The Churchill Firing -- II

Research misconduct is in the eye of the beholder, writes Gary Witherspoon.

July 30, 2007

Many conservatives believe the firing of University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill will now reduce liberal politics in academia. Many liberals believe that his firing will uphold high standards of academic scholarship. Both are wrong -- because the firing of Churchill reveals a very pernicious kind of exclusionary dogmatism in scholarly research and writing and media reporting. The firing of Professor Churchill for alleged research misconduct ignored evidence to the contrary provided by professors who know his work best, ignored evidence from a committee of scholars who found the investigating committee itself guilty of research misconduct, and ignored all Indigenous evidence and perspectives that are critical of Eurocentric versions of the history of the European invasion of the Americas.

Research misconduct is in the eye of the beholder. Euroamerican teachers and scholars have taught and written for several centuries that Columbus discovered America. That is a more profound and easily provable case of research misconduct than anything of which Churchill has been accused. The Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been here at least 13,000 years and more likely, according to recent DNA research, 50,000 years. This Columbus lie, which is at the foundation of Eurocentric American history, dehumanizes all those who are now called American Indians by discrediting any of their accomplishments as not being human accomplishments. Everyone who has perpetuated this myth over the years should be found guilty of deceit, research misconduct and racism, according to the standards of the investigating committee.

The 1987 edition of the standard American history textbook, American History: A Survey begins by saying, “For thousands of centuries - centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia and Europe - the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works” The book informed its readers that American history “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.” Now that is a very egregious form of “research misconduct.” That statement bears no resemblance to the truth and serves only to continue to misinform and to indoctrinate students in Eurocentric lies.

The committee should have read the 2005 national best selling book 1491, by Charles Mann, for a thorough critique of the statements quoted in American History, and for extensive support for Churchill’s arguments about the history of the Americas. Summarizing research and writing over the last 30-40 years, Mann shows that in 1491 the population of the Americas surpassed that of Europe, that American cities such as Tenochtitlan were larger than any found in Europe at the same time and, unlike European cities, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens and clean streets. I would add that nowhere in Indigenous America in the areas of my research (North and Central America) have any jails been found, so far as I have been able to determine. The earliest American cities were thriving before the Egyptians built their pyramids, and the feats of Indigenous American agriculture were unparalleled anywhere else. The journal Science recently pronounced the development of corn from its ancient noble grass ancestors as probably the greatest botanical achievement of genetic engineering in human history.

The European invasion of the Americas reduced an Indigenous population estimated by many scholars at nearly 100 million or more by 90-95 percent. Shelburne Cook and Woodrow Borah of the University of California at Berkeley spent decades reconstructing the aboriginal population of central Mexico where they determined the population to have been 25.2 million before Cortez’s invasion. Just 100 years later in 1623 only 700,000 had survived the Spanish conquest which destroyed not only millions of people but amazing architecture, art, culture and science, burning nearly all the books in their extensive libraries. The highly regarded historian Richard White has described the results of the invasion of Indigenous America as “the greatest human catastrophe in the history of the planet.”

Most people think the Churchill problem began with his planned speech in 2005 at Hamilton College -- after it was shown that he had written that some of the victims of 9/11 were not entirely innocent (CIA agents housed in the building and some technocrats of Western militarism and financial imperialism according to Churchill's clarification of what he meant in a later press release) and were instead akin to "little Eichmanns." My essay is not intended to discuss the appropriateness or validity of his statement or its clarification, but to discuss the attack on Churchill from the perspectives, perceptions and practices of research misconduct as they apply to American history and American Indians. The truth about the beginning of the Churchill controversy is that it began with the right wing attack on Churchill after Churchill and others protested a Columbus Day parade in Denver in October 2004.

