s chapter in Denver to attack the leadership of the official American Indian Movement with his misinformation and propaganda campaigns.

    Ward Churchill has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband. He waves around an honorary membership card that at one time was issued to anyone by the Keetoowah Tribe of Oklahoma. Former President Bill Clinton and many others received these cards, but these cards do not qualify the holder a member of any tribe. He has deceitfully and treacherously fooled innocent and naïve Indian community members in Denver, Colorado, as well as many other people worldwide. Churchill does not represent, nor does he speak on behalf of the American Indian Movement.

    New York’s Hamilton College Kirklands Project should be aware that in their search for truth and justice, the idea that they have hired a fraud to speak on Indian activism is in itself a betrayal of their goals.

    Dennis J. Banks, Ojibwa Nation
    Chairman of the Board
    American Indian Movement
    Phone: 218-654-5885
    Nee Gon Nway Wee Dung, aka, Clyde H. Bellecourt, Ojibwa Nation
    National Executive Director
    American Indian Movement
    Cell: 612-251-5836
    Office: 612-724-3129
    Press Contact:
    WaBun-Inini, aka, Vernon Bellecourt, Ojibwa Nation
    Executive Committee Member
    Director Council on Foreign Relations
    American Indian Movement
    Office: 612-721-3914
    Cell: 612-889-0796

  5. It was funny reading your post…because almost every single sentence, even individual words, were steeped with so many problems that it became impossible to find the time to even begin to deconstruct it. Unless something happened in court today that I missed, Ward Churchill has not “finally” been “exposed” as an allegedly fake Indian. Instead, that allegation has been made for a long time, and countered for a long time, and the accusation tries to evade its own inherent racism and Eurocentrism. Churchill gained his position at CU when he was already widely acknowledged as a leading activist and writer…he didn’t have to claim anything, CU claimed him. As for conspiracy, just read the sworn court testimonies, then come back to me.

  6. Oh wow, that was almost impressive (speaking for those who might know absolutely nothing and who might buy this nonsense). What you failed to mention is that AIM has undergone an almost lethal split, and you are referring to one section of AIM that claims the AIM identity for itself. Former friends and comrades, who now find it convenient to spit at Churchill. Before though, which one of them was claiming that Churchill was a fraud? The opportunism is as laughable as the dishonesty is palpable.

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