Academic con man Ward Churchill is slowly being revealed, by a soporific investigative strip tease, as a man with the ethics of a drug dealer. His various plagiarisms, his résumé enhancements, his leftist posturings, his one-man totalitarianism, all are being brought out by a belated investigation at the University of Colorado. The hardest nut to crack, however, may be his self-serving claims to be "Indian."
Hard as it is to argue, the answer is obvious. He isