This blog is closed. For more recent content, visit Chris Clarke's new site Coyote Crossing.

Creek Running North

<< If the Buddha meets you on the road | Main | Public Service Announcement >>

October 06, 2005


Perhaps the worst result of Ward Churchill's inadvisable sloppy language in the wake of 9/11 has been the rush by so-called "progressives" to marginalize the work he has done in the past. The trope I've heard lately runs along the lines of "I never even heard of Ward Churchill until the wingnuts started publicizing him."

I won't go so far as to accuse every single person who's said that of being a god damned liar. For one thing, that wouldn't be nice. For another, ignorance of our own history is hardly a new phenomenon among Americans who call themselves leftists.

But I will say this: those who claim never to have heard of Churchill before this year reveal much about themselves with that statement, and little if anything about the importance of Churchill's work. I will admit that much has been made of the allegations of academic misconduct on Churchill's part, and I will not claim expertise sufficient to determine whether the allegations have merit. I will say that even in my own strictly limited experience in Native American politics, allegations of theft and betrayal and meretricious behavior are far more common there than in many other parts of American society. Some of the routine charges flung among warring activists are spurious, some are overheated, a few may be accurate. That such criticism has been leveled at Churchill is absolutely no surprise.

The thing to remember here is that the modern-day Native Activist community has been targeted for disruption, dirty tricks, infiltration and assassinations pretty much from day one. Critical thinking demands one take neither the allegations nor their rebuttals at face value. And yet spurious condemnations of Churchill for "not being a real Indian" are taken utterly seriously by people looking for an excuse to write off Churchill's work.

That's ironic, in a sense, given that Churchill is one of the most important chroniclers of US government disruption of legal political activities.

Here's my point. It's one thing to fault Churchill for sloppiness, or even to grant credence to the allegations of misconduct. But when people to the left of Joe Lieberman - whether they call themselves leftists, progressives, liberals, or whatever - participate in the reflexive marginalization of scholarship such as Churchill's, they - how do I put this gently and non-judgementally? - make themselves accessories to murder.

In 1975, Native activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, who had moved to South Dakota to work with AIM activists on the Pine Ridge Reservation, was asked by FBI Special Agent David Price to tell him the whereabouts of Dennis Banks and Leonard Peltier. The two activists were wanted in connection with a variety of charges, some serious, some fraudulent. (Banks was eventually cleared of all charges. Peltier, convicted [and probably falsely at that] of murdering two FBI agents, remains in prison to this day.)

Anna Mae refused. She told Price "Either lock me up or shoot me. That’s what you’re going to do anyway, and that's the two choices I'm taking." Price told her she wouldn't live out the year.

Rumors soon started to swirl that Aquash was an informant. Subsequently released FBI documents show that "bad-jacketing," or planting allegations that an activist was working as a police infiltrator, was a common tactic used by the FBI in disrupting activist groups. Journalist Peter Matthiessen wrote that the rumors started with AIM member Douglass Durham, who was later found to be on the FBI's payroll. Anna Mae denied the allegations and continued to work with Oglala women.

Thirty years ago next month, Anna Mae Aquash finally fled from the reservation to hide at a friend's house in Denver. Two months later her body was found in the bottom of a gully in the South Dakota Badlands. David Price went to inspect her body, and later claimed that he could not identify her - despite their recent meeting, and the fact that her face was readily recognizable in a morgue photo taken some days later.

The cause of death was listed as exposure, and the coroner ruled that drinking had played a role. Aquash did not drink. The FBI cut off her hands and sent them to Washington for checking against their fingerprint database. She was buried in a pauper's grave at the local Roman Catholic cemetery. The data came back the next day: the body was identified as Anna Mae's.

Her family demanded an exhumation and autopsy. It turned out the medical examiner had overlooked the bullet entry wound at the back of her head. She had been murdered execution-style, a gun held to the base of her brain.

Another local activist, Myrtle Poor Bear, provided testimony to the FBI that persuaded Canadian authorities to extradite Leonard Peltier to the US. After Peltier's trial Poor Bear recanted her testimony, saying that she had been threatened by the FBI. She had been told, she said, that she had better cooperate lest she wind up "just like Annie Mae."

Last year Arlo Looking Cloud, a veteran AIM activist who had been homeless in Denver for some time, was convicted of the murder of Anna Mae Aquash. 29 years had elapsed since the murder. Looking Cloud claimed innocence. His attorneys' defense presentation spanned an entire ten minutes.

Whether Looking Cloud or some other AIM member killed Aquash after falling for the bad-jacketing tactic, or whether the shot was fired by someone in the direct employ of the federal government, doesn't really matter. The FBI decided to neutralize Aquash, and she was neutralized.

