by Mark Anthony Rolo
First printed in The Madison Capital Times
During my career as a journalist covering Indian Country I never reported on stories about Indian ethnic fraud. In particular, despite persistent and credible accusations, I never interviewed Ward Churchill about charges that he fabricated a claim of having Creek or Cherokee blood in his veins.
Though I have known about Churchill and the rumors that he has been playing Indian for years, I have never even met this University of Colorado-Boulder professor now at the center of another scandal – he’s rightfully getting ripped over some repugnant remarks in which he likened victims of the 9/11 tragedy to Nazis.
In our cramped newsroom in the basement of the Minneapolis American Indian Center, it was not uncommon to hear from angered Indian activists about Churchill’s “true” identity. Some wanted a full-blown expose on the man they insisted was nothing more than a racial interloper. They wanted us to “out” Churchill as a fake Indian on the front page of the paper.
But I never bought the story pitches.
I spent all of my time at The Circle newspaper covering what my publisher and I deemed to be real Indian news. We ran stories about tribal leadership corruption at the White Earth Reservation. We profiled a white district court judge who believed he was genuinely Indian in spirit, and yet denounced the concept of tribal sovereignty.
On more than one occasion my photographer and I paid our own travel and lodging expenses in order to get great human interest features like a team of talented basketball players from the Red Lake Reservation.
And when we were not on the road we devoted as much space as we could to covering the everyday life and times of Indians living in the Twin Cities.
Even though we would run stories of national interest to our readers from time to time, we were mostly a regional newspaper. And given the few precious pages we had each month, it seemed irresponsible and unfair to devote space to the color of Churchill’s blood. We just could not see the relevant news value in the outcry of a few that a coyote, disguised in Indian feathers and beads, was inside the pen.
But there was also another reason not to bother with Churchill and his accusers. I always felt this practice of ethnic policing, this low-down, vicious “blood-slashing” was something of more concern to the pioneer generation of the American Indian Movement than it was to regular Indians trying to make a decent living.
The Red Power movement has been infiltrated by ethnic wannabes since its inception in the late 1960s. It was a very real concern to American Indian Movement leaders that some of these wannabes were in fact subversive FBI informants. Identifying and ostracizing these infiltrators was about preserving the integrity of the movement. (Years later, when The Circle began publishing, the paper held to a steadfast policy of not accepting FBI recruitment ads.)
But as the American Indian Movement grew and gained more media attention in the 1970s, the racial finger-pointing became less about keeping the cause pure and more about power-grabbing. Having the right ethnic credentials meant having the authority to speak on behalf of Indians. It was about ego, celebrity and greed.
Enter Ward Churchill.
In the years following the highlights of the American Indian Movement, such as the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Churchill rose to prominence and suspicion within the movement.
Though movement leaders have publicly denounced him as a fraud on more than one occasion, Churchill remains active in a renegade, self-proclaimed American Indian Movement chapter in Denver.
The quest to find out just who Ward Churchill truly is has extended beyond the leadership of the American Indian Movement in recent years. Others, including award-winning journalist Paul DeMain, editor and publisher of News From Indian Country, have gone to great lengths in researching his questionable Indian heritage. DeMain has never found any evidence, not even an Indian relative, to substantiate Churchill’s identity claim.
But what may be the most damning evidence against Churchill’s Indian claim comes from the man himself. He has flip-flopped on tribal affiliations.
After securing a quasi-membership with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee in Oklahoma in 1994 he was removed from the rolls by the band’s subsequent new leadership. The tribe concluded that Churchill never had any blood connection to their community. These days Churchill identifies himself as Cherokee-Metis, but no Indian is really quite sure what that means.
While Churchill’s questionable identity did surface to the national news scene as a result of his sickening 9/11 remarks, the issue has been bumped off the front page by debate about free speech and accusations of academic fraud. The University of Colorado has launched an investigation into charges of plagiarism and questions about the authenticity of Churchill’s academic research.
The news value of Churchill’s blood color has run cold. Again.
But not so ironically, for those who have dogged Churchill for years, there may be a sense of blood justice somewhere down the line. Public memory can be such a curious reality. If ever Ward Churchill’s name ends up as a Trivial Pursuit question I would not be surprised if game players forget to associate him with those repulsive 9/11 comments.
Instead, they just might remember Churchill for a different scandal: “Hey, wasn’t he that white guy who tried to pass for being Indian?”
Mark Anthony Rolo, a member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe, is a freelance writer.