News from Days 7 & 8 of Ward Churchill’s Lawsuit Against the University of Colorado

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.

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11 thoughts on “News from Days 7 & 8 of Ward Churchill’s Lawsuit Against the University of Colorado

  1. Max,

    OK, so here’s the gist of my question (since I am not talking to you now about military issues I had to wait until I got home). I’ve read everything I could. The full CU report. All of Churchill’s rebuttals and counter-accusations against the academic panel, and I own a couple of the secondary sources cited by both sides. Most contentiously, Steele, which is sitting here as I type.

    So here is what I don’t get. Regardless of the causation of the investigation, a lot of what came out of the investigation seems to stand up. Three things in particular really jumped out at me. (I’ll explain these and then come to the key question.) None of these three things seems yet to have been addressed in the courtroom.

    The first is easy. On the issue of the charges of plagiarism it seems that Churchill’s defense is, well, really weird. The report states, and CHURCHILL states, “Professor Churchill said in his Submission E that from time to time he publishes written work under “pseudonyms,” which may sometimes be the names of actual living people.”

    In essence what he has himself said is that he published things under other living real scholars names. That applies to all three cases in which plagiarism is suggested. His defense, therefore, being that he cannot plagiarize himself, even if he is assuming the identity of another known scholar. This, frankly, threw me for a loop. How, in any way, is that acceptable academic behavior? Faking an identity of a known scholar (it would seem, with their approval) to publish something that agrees with your already established real identity is widely reviled as “sock puppetry” online, as you and I know. It is, in essence, lying. How is this, in any way, defensible? He seems damned both ways actually. If he wrote all those things, under real names that belong to other scholars, he’s done wrong. And if not, then he plagiarized.

    My second query is about the John Smith bit. It’s not really one about sourcing. I don’t need to dive into that crap-pile. It’s about the basis of his claim. Smith, by Churchill’s own admission, was in southern New England only for two months, departing in June 1614. The incumbency period for smallpox is roughly 2 weeks. The smallpox outbreak did not occur until 18-24 MONTHS later. The virus itself, outside of a human host, can apparently only live 24 HOURS or so (on, say, a blanket which a smallpox victim has been using for some time.) ( )

    Note 1: The famous British use of smallpox during the French and Indian Wars came from blankets that had been used that day by smallpox victims…or so it has often been alleged by historians without a science check.

    Note 2: I am not absolving the British. BUT: One of the people often cited might be innocent. That would be Colonel Bouquet. He is the one that got the letter from Amherst, asking if they could use Smallpox against the Indians. He agreed to try, but apparently never did. [Both are therefore guilty of intent, if nothing else.] So far as we can tell, not only couldn’t he (Bouquet), he didn’t even try. The reason is simple: He apparently had no cases of smallpox on hand. You need infected people ON HAND, to convey smallpox. On the OTHER hand, one ass of a British officer did just that: Captain Ecuyer, during “Pontiac’s Rebellion” did, in fact, take a couple of blankets and one handkerchief from his post/fort’s “smallpox ward” and give them to Native Americans. That was during “Pontiac’s Rebellion,” however, not the Seven Years War.

    SO, anyway, Churchill wrote about Smith’s 1614 visit, “Mysteriously—the Indians had had close contact with Europeans for years without getting sick—epidemics broke out in the immediate aftermath of Smith’s expedition.” But that is not true. There was no epidemic until 1616. Smallpox can’t exist outside a human body for more than a day. For Smith to have infected the Indians, it would have to occur within 24 hours of his giving of some infected gift, as that moron English officer did. That’s not history speaking, that’s plain old biological science. Available to anyone. And certainly, one would think, something an author would check before publishing in an academic quality source. (Or, in the case of Churchill, in many sources.) So Churchill appears to have been making it up. (Because, in biological science, there is no such thing as “circumstantial evidence” when talking about the viability of a virus outside of a host.)

