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Jodi Rave: Free speech for fake Indian

MISSOULA, Mont. - When Ward Churchill wrote a post-Sept. 11 "stream of consciousness" essay, it slipped into relative obscurity.

Dusted off three years later, it has catapulted him to prime-time TV, prompted death threats and spawned protests from New York to Colorado.

Churchill, a professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, captured the national attention after his essay, "Some People Push Back," was boiled down and translated to read: Sept. 11 victims deserved to die because they were the equivalent of Nazi henchmen.

The professor said his comments were taken out of context.

"I am not a defender of the Sept. 11 attacks, but simply pointing out that if U.S. foreign policy results in massive death and destruction abroad, we cannot feign innocence when some of that destruction is returned ... such attacks are a natural and unavoidable consequence of unlawful U.S. policy," Churchill said in a recent statement.

That statement rings with truth, but Churchill's 5,600-word essay wasn't as kind. It contained smatterings of phrases that lit fuses, like his sentence that compared World Trade Center victims to "little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers."

Churchill only captured recent attention after being invited to speak at Hamilton College in New York. The event was cancelled after university officials and Churchill received death threats.

But that was only the first wave.

Back home, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens called for the tenured professor's firing. Although Churchill remains at CU, he did resign Feb. 1 as director of the university's Ethnic Studies Department. The state's board of regents issued an apology Friday (Feb. 4) over the professor's "disgraceful comments." Now the university is investigating a cause for dismissal.

So far, Churchill stands strong on his right to free speech.

But the bigger problem he faces is a question of identity. He's built an academic career writing about indigenous peoples. He often layers his academic discourse with anti-colonial sentiment, frequently comparing the Jewish Holocaust to the genocide of Native peoples.

Churchill was originally scheduled to speak at Hamilton College on indigenous issues. He's typically described as an expert in the field, and his credentials have been built to represent the authenticity of a Native man. He's known as an American Indian activist, and has been a leader of the Colorado chapter of the American Indian Movement. His resume also includes a stint as director of CU's Indian Studies Department.

He's tried to reinforce his Native-credibility factor by claiming tribal membership with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee.

He recently told the Denver Post he's three-sixteenth Cherokee. But his story was different when I interviewed him as a CU journalism student. At the time, he said he was one-sixteenth Creek and Cherokee. When my story - which questioned his identity - was published November 1993 in the Colorado Daily, he was not enrolled with a tribe.

In the past, he's denounced tribal enrollment practices, although he's actively sought enrollment.

In May 1994, he was granted an "associate membership," or honorary status, with the Keetoowah. He would have had to show proof of having a four-sixteenth blood quantum to be granted full membership. By July that year, the tribal council stopped issuing associate memberships.

Meanwhile, the tribe's honorary enrollment number has become his calling card.

Several years ago, he showed up in the Lincoln Journal Star newsroom, where I worked. He was angry about a column in which I denounced his panel appearance at the University of Nebraska. He wanted a retraction. He flashed his honorary enrollment number to one of my editors.

It wasn't worth a retraction.

My column never mentioned an enrollment number.

Blacks, whites, Asians or Hispanics can write about Native peoples, and they can do so with credibility and authority. The problem is Churchill wants us to believe him because he's Native. And unfortunately, he's now often sought on the national and international lecture circuit as an authentic representative of the Native perspective.

In the case of his Sept. 11 essay, he would be hard pressed to find Native people who support his Nazi references.

We all have a right to free speech. Some people, however, are better at conveying their message than others. And as Churchill wages a battle to defend his essay, CU officials ought to be prepared to launch a defense of their own.

Several news articles have exposed Churchill's questionable identity.

If free speech keeps him employed at CU, that's OK.

The bigger issue confronting the academy rests with faculty credibility. Will they continue to be the front institution for a faux-Native professor?

Jodi Rave covers Native issues for Lee Enterprises and the Missoula (Mont.) Missoulian. Contact her at (800) 366-7186 or jodi.rave@missoulian.com.

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