And it was, among a few others, the nefarious, scurrilous Ward Churchill who kept the Aquash case in the public eye, or at least as much of it as he could reach through venues such as South End Press. And Aquash is but one of the victimized to whom Churchill has brought our attention.

Excepting, of course, the attention of those wise, wise progressives who never heard of him until this year.

The FBI must be overjoyed these days. True, they have been roundly exposed as incompetents, turf-warriors more concerned with budget battles with other intelligence agencies than in tracking down terrorists or - for that matter - people who would fire bullets into the brains of 30-year-old Canadian Native activists.

But they seem successfully to have outsourced one of their key programs. They no longer need devote valuable staff time to COINTELPRO-style dirty tricks in order to marginalize radical Native activists.

Liberals seem to be happy to do that work for them.

Posted by Chris Clarke at October 6, 2005 04:26 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

1 blog(s) linking to this post:

You mean, Ward Churchill is not a stock cartoon villain?
Excerpt: I should have known as much. When the Right plucked out a few of his more outrageous statements and waggled them in my face, my first thoughts were 1) I've never heard of Ward Churchill before, 2) those statements do not reflect my sentiments, and...
Weblog: Pharyngula
Tracked: October 8, 2005 06:26 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


Chris -

I'm one of those progressives you spoke of above. I can't say as how I'm proud of it. So thanks for filling me in.

This entry made me so furious inside I could hardly finish it.


I never bought the Churchill media smear, if that lends me even just an ounce of grace on your part (and others who are also more in the know than I). It stank from day one.

Posted by: thingfish23 at October 6, 2005 06:00 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Thanks for schooling my ass.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte at October 6, 2005 06:50 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

What Amanda said.

Posted by: Lauren at October 6, 2005 07:00 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Probably an insignificant question, but is cutting off people's hands to be sent for fingerprinting a routine practice of the FBI, or do they reserve this for . . . "special" circumstances?

Probably an intellectually lazy question, but where would one find the documentation of what you describe here?

Posted by: Jamie at October 6, 2005 07:12 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Don't get me wrong, guys. There's no sin in not having heard of Churchill. The problem is in deciding that's his fault.

Thanks for the responses, all.

Jamie, the links above will take you to a couple good starting points. Peter Matthiessen's book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse is a good overall treatment of the Pine Ridge Reservation situation.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 6, 2005 07:31 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

The severing of the hands was done by the FBI coroner at the request of an agent, it was not normal procedure. One witness maintains that there were ligature marks on Anna's wrists, speculation has it that the agent had her hands cut off to remove the marks and support the official story that she died of exposure. I can't remember off the top of my head if this was supported by the subsequent forensic work. If anyone wants to wander full on into Churchill land and also take a look at the FBI's war on AIM and associated groups, read his book "The COINTELPRO Papers."

I think Ward's ideas are generally valuable, there's even some merit in his commentary on 9/11. If he has a glaring fault it's that he tends to write his ideas on bricks, then light them on fire and throw them at your head. People get so involved with the flames and head trauma they don't get to the ideas.

Posted by: mimbreno at October 6, 2005 08:19 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

If he has a glaring fault it's that he tends to write his ideas on bricks, then light them on fire and throw them at your head. People get so involved with the flames and head trauma they don't get to the ideas.

That's a spot-on observation.

I did an interview with Churchill in 1992 that I should dig up and transcribe and post.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 6, 2005 08:25 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Chris I would so totally make out with you.

The picture of Annie Mae Aquash is making me weep. Thirty years ago, and how much has changed? I think you're spot-on about Mr. Churchill, and it does fit with the whole AIM/indigenous activist picture. I'd love to read the 1992 interview if you do happen to find and transcribe it. Also, I'd forgotten, if I ever knew, about the whole Aquash-as-informant scenario; I remembered her death as a consequence of speaking out on the wrong side of the mining/energy industry (as noted in this song by the fabulous Buffy Sainte-Marie).

And Mimbreno, you totally nailed it with the brick and the flames and the head trauma!

Posted by: alphabitch at October 6, 2005 08:52 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Please do dig it up. I'd be interested in reading it.

Posted by: Roxanne at October 6, 2005 09:09 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

The flip side of all that, however, is that Indian activists themselves have long been critical of Churchill, partly on that whole "not a real Indian" question, partly because there's feeling that he self-promotes as "spokesman" for Indian issues about which a lot of people disagree with him; partly because there's feeling that he oversimplifies Indian politics and culture; and probably a lot of other reasons too. He's not entirely uncontroversial in Native circles, let's just say.