    All of which brings me to the central query which I have, having followed this.
    I don’t really give a rat’s-ass about his 9/11 commentary. That’s strange, but I’ve seen a lot stranger in following disputes in Sri Lanka. But the salient point seems to be, to me, academic misconduct.

    Look, you don’t know what political party I vote for. But let’s say you assume I am a Socialist, and you are on an academic review board determining if I am qualified to teach military history and security studies. You, for the sake of argument, are a rabid right-winger. You, therefore, might be assumed to oppose me. But if there is no academic violation, there is nothing you can do, right?

    In this case, Churchill is opposing the investigation itself. He, so far as I can tell, does not have much of a leg to stand on on the issues of academic misrepresentation for personal benefit, misleading scholarship (in re smallpox), or (if his defense that he wrote under the name of other established scholars doesn’t stand) outright plagiarism. Yet he is not even trying to defend himself on these counts. Can you tell me why?

    Bob Bateman

  2. Churchill has defended himself against the charge of plagiarism for what he calls “ghost writing.” Would I publish a book under someone else’s name, especially an actual living person’s name? No, and I don’t even see why I would need to, besides the fact that whatever the reason may be, it always appears to be weird.

    What the committee wants to fault him for in this case is essentially self-plagiarism. Some people take such matters seriously. I don’t. Having done the research, having written his thoughts out already, I think it is perfectly valid for him to use his own work — unfortunately, however, in the process he is also blowing the cover of another academic who, very strangely, agreed to have her name on a book she did not write, and presumably listed this on her CV?

    My questions are:
    (a) if the University did not want activist writing, which often does not conform to rules and standards of the established social sciences, then why did it hire an activist without a PhD?
    (b) why did the University then praise his work with various awards, and more importantly, how come he passed any of the screening that occurs when one gets promoted or is awarded tenure?
    (c) what do Churchill’s peer reviewers have to say, and why did they not alert Churchill to certain questionable practices of his before his work was even published?
    (d) how is any of what he is alleged to have done a valid basis for firing, especially when others who have engaged in the same practices have not been fired?

    I know you say you don’t care about his 9/11 essay, but as you might remember, many did, and many wanted to see Churchill pay the price. I see very little room — in fact no room — for disagreeing with Churchill that the investigation into his research took place entirely as a result of his 9/11 essay controversy. He wants to argue that his case is one of political persecution, and I cannot really see how one would deny that.

  3. Sorry, scratch the second half of (b) above, at least partly: apparently Churchill was hired with full tenure, which is unusual and is reserved for highly prized academics, or very senior ones. I would suspect that some level of screening is still required, however.

  4. Yea, I don’t disagree with Churchill’s premise that he was targeted by folks outside the university for the 9/11 brouhaha. But I also think it’s not relevent.

    The CU report used a decent analogy about a cop pulling you over for speeding. His motivation to chase you down (instead of ignoring you) was a bumper sticker that offended him. But regardless of motivation, you were still speeding.

    I have no idea why CU hired him, at least in that field. You see journalism schools bring in celebrity journalists, and Political Science departments bring in prominent political types (Georgetown in particular absolutely relies upon this practice) who may or may not have significant degrees in the field in which they were actually practicing. Doug Feith, for example, taught in the classroom next to mine at this time last year. Described by General Tommy Franks as “the stupidest fucking guy in the room,” Feith had no education or background in security studies, but he had been a (disasterous) practitioner for 20 years. So that phenomena is not limited to CU I should think. (My students who took his course were not impressed either, which is an amusing confirmation of Tommy Franks’ opinion…particularly since the ‘fucking stupid’ appelation is one that many apply to Franks himself.)

    But I am suprised that he was hired with tenure. That is amazing.

    I think the peer review thing is partially explained by where and how he published quite a lot of the more contentious materials.

