Ward Churchill's firebrand past
Sunday, February 13, 2005
He is inspirational or, perhaps, controversial enough to draw 1,000 mostly admiring people at a moment's notice for a speech last week.
At the same time, he is so polarizing that a pair of fellow academics and several Indian leaders devoted countless hours to debunking his ancestry and his scholarship long before he became famous for demonizing the victims of Sept. 11.
Today, the debate over Ward Churchill's contentious essay on the terror attacks has mushroomed into clearly divergent camps of those who find his writing, philosophy or scholarship repugnant - including families of Sept. 11 victims - and those who defend his ideas and his right to be heard.
Everything from his service record in Vietnam to his ethnic heritage to the quality of his scholarly work has been deconstructed - fueled by his own statements that don't always stand up.
He's described himself in interviews and documents as Indian - sometimes Creek, sometimes Cherokee, sometimes both - but police records indicate otherwise, and he has been unable or unwilling to provide any documentation of his ancestry.
He says he walked a dangerous point position in Vietnam, but his military records say he was a light-truck driver. Experts in his field of American Indian studies can't agree on the quality of his scholarship.
To a degree, the 57-year-old Churchill says, he is reveling in the spotlight, particularly the exposure it has given his controversial essay written after the attacks of Sept. 11. "Maybe 10,000 would have read it. And now, well, it would have cost me millions of dollars in Madison Avenue talent to get the same attention to it," he said recently. But in the next breath, he says, "It's gone too far. You get insanity prevailing as public discourse."
A likable, political youth
Churchill was born to Jack LeRoy Churchill and Maralyn Lucretia Allen in Urbana, Ill., in 1947 and named after his grandfather. His mother and father were divorced when he was 1 1/2, at a time when divorce was highly stigmatized. He felt that stigma, according to one of his high school friends, buddying up with someone who also came from a split home. He was raised by his mother and stepfather along with a number of stepbrothers and stepsisters.
He was known as "Wardo" in high school, where he struck a clean-cut pose as a student-athlete and letterman at Elmwood Community High School in Elmwood, Ill., a town of 2,100 people 25 miles west of Peoria, where he had lived since he was a small boy. He also was known as Ward Debo for a time in high school, taking his stepfather's name. He graduated in 1965 in a class of 55 students.
Some high school classmates recall that Churchill had mentioned having Indian heritage in the 1960s. U.S. census records from 1950 document no Indians in Elmwood. In 1960, two people in the town identified themselves as "other," but no one claimed to be Indian. Surrounding Peoria County listed 21 people that year as Indian.
At Elmwood High, Churchill played fullback on a football team that won one game, and he played basketball. He appeared in the junior and senior class play, according to the 1965 yearbook. He also served on the yearbook staff, in the band and in the pep club for a year. His high school classmates remember him as a friendly teen who liked to debate politics. Even then, he was left-leaning.
"He was outgoing, very smart and very much the underachiever," said Sarah Christy, who remembers Churchill talking about his Indian heritage. "He was the typical smart, creative kind of person who found the standard stuff of school to be kind of boring." He graduated in 1965 and went to work in a local Caterpillar tractor factory. In February 1966, he was arrested in nearby Lewistown, according to a brief story in the Peoria Journal Star. He was charged with illegal possession of alcohol, paid a $25 fine and was soon off to the Army.
Clouded picture from Vietnam
U.S. Army records produced in 2004 in response to a request from the organization News From Indian Country show that Churchill was inducted on Nov. 16, 1966, and trained as a light-truck driver and projectionist. He spent most of a year in Vietnam.
The stories he has told over the years of his Vietnam service have varied dramatically. On a 1980 résumé submitted to the University of Colorado, Churchill wrote that he served as a public-information specialist who "wrote and edited the battalion newsletter and wrote news releases."
In a 1987 interview with The Denver Post, and as recently as two weeks ago, Churchill described his Vietnam service as more complicated. In the 1987 interview, he said he had attended paratrooper school and been assigned as part of an elite long- range reconnaissance patrol to hunt the enemy. His service records do not reflect paratrooper school, or training or assignment on reconnaissance.
At his recent trial on charges of disrupting Denver's Columbus Day parade, he said he had walked "point" in a combat unit in Vietnam and was called "chief" because of his Indian heritage. "I was on the ground pulling triggers. You can't undo that. And I have an obligation to do what I can by way of compensation," Churchill said in a recent interview. "You can say that is the foundational reason that I do most all of what I do."
Lt. Justin Journeay, a spokesman for the Army at Fort Carson, said it is conceivable a truck driver in Vietnam could have seen combat in some situations. But he said he doubted that a driver would lead point on patrol. Churchill has repeatedly declined to comment on the discrepancies between his printed military record and the descriptions he has given of his service.
War was a turning point
But there is little question that he returned from Vietnam after his discharge in 1968 as a changed person. "When he came back from Vietnam, he turned into a radical," said Scott Davis, a high school classmate. "He was a war protester. He burned the American flag in front of the Peoria County Courthouse."
In the 1987 interview, Churchill said he started spending time in Chicago at the office of Students for a Democratic Society, an anti-war, leftist group. There, he said, he became friends with Mark Clark of Peoria, a member of the Black Panthers killed in 1969 in a shootout with police.
He also said he met representatives of the radical Weather Underground, and he said in 1987 that he had taught them how to make bombs. He has declined to comment since then on his 1987 claims.
He enrolled at Illinois Central, a community college, and then Sangamon State University in Springfield, Ill., where he graduated four years after the experimental alternative- education college was founded in 1970. At Sangamon, students received written evaluations but were given the choice of receiving grades along with them.