FWIW, I had heard of him--and a lot of the Indian criticisms of him--before the 9/11 brouhaha.

Posted by: bitchphd at October 6, 2005 09:20 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Oh, for sure, Dr. B.

But the Native activist community - or at least the parts of it I have passing familiarity with - is incredibly fractious. Churchill's far from the only example of someone who's roundly excoriated by many native activists. And he's got a whole lot of allies as well.

I'm not qualified to have an opinion on most of the controversy. It's not my fight. But I have had experiences in which Churchill's opponents utterly misrepresented things I've said to make it look as though I opposed Churchill.

There's a ton of bad blood, and some of it is probably due to Churchill being a horse's ass. Some of it is due to dysfuntional community politics. Some of that is due to disruption by the federal government.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 6, 2005 09:29 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Very interesting piece. Thank you.

I have a question - if the purpose of this piece is to demonstrate either the disingenuous or lackadaisical mind of the "progressive", as exemplified by the claim that trope of the progressives has approximated a statement such as:

"I never even heard of Ward Churchill until the wingnuts started publicizing him."

... well then, I have either missed the first part of this issue where there have been significant instances of progressives attempting to marginalize Churchill's pre-9/11 writings, or the theme of this article (outside of the compelling factual information) is itself disingenuous. Or at the least, lackadaisical.

Posted by: Packman at October 6, 2005 10:30 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

mimbreno, that's exactly it. The first book of his I read, "Indians Are Us?", I got nailed with one of those flaming bricks. One of my ancestors raped a Native American woman, and "married" her, and there is somehow a weird pride that we have "Indian blood"--the how of it is discarded.
I was learning part of this story at a time when a member of my family was being welcomed by a local tribe on the strength of this ancestry, the how still not being mentioned.
At the same time I was trying to be more broadminded, spiritually, and reading the book for the first time left me angry and resentful and guilty and mostly just ashamed of the legacy of my family and my own emerging attitudes.
It took me a couple more reads to set that all aside and get down to the ideas being presented, as they were probably meant to be taken.
I'm glad I stuck with it, because then I read some of his other books, and it really helped a great deal when I started to see the other stuff that was going on with this, and helped me make some decisions about what kind of person I wanted to be, and what kind of people I could respect.
(As the story of my ancestor and his "bride" indicates, there's clearly more to the concept of family than husband, wife, children.)

A long story, I know. But he had an impact on me, regardless of anything else anyone says about him. And if his writing makes you angry, maybe it's worth asking why it does. I wasn't real happy with the answers I got from those questions. But I think they helped me be a better person.
I don't think a writer can do that without engaging you emotionally, even if to do that he has to make you angry--or ashamed.

Thanks, Chris, for posting this. It taught me some stuff I didn't know, and it got me thinking about some other stuff I'd been trying hard not to.
It's hard to step up and defend a pariah. But that's probably exactly why it needs to be done.
You've been doing an honorable job, but almost entirely alone.
Maybe some more of us can find the courage to speak out. I don't actually see any shortage of opportunities in the next three years, unfortunately.

Posted by: D. Sidhe at October 6, 2005 11:56 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

So it's the FBI's fault that AIM politics was so paranoid that it led AIM members to murder one another? That's so ridiculous. The fact is that AIM leadership was involved in bombings, extortion, drug dealing, and other criminal activity. AIM was a legitimate target for law enforcement. Bad behavior by the FBI does not excuse AIM's murder of Aquash.

The fact that you find Churchill's politics sympathetic does not excuse his own bad behavior. The evidence is overwhelming to show that he lied about his Indian ancestry, engaged in plagiarism and fraud on numerous occasions.

Posted by: The only sane one at October 7, 2005 01:04 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I never cared about Churchill's scholarship, and never looked into it. I never worried about whether he was a good professor or not. I also never thought he should lose his job or be attacked for that scholarship.

Frankly, my mother was pure-blood Scots-American dating back to our arrival on these shores in the 1600s. She was also a social anthropologiest who studied native American culture and worked with Indians in the East Coast to get their tribes recognized by the federal government. So I don't care whether he is .0001 percent, 1000 percent or zero percent native American. What does that have to do with scholarship?

But the truth is Churchill wrote a moronic thing that he shouldn't have written. It was not a valid point no matter how truthful it seems from 10,000 feet. He deserved to get slapped for that, and then ignored and allowed to go back to his life.

That's been my position since day 1. Say something stupid, get slapped, go home, come back to work the next day.

Posted by: Poppy at October 7, 2005 03:35 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

thank you, Chris--I second what Amanda said.