The Historical Context

It should be pointed out here that in 1861 Cheyenne leader Black Kettle had been invited to Fort Lyon to negotiate a peace with the the United States. He did so, ceding much of Cheyenne territory to the U.S. and agreeing to live south of Sand Creek. The Cheyenne were given a U.S. flag that they were told they should raise whenever threatened and no one would attack them. In 1864, the Reverend Colonel Chivington led 800 troops of Colorado territorial militia in an unprovoked attack on a sleeping village of mostly women and children at Sand Creek (the younger men were out hunting). The villagers raised the U.S. flag as a sign of peace, but Chivington wanted genocide, massacring the village of 53 older men and 110 women and children, mutilating the bodies of the Cheyenne villagers. They took the Cheyenne scalps and genitalia back to Denver, marching down the streets with Indian genitalia held up on sticks, celebrating their genocidal trophies and their evidence that Indians would never again be able to reproduce.

In 1864 The Rocky Mountain News, one of the Denver papers that convicted Churchill in the press and called for his termination, described the massacre of 110 women and children and 53 older men by 800 Colorado volunteers this way: “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals, and none to exceed it in final results.... Among the killed were all the Cheyenne chiefs, Black Kettle, White Antelope, Little Robe, Left Hand, Knock Knee, One Eye, and another, name unknown. Not a single prominent man of the tribe remains, and the tribe itself is almost annihilated.... All acquitted themselves well, and Colorado soldiers have again covered themselves with glory.” History has shown the account of this massacre to be a gross case of research and journalistic misconduct.

One historian called Sand Creek the American My Lai. Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell called Sand Creek "one of the most disgraceful moments of American history."

One of the participants in this massacre was David Nichols who was honored by the University of Colorado by having a dormitory on campus named after him. In the 1980s my daughter and other First Nations students at UC protested this name, and the name was eventually changed in 1989 to Cheyenne Arapaho Hall. This local history is not irrelevant to understanding how Colorado to understanding the protests of the Columbus Day parades in Denver, and how Colorado has dealt with Churchill his termination or extermination.

Angry over the acquittal of Churchill and the other protesters of the Columbus Day parade, the right wing searched Churchill’s writing for something with which they could destroy him. That is when they found and publicized his comment, written in 2001, about some victims of 9/11 not being totally innocent. Later they discovered that it would be difficult to fire him on the grounds of his unpopular essay, so they went after his scholarship, looking for something they could call “research misconduct.” Forty-four pages in the “official investigation” (or shall we call it an inquisition) are devoted to trying to disprove Churchill’s contention that U.S. agents deliberately gave Indians small pox invested blankets in 1837-1840, while this represents only three paragraphs in any of Churchill’s 12 books and represents less than a thousandth of one percent of the genocide inflicted on Indigenous peoples. This attack on his position is all done from Eurocentric perspectives, biases and paradigms, totally discounting Indigenous perspectives and oral traditions. Yet universities like Colorado hypocritically claim to support and cherish diversity and dissent while denying validity to non-Euroamerican perspectives and traditions.

University officials said their deliberations did not consider Churchill’s essay about the causes of the 9/11 attack in which a short phrase found in one sentence has been used to indict and convict Churchill in the press. That position is, to say the least, not credible, and is being put forth simply to position the university in the upcoming court battle. Churchill’s attorney, David Lane, says that in order to show that Churchill’s First Amendment rights were violated all he has to do is show that Churchill’s unpopular phrase in that essay was a factor in his dismissal, not the whole cause. Everyone knows that without the publicity surrounding that phrase promoted by the right wing, there would never have been any investigation of his scholarship, which in the previous 30 years the university had found exemplary and worthy of promotion and reward.

Those who deny or ignore the American Holocaust are not being investigated. The scholars and journalists who perpetuate the Eurocentric biases disguised as American history are not being investigated for research misconduct, and are not being fired from their teaching or their positions in the media. The protestations of the university about preserving academic and research integrity ring hollow. The firing of Churchill is itself a form of research misconduct and represents a clear attempt by the right wing to silence Indigenous perspectives and to deny the American Holocaust.


Gary Witherspoon is a professor of anthropology and American Indian studies at the University of Washington. Witherspoon is expanding this essay into a larger work, a version of which is available here.


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