He said he received all A's and a B in his two years at the school, earning a bachelor's in technological communications in 1974 and a master's in communications theory in 1975, according to the University of Illinois at Springfield, which took over Sangamon in 1995.
And though he has produced no evidence that he has any true Indian lineage, it is clear that he had developed a genuine interest in all things Indian.
"I was identifying more with people of color than the white left," Churchill said in the 1987 interview. Sometime around the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee, Churchill developed a relationship with Indian leader Russell Means. After Means became a celebrity through the dismissal of charges against him, Churchill became his aide and, according to some biographical information, his speechwriter.
To pay the bills, he briefly worked as a designer with Soldier of Fortune magazine, and he applied for a job with CU.
In paperwork accompanying his 1978 application for a job, Churchill checked the box for "American Indian or Alaskan Native." Two years later, on a résumé, he noted that he was "Creek/Cherokee (unenrolled)" - the last notation meant he was not an official member of the tribes.
A turbulent personal life
He was hired in 1980 as acting director of the American Indian Equal Opportunities Program at CU. Three years later, he went with a delegation from the American Indian Movement to visit Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy at a time the United States had broken diplomatic relations with the African nation. He was part of a 15-member delegation of U.S. minority groups seeking support from African nations, according to The Associated Press.
At CU, he held several administrative positions until he was appointed associate professor in 1991 in the communications department and received tenure the same year.
His tenure was transferred to the ethnic studies department in 1997, and he was appointed full professor the same year. His classes are full. "His classes are standing-room- only. There are always 50 to 60 students on the waiting list, and these aren't just ethnic studies students; they are students of all disciplines," said Arturo Aldama, a professor in CU's ethnic studies department.
He was chairman of the ethnic studies department for 2 1/2 years until he resigned the post Jan. 31 when the controversy exploded. Throughout that time, his personal life was in a near-constant state of turmoil, according to court records. In 1977, Churchill and Dora-Lee Larson started living together in what divorce documents describe as a common-law marriage. That ended in 1984 when Larson filed for divorce and asked to have her address kept secret because of "past violence and threats" from Churchill. He did not respond then, nor last week, to questions about that case. She did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The division of property in that divorce shows many of the trappings of an aging '60s radical.
Churchill demanded that Larson return nearly 100 books, including Karl Marx's "Das Capital," a first edition of "The Little Red Book" by Mao Tse- tung, and various anarchist tracts.
Three years later, Churchill married Marie Annette Jaimes, a fellow CU employee. Jaimes' work on Indian history, particularly the General Allotment Act that conveyed land to recognized members of tribes in the 1800s, was frequently cited by Churchill in his own academic research - and criticized as untrue by other academics, particularly University of New Mexico law professor John LaVelle.
That marriage ended in 1995, shortly after Jaimes wrote a glowing review of a Churchill book for a local literary journal. She filed for divorce and today teaches at San Francisco State University. She also did not return messages seeking comment.
Churchill's third wife, 25-year-old Leah Kelly, was killed May 31, 2000, when hit by a car outside Boulder, and Churchill's biography of her continues to stir bad feelings with her family. Kelly had a blood-alcohol content of 0.35 percent when a motorist came upon her outside of town. He said she was lying in the road and he had no time to stop. Churchill later wrote that her death "left a crater in my soul," but he blamed her alcoholism, and her demise, on the colonial treatment Indians received from white people.
Her family today feels Churchill used Kelly's death to make philosophical points with which they don't agree. He portrayed her family as dysfunctional - a dysfunction he said was caused by her Indian parents' confinement to Indian schools. The family and her Ojibwe tribe dispute those details and Churchill's overall assessment that Leah Kelly was ground down by a white man's system until she became a doomed alcoholic.
"This was a really bright, outgoing (person), and she was absolutely beautiful," her sister Rhonda Kelly said. "I have yet to come across anybody who disliked her."
Churchill is now married to his fourth wife, Natsu Saito, a fellow professor in ethnic studies.
Lawsuits and legal troubles
Since 1983, Churchill has had several minor run-ins with the law. He also has been stopped for speeding, driving an unsafe vehicle and driving without a valid license, according to court records. Officers and police records listed him as white.
In 1996, Churchill clashed with a parking services employee and was cited for use of intimidation and violence on CU grounds. Those charges were dropped.
Additionally, he has been sued more than a dozen times, including a 1992 suit filed by the U.S. government for failing to repay an $18,000 student loan, a judgment that was satisfied by Churchill.
And as he has gained fame - or infamy - far beyond the academic world, Churchill has found some of his core principles challenged. A critic of this country's "mighty engine of profit," he brings down $94,242 from CU - $114,032 before he resigned as chairman of the ethnic studies department - and his acceptance of so much money from the society he derides became one of the topics of last week's question-and- answer period on campus.
A student, referring to Churchill's characterization of World Trade Center workers as technocrats like Nazi Adolf Eichmann, stood to ask: "You speak against the technocrat corps. The students here, we're not training to be food-service workers or janitors. Are we also 'little Eichmanns'?"
Almost without hesitation, Churchill produced an answer both verbose and bellicose that summarized much of his writing and his approach to life. "... Even if you don't agree with it, it is your expertise, your technical ability, your proficiency that is furthering the process of extermination of masses of children for your own personal gain and benefit," he said. "To fit into the structure without challenging it, you are in a metaphysical sense all Eichmann, Eichmann."
Staff writer Amy Herdy, library director Vickie Makings and librarians Anne Feiler and Jan Torpy contributed to this report.
Staff writer Howard Pankratz can be reached at 303-820-1939 or firstname.lastname@example.org .