Posted by: Raven at October 7, 2005 04:00 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs


Unsurprisingly, I completely disagree with your apologist's take on Churchill. I am also not surprised that some of your audience is content to accept your spin without even reading it (comments above), as I have found that leftist Amen corners are the easiest to hear from. But you should be troubled by that. Parts of your audience are very gullible.

And though I disagree with much, I'll take issue here with one point only: Leonard Peltier is a murderer. He executed two FBI agents, after which he shot at a state trooper who was trying to catch him, after which he broke out of jail at gunpoint. He admits having shot at the agents. He said he would have killed the Canadian police who finally arrested him, had he only known why they were there. He was rightfully convicted and belongs in prison, revisionist history and knee-jerk-leftist bumperstickers notwithstanding.

You're way off base here. About both men.


Posted by: carpundit at October 7, 2005 04:21 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I got here via Pandagon.

I started reading Churchill about 4 yrs ago.The most recent book being about the nasty little secret of indian boarding schools,Kill the Indian-Save the Man.I think I cried while reading at least half the pages in that book.

Most smart and scholarly type people are assholes at some point(that's been my experience at least),sometimes alot.Churchill isn't an angel,but then again,I've never heard him say he was.

If one could possibly bother to read his work without getting all hysterical and pissy about it,there's some VERY good points there that we shouldn't be so freaking scared of discussing.To me,it just boils down to pointing out Cause and Effect,a country does thing A,things B,C,and possibly D will result.Americans are WAY too insulated(myself included til maybe 5 yrs ago and I'm in my 40's)from their own origins and history.A whole lotta slaughter and racism got us here to where we are now,the old reaping and sowing thing.It's never gone away,it just keeps morphing into different packages.

I'm not sure why it took the righties so long to pick on Churchill though,he's been at this for awhile now.I haven't been able to figure out the timing on dragging him through the mud,but then again,I'm also not always on top of everything going on in the media either.

It's just rare to see anyone discuss Ward Churchill and have an understanding of reservation politics,thanks for saying what I sometimes have trouble articulating to people when I bring this up.

Posted by: An Angry Old Broad at October 7, 2005 06:19 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Thanks for opening my eyes on the subject - I can see that there is much to learn and explore.

Posted by: AldeaMB at October 7, 2005 06:22 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I have either missed the first part of this issue where there have been significant instances of progressives attempting to marginalize Churchill's pre-9/11 writings, or the theme of this article (outside of the compelling factual information) is itself disingenuous. Or at the least, lackadaisical.

Fair point, Packman. I've heard the trope mainly in conversations.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 7, 2005 06:59 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Though here we have a representative example in the blog world.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 7, 2005 08:00 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Ah, I see now from the example you provided. I was trying to think of why a progressive would feel the need to distance herself from Churchill. Now I see it is the "doesn't speak for me" illness brought about by the Rightwing's "example of shining liberalness" attack.

I think the only discussions I have had regarding Churchill have been with Conservatives regarding the Eichman issue.

What I found most disconcerting was the timing of the multiple investigations. Churchill was, for the vast majority, under the radar until he was brought to the forefront due to his essay on 9/11. Suddenly, in response, Colorado University deems it necessary to begin investigating his entirely unrelated to the essay history? Particularly when those questions were not based on new information. The idea was to punish the man who makes waves. Talk about McCarthyism.

Posted by: Packman at October 7, 2005 09:54 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

There are those of us who haven't been progressives all of our lives, just in the last few years. We all need to remember history and be informed about it.

Posted by: donna at October 7, 2005 11:32 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Never had heard of him.

For another, ignorance of our own history is hardly a new phenomenon among Americans who call themselves leftists.

Yeah, I'm ignorant about our history because I haven't read some self-marginalizing characters book that came out way after the fact. Gee, I guess reading about Cointelpro, Wounded Knee, Peltier a few decades ago doesn't count. I must keep current with the current obscura...

It is sad his 'good' work will be marginalized. He has only himself to blame for that.

Posted by: srv at October 7, 2005 12:28 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I love it when people volunteer to prove my points.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 7, 2005 12:42 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

One motive for spotlighting Churchill:

The ongoing battle between Denver's native American activists and those Italian-Americans insistent on a traditional Columbus Day parade each year.

If opponents are justified in mentioning AIM members' contentious and criminal activities, then I'm justified in linking this bout of near-violent Italian-American pride to Westside neighborhood Italians displaced by a growing Hispanic population, as well as wrongly nostalgic for the power they had when the Smaldones ruled Denver organized crime.

No one's hands are clean, here, but at least we should be honest about what happened in the past.

Posted by: cgeye at October 7, 2005 01:07 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

can I offer a dissenting point of view from the left here?

In my mind, Ward Churchill is no better than Bill Bennett. I'm sure that both men, at the time they made their inexcusable remarks, thought they were properly explaining and justifying their positions.

That doesn't change the fact that they both said absurd, repulsive, utterly inexcusable things about some severely victimized people. They said things that, if you are the sort of person who wants a free, moral society, you shouldn't even be thinking.

Fuck Bill Bennett. And fuck Ward Churchill. And fuck everybody else who takes mass murder so lightly.

Posted by: mmy at October 7, 2005 01:39 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I might further add that anybody who would call WTC victims "little Eichmanns" clearly doesn't have much more respect for human life than the person [FBI agent?] who shot Anna Mae in the head.

You can claim that Churchill fought for her justice, but he who fights monsters must also see to it that he himself is not a monster.

Posted by: mmy at October 7, 2005 01:44 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I don't have huge substantive disagreement with you here, mmy, though I do find a huge difference between insulting the dead and, well, making them dead.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at October 7, 2005 02:08 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Yes it sucks that CU only is investigating Churchill because of his idiotic "little Eichmans" comment. That's a chill on free speech.

But Churchill doesn't get immunity from investigation just by being politicaly outrageous. As a scholar he still has to meet ethical standards in his research. If CU nails Churchill for plagiarism or fraud, it's only because he is guilty of those offenses. People in glass houses shouldn't make waves...

Posted by: The only sane one at October 7, 2005 02:30 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

This is the USA, nothing isn't controversial here.

Posted by: ROSE at October 7, 2005 03:04 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

Re: the hands cutting off thing--a friend of mine who works in forensics often has to take the skin of corpses' hands, slide her own hand inside and finger print that way if the corpse has begun to decompose at all. I'm not saying that's why that was done, but it's certainly within the realm of plausibility that certain things we find disrespectful are done for a good reason.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte at October 8, 2005 01:42 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

is cutting off people's hands to be sent for fingerprinting a routine practice of the FBI, or do they reserve this for . . . "special" circumstances?

This is actually SOP. It's documented in a book where I work, and I know this because one of my coworkers showed it to me. We work at one of the state control rooms for statewide/nationwide stolen stuff and wanted person databases.

Posted by: neverhere at October 8, 2005 08:39 PM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

I also came here from Pandagon, and while I have heard the marginalising of Churchill come from people on the left (Including myself), I don't think that's the entirety of the leftist backlash.

Yes, when people when people said "I'd never heard of Churchill until now" the followup was partly "The republicans must not have much ammo, if they have to dig up this dinky nobody to smear us with"

But another follow-up was "And obviously my views aren't moulded by people I've never heard of".

While Chruchill not having a big name amongst progressives may well be the fault of blindness on the part of progressives, I'm pretty sure it's actually true that he wasn't a huge name amongst leftists before the Righties started attacking him.

And this makes him an illegitimate target for attacking mainstream leftist opinion, whether or not his obscurity in leftist circles is deserved.

Posted by: Christopher at October 10, 2005 02:47 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs

mmy, while you have tried to make a connection between Churchill and Bennett you have failed.

The reason for this is in the larger picture of what each man was describing.

When describing the workers in the WTC as 'little eichmanns' well maybe you need to do a little background reading on who exactly Adolf Eichmann was. To give you a little brief he was the guy that kept the trains running. Which is exactly what Churchill was arguing that the workers in the WTC were doing.

If someone forgets to feed their child through ignorance and that child dies are they then innocent because someone who you dislike even more murders them.

In any case Churchill lost the argument because of Godwin's Law.

Bill Bennett on the other hand pondered out loud the mass murder of a specific block of people based on race as a solution to lowering crime rates. This is absurd. The fact that he is a white man suggesting that the abortion of black babies is the answer makes it even more detestable.

It's not that he called for the abortion of a large block of people, which in itself is reprehensible, it's because he singled black people out.

Why not Asians? Why not Whites? Why not all males? Why not just kill every person who has a gene that makes them more susceptible to criminal activities?

He could have selected any group of people, yet he chose black people. After the controversy he could have apologized for what he said and explained that he only used black people as an example for an idea which would prove true for any group of people, yet he didn't, instead he chose to reaffirm his position.

Churchill was detailing the consequences of Cause and Effect. His essay was trying to show the stream of causes that led to the effect of the attacks on Sept 11.

Bennett, in trying to explain an idea that could have applied to any group of people and of which others have been able to study without applying factors such as race, has done just that by selecting a minority group when there was no need to do so.

Posted by: Adam at October 10, 2005 05:09 AM
decorative line of bighorn petroglyphs