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A New Ward Churchill Controversy

February 9, 2005

The Ward Churchill debate took another turn Tuesday as scholars began to debate accusations that some of his research is questionable.

Thomas F. Brown, a sociologist at Lamar University, published an online critique, which focuses on Churchill's writings about the smallpox epidemic that decimated the Mandan people in 1837. Churchill attributes the epidemic to a deliberate act of the U.S. Army, but Brown details questions about Churchill's sources and notes the consensus among scholars that although the U.S. did countless terrible things to Native Americans, it can't be blamed for that particular tragedy.

Churchill, who teaches ethnic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is facing an investigation there of whether he should lose his tenured position. Statements he made about 9/11 -- such as saying some of those who died in the World Trade Center were "little Eichmanns" -- have infuriated the families of those killed that day, and politicians and talk radio hosts have been demanding his ouster.

While Churchill has been reviled outside academe, many professors -- even those who find his views revolting -- have defended him, saying that for a public university to dismiss a tenured professor for his writings would violate the First Amendment and erode the principles of academic freedom. So the debate over Churchill's research may have the potential to shift the broader discussion about whether he deserves support.

As Henry Farrell said Tuesday on the blog Crooked Timber, "I know nothing about the historical issues at stake, so can't comment on the truth of the allegations - however, if the accusations have merit, they transform the case from one of free speech and academic freedom, to one of whether or not Churchill has lived up to the minimal standards required of a tenured academic."

In Brown's essay on Churchill's research, he says that the Colorado professor isn't just wrong, but that Churchill cites as sources work from scholars that demonstrates the opposite of what Churchill says happened. Brown argues that the smallpox epidemic "was entirely accidental, the Army wasn't involved, and nearly every element of Churchill's story is a total invention." (Brown's article also notes that at other times, U.S. and English military leaders did use biowarfare against Indian groups in genocidal ways.)

In an interview, Brown said that he became aware of Churchill several years ago while studying Indian nationalist movements. He was working on an article about Churchill, and decided to publish it immediately because of the current controversy.

Churchill was not available for comment Tuesday and did not return e-mail requests for an interview. Neither did two University of Colorado professors who have backed him in his fight to keep his job and who are friends of his.

Another scholar who a friend of Churchill's, George E. Tinker, said in an interview that he had not read Brown's essay. He also said that he was not an expert on the period in question. But Tinker, a professor of American Indian cultures and religious traditions at the Iliff School of Theology, said that the charges "don't ring true to me."

"Ward has written 24 books, always heavily annotated, and we all write stuff that can be challenged. That's part of the academy," he said.

Tinker said that he has known Churchill for 20 years and found him to be "absolutely honest in every interaction." He said that these new accusations are "an attempt at character assassination" and "part of the national right wing attempt to purge the university."

Not everyone backing Brown's version of the dispute appears to be part of the right wing. One of the scholars Brown says has had his findings distorted by Churchill is Russell Thornton, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles. Thornton, who is a Cherokee, has written extensively about the horrors of U.S. treatment of Indians. But his study of the Mandan concluded that the epidemic was not intentional.

Thornton said in an interview last night that Brown's essay was correct. He said that people have periodically told him over the years that Churchill has "misrepresented my work."

"Issues like Ward Churchill cast aspersions on legitimate Indian scholars," Thornton said. Of U.S. treatment of Native Americans, Thornton said, "The history is bad enough -- there's no need to embellish it."

Also yesterday, Churchill spoke to hundreds of supporters at the Boulder campus, defending his ideas and attacking his critics. On Monday, the university had called off the speech, citing threats of violence against Churchill and students. But on Tuesday, the university reversed itself.

Ron Stump, vice chancellor for student affairs, said that on Tuesday, the university "met again with students who retracted their earlier reports of death threats." After organizers "provided additional information about the structure of the event," the university allowed it to go forward.

The Denver Post reported that the reversal came hours after Churchill filed papers in federal court seeking the right to speak.

In his address, The Post said, Churchill said he would not back down on his views or quit his job.

Churchill again said that reporters and politicians have distorted his writings, including the statements about 9/11. And he refused to apologize for what he wrote.

"I had every right and indeed the obligation" to say what he did about 9/11, The Post  quoted him as saying. "I'm not backing up an inch. I owe no one an apology."

 

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