    You mentioned that the part of my publications which come out in military professional journals would not be valid academically, and for most of academia you’re right. Churchill’s cv is much the same. I write some of my history work for audiences which don’t have degrees in history. Churchill wrote a lot of his stuff for audiences which didn’t have degrees (or specializations) either. Now the fact is that I’m as careful with my military theory/military history work for military-related magazines and journals and newspapers as I am when writing for an academic journal. But then that’s what we learn in grad school, right? Well, in Churchill’s experience with grad school, there might not have been the same education. His MA is in communications, right? So what he learned was about getting a message out in a field where scholarship is kind of loosely defined. That may have led him to a two-tiered way of thinking about what he was saying. He would be careful with things that would be peer reviewed, but play faster and looser if there was no peer review.

    Just a hypothesis.

    I can’t speak for why people in other fields might not have been fired, but in History there are plenty of high-profile cases of people being fired for less than this. Ellis and Goodwin come to mind immediately. If Ambrose was still associated with academia when he got caught, he’d likely have been canned as well. (And note, Ellis didn’t even make anything up on paper. His scholarship, as I recall, wasn’t questioned. He was let go because he was caught lying about his personal life history.)

    Bob Bateman

  5. Well, that may be. I think Churchill’s lawyer has been doing a better job than CUs, from what I’ve seen. Mostly by focusing on the 1830s stuff, which *does* get into debateable issues (oral history traditions, the validity of anonymous sources, etc.) and, in essence, boring the jury to death. And CU’s lawyer has been pretty stupid to let him do that. Because it would appear to my untrained eye, that that line plays into the hands of Churchill’s lawyer/side. In other words, if they can make it appear, like this is all much ado about nothing, then the other stuff will be mentally swept into that same catagory when it comes out (presuming it does come out) later in the trial.

    I guess we’ll see.

    Just finished with the ANSWER “March on the Pentagon.” Walked the whole route with them, just watching, and it was exactly as I expected. They never even got near the Pentagon, walked right past it at about 500 yards and one highway away at the closest point, then walked through an abandoned industrial park, then a closed business district. Completely isolated from everything. (Well, there was one U-Haul store open in the industrial park.)

    Only about 1000-2000 there. They started from Lincoln Memorial, and then took themselves entirely out of the public eye b/c of the “March on the Pentagon” schtick. Wish I could show you the route on google-maps or something. But bottom line, it was like these 1000-2000 people completely wasted their vote/voice.

    They could have marched down the National Mall. They could have gotten TV. They could have elicited counter-protests (which would also have served their purpose of getting more attention/news). They could have interacted (and caused conversations about the topic) with and among the 5-10K tourists and locals on the National Mall this beautiful DC Saturday.

    Instead, because they have come to think that “the Pentagon” is the locus for decisions about going to war, they ended up walking on an abandoned highway, and then an industrial park access road, and then through a closed office district (I did see about 20-25 people looking down from the single apartment building along the route.) Max, it was really sad and pathetic. Not their message, but their execution.

    I did get a couple of giggles. There was one Marxist group there. They carried large red banners, as is their wont. They said, as they do, “Workers of the World, Unite!” And then below that, their website. LMFAO. “.com” ?! Are they kidding? Was .org and .net and all the other new varients taken? Did they not see the silliness of Marxists having a “commercial” website?

    (There were, of course, people from a whole RANGE of issues there. Vegans protesting meat eating. [Which related to the anti-war theme how?] Education issue people. [Same] Anti-bailout people. [Also same] Socialists. Etc. The general gamut, but distilled here, probably because it was so small.)

    Anyway, the bottom line was that instead of being seen, getting conversations started, causing people to interact and think and talk about their topic, because they wanted to “March on the Pentagon” they achieved none of that. Which goes to my point about trying to help you be more precise in your own criticism, because the people who believe that a “March on the Pentagon” is a relevent way to effect change, are people who listen to you.

    (Hmmmm, and now that I’ve written all this out, I think I’ll post it as a blog posting over at The Nation on Altercation. Do you mind if I use some of our back-and-forth on this issue of terminology over at The Nation? Not the catty stuff, but the substantive stuff where you argue that “the Pentagon” is an all-inclusive term, etc., and therefore valid/useful. Your posts are open-source, of course. But I figure it’s only polite to ask.)


  6. You can definitely use, quote, copy anything you read here.

    I will check the press to see if any of them covered the march. Yes, really is taken, and so is might work if one imaginatively changes the “com” to mean “communist.” By the way, anarchists are not necessarily opposed to organization as such — many groups are very much organized.

    I have been in much smaller marches, I think these people got a decent turn out.

  7. Day 9 & 10 seem interesting. Didn’t you write (or repeat) somewhere an estimate of how long this thing is likely to take?

    What has Churchill been doing since, what, 2005? (06?). Has he gotten another position somewhere?

    They (the marchers) made page 16 of the Washington Post today, about 400 words or so.

    I’ve been watching protests here in DC for, well, half a decade now, off and on. (I watch them all, the anti-abortion crowd, pro-this and anti-that. It’s the protesting itself which interests me. And on a nice sunny day, it’s decent outdoors entertainment.) This was, for Washington DC standards, really really small.

    In fact, I’ve not seen a smaller one for a national protest in this country of 300,000,000 people. The lack of focus is sometimes visible in larger ones, to be sure, but here it was really marked due to the scale of the thing. The Vegans/PETA part of the crowd (who did feed us all well I should note) is usually just a blip, but here they were a notable percentage of the crowd. The Hamas section was moderately small (no more than about 25, mostly white suburban kids), though the Free Palestine (seperate) section was quite vocal. I’d guesstimate those who were there expressly for Palestine/Isr topic at a full 20% of the crowd. (So make that 200-400 or so.) The anti-corporate bailout economic groups were, judging by the number of signs and speakers, about 10%. The pro-school funding group was, again judging by the speakers and #s of signs, about 5%. The remainder appeared to be there for protesting US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Except for the Anarchists.

    I could not tell what they were expressly for or against. They wore all black. Carried a few black flags (with nothing on them). Carried bamboo sticks/poles of about long walking-stick length. And didn’t chant or really say anything during the period I was near them. Though everytime we passed by a policeman one of them would start yelling at him. I could not hear what he was saying. That was about it.

    Bob Bateman

  8. The trial is scheduled to end on March 27 — that is what I originally understood, that there would be 15 actual court days spread out over three weeks.

    Ward Churchill is supposed to take the stand on Monday (23 March) one of my busiest days of the week, and I don’t know if there is live coverage of any kind apart from the live blogging.

    I really don’t know what Churchill has been doing for the past couple of years, apart from preparing for the trial and speaking engagements. I am still surprised that one of the aims of his lawsuit is to get him right back in at CU, and I do not know the thinking behind this (I will ask him when he comes to Concordia).

  9. Bob wrote: “Which goes to my point about trying to help you be more precise in your own criticism, because the people who believe that a “March on the Pentagon” is a relevent way to effect change, are people who listen to you.”

    For the record, I listen to Max, and I think ANSWER marches are generally pretty assinine. I would hazard a guess that most people who “listen to Max” are more thoughtful and have a greater commitment to having the sorts of conversations and interactions you talk about than the authoritarian leftists in ANSWER who are more concerned with some amorphous, ill-defined “symbolic protest.”

  10. Fhar,

    Yes, but I think that ANSWER isn’t the only group that has organized a “March on the Pentagon” in recent years. There’ve been others.

    I have no opinion on ANSWER itself, because any such would really be political. FWIW though, I don’t think I saw any authoritarian behaviors on Saturday. It seemed to me that they were just happy that anyone showed up, hence the broad-umbrella which saw Vegans marching besides Education advocates marching beside 9-11 Truthers marching besides anti-bank-bailout folks, “on the Pentagon.” (Though I did note somewhat more, I don’t know, stridency on the part of ANSWER in previous, pre-Obama marches.) This time it was different, and that was evident from the pre-march speaking/rally phase. They let somebody from *every* group, it seemed, up on the stage and gave them a microphone.

    Which reminds me, I need to go see how the march was covered by places like WSW.

    Bob Bateman

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