Day 7 (17 March 2009) and Day 8 (18 March 2009) featured a lot of heated exchanges and sometimes complex testimony on fairly small, densely clustered issues pertaining to rules of scholarship and — this will be of particular interest to anthropologists — what is considered valid knowledge, indigenous oral traditions, secrecy, and from the vantage point of ethnohistorians, the much needed criticism of documents and archives produced by a dominating power. Normally, such issues would be debated within the academy, and not in courtrooms. In addition, a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding could have been preempted if Ward Churchill had clarified, within his own text, the nature of his sourcing — it would have strengthened his work by providing a needed justification of indigenous oral sources, thereby helping to advance American Indian Studies, while also paying respect to his indigenous sources (even if not naming them). Nonetheless, in allegedly not having done so (this concerns a text by Churchill which happens to be one that I have not yet read), I do not see how firing Churchill logically follows as a means to address this problem.
I will also reiterate my basic point that even if everything the University of Colorado charged Churchill with doing was unambiguously true, in terms of instances of plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication, that given the magnitude of his entire corpus of work, and the selective and few instances cited by the University, that this is hardly a basis for outright firing, especially not after the University itself had already showered Churchill with awards and granted him tenure and promotion. Indeed, only a minority of the members of the CU investigating committee recommended that Churchill be fired, but the University took precisely that route regardless, which brings us back to the first and ultimate issue: the political motivations behind Churchill’s firing.
It is extremely unfortunate that in the midst of the 9/11 hysteria that gripped/grips the U.S., that any ambiguities or errors in Churchill’s writing should be seized upon to smuggle in right-wing historical revisionism that exculpates American frontier capitalists and soldiers from any blame whatsoever in the marginalization, decimation, and impoverishment of American Indians, to a degree that constitutes genocide. I know that I am not the only one who has made this point. Both the beginning and the end of the firing of Ward Churchill, and its primary mediating instrument (the CU report), reflect sharp political motivations, to punish Churchill, and at the same time vindicate an appropriate, authorized “truth” that absolves Euro-America and impugns American Indian Studies.
Some of have legitimately questioned whether Churchill’s account of the U.S. Army deliberately spreading smallpox among the Mandan Indians in 1837 constitutes a kind of conspiracy theory. My impression is that, for Churchill, outright killing constitutes a critical act that is a necessary component of genocide, and that this case is one among many that he cites as proof of genocide. I am not sure that this case was necessary for a broader argument about racism and extinctionism as an ideology/policy — for even the accidental and unintentional diffusion of smallpox could be used by evolutionist theorists in the polygenesis camp, scientific racists, and the School of American Ethnology as evidence that the demise of the Indian was providential and mandated by nature, if not be God, given the “natural,” biological, racial inferiority of the Indian. Such thinking was then used to justify Euro-American dominance and rights to the land, while more extreme writers in this camp would call for an acceleration of the process of natural extinction, having men act as instruments of some “divine providence.” The endpoint, however, is the same as if the spreading of smallpox had been intentional, calculated, and systematic: the removal of the Indian from the American future, by any means, whether in symbolic, political, or demographic terms.
To summarize the two days of hearings referred to in this post, Marianne Wesson, the head of the investigating committee into Churchill’s work, returned to the stand. Having suffered a grilling from David Lane, Churchill’s attorney, the day before, the attorney for the University provided an opportunity for her to score some points against Churchill, declaring him to be a “tragic figure,” while presenting another email that showed, in her view, that she had no prior bias against Churchill (as if to counteract the email statements made by her that clearly showed she had such a bias). In defense of Churchill, Michael Yellowbird, a professor of indigenous studies at the University of Kansas, spoke on Native oral sources, the validity of oral traditions, and the need to protect the identities of the Native speakers who shared such knowledge with Churchill. Yellowbird spoke of the domination of the archive by Euro-American interests, and the need for a Native history to counteract official lies. Unfortunately, when asked by the University’s attorney if he had said in a deposition that sometimes it is necessary to fabricate accounts in order to promote the truth, he replied that he had, and had no chance to elaborate. Another member of the committee that investigated Churchill, Marjorie McIntosh, claimed that she was incensed by the political persecution of Churchill over his 9/11 essay, but when she found the problems indicated in the report concerning his scholarship, she had to conclude that he had engaged in misconduct. Another member of that committee, José Limón, claimed that Churchill was given every benefit of the doubt, and rejected the idea that there could be more than one valid interpretation of historical reality.
It was also reported that Ward Churchill himself was to take the stand earlier this week, and this may happen before the current week ends.
For more, please see:
- CHURCHILL TRIAL BLOG: CU lawyer presses witness on sourcing
- CU attorney slams Churchill on sourcing: Witness says American Indian community has different standards for historical information
- CHURCHILL TRIAL BLOG: Committee member says prof got benefit of doubt
- Churchill v. University of Colorado: Morning, March 17th
- Churchill on St Paddy’s Afternoon: A Draw
- Comments by John Holcomb, Professor of Business Ethics and Legal Studies Daniels College of Business
- Wednesday the 18th, AM session: Distracting computer glitches & headstrong witnesses
- Churchill v. University of Colorado–March 18, Afternoon Session
- The Ward Churchill Trial: March 18th Update
- The Ward Churchill Trial: March 17th Update