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Churchillian Lucubrations

Ward Churchill, the Nordic Sioux, is fired for cause - but CU might still screw it up

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 25, 2007.

I’ve wanted to avoid discussing Ward Churchill again, but events conspired against my inclination. Churchill was fired yesterday as a tenured professor by an 8-1 vote of the CU Board of Regents, and all hell is upon Boulder today. So, let’s first clear some terminology, because this is all about words and their use and deliberate misuse.

Frankly, I imagine that the entire Ethnic Studies department at CU, of which Ward Churchill was at one time the Department Head, has no more validity or intellectual turgor than the word “activist.” It gives students who could not survive in a more strict academic environment something to major in, and this perhaps was a goal during times of actively trying to improve the diversity in CU’s seeming exclusive enrollment of poseur Nordic Ski Instructors and California beach babes. Clever people will note that this might be at best a condescending remark and at worst actually racist by implying that other races or social groups might not be up to CU’s standards. Not at all, I’m saying that CU had trouble attracting minorities who didn’t play football, primarily because of location, and both the idea of Ethnic Studies and the elevation of Ward Churchill appeared at the same time. Conveniently. They were placed, in feudal fashion, in their own little orbit part of yet not part of the University, because apparently their academic criteria was not as stringent as that of other departments.

Churchill, despite only a Masters degree and that in Communication, is supposedly a specialist in Native American history and related political movements, much like someone could major in European History with a specialty in the early Roman Empire. That seems a reasonable correspondence at first blush, and people nod knowingly with furrowed brow concern, but it is not only not reasonable but not a correspondence at all.

In Europe, we know Latin and Greek, and many of the languages, and so can read the writings of ancient participants or their critics, and visit their architectural ruins and often see the public census reports and even trivial bureaucratic items that give a fair to middling insight into that world. Nothing like that in the Western Hemisphere. Even the recently decoded hieroglyphics and ideographs of the Mayans and other advanced people of our continent fail to provide the depth and breadth of material Europe and Asia gave their historians. As a result, much of what is known about, oh, say the Sioux Indians comes to us not from the Sioux but from the French, Spanish, and English explorers before we were American.

The Sioux cannot tell you the names and family of their chiefs in the 1500’s, or what happened in those years, or actually if there was a Sioux people in 1500, because their sense of time and history is limited and short. They contend to this day that the Black Hills are sacred and were always sacred to them. But they only moved big time into the Black Hills after the Chippewa militarily moved them out of Minnesota, where they had been a forest living people. In doing so, they in turn forced the Crow Indians west into the Bighorn Mountains. The Sioux became a powerful group of great warriors of the plains, but only had the horse for maybe 150 years before Wounded Knee. For all that, their history begins and ends with their contact with the invading Europeans. Everything else is malleable guess work, supposition, and highly dubious oral traditions.

As a result, what we do know about native people through early contact is academically holy in the sacred sense. It’s the closest we can get to an objective truth about what happened, and why. So when Ward Churchill, for current political motivations - or perhaps even more personal and petty reasons - fabricates falsity and footnotes it as truth, he isn’t doing anyone a good deed. He implies that others do it, and that if he were judged by his peers in Ethnic Studies, he’d never have been charged. That may all be true, but just as people try to elevate themselves by including the rare hero as mere “activists” like themselves, the actual heroes – and in this case, the actual scholars – might resent the inclusion of such inferiors in their ranks. If a department of Ethnic Studies judges itself by standards which would allow Ward Churchill’s bad work to pass without comment, it’s damned itself, and should survive at CU no longer than Ward Churchill.

But given the grotesque incompetence with which CU has handled its legal affairs of late, Churchill might indeed be with us for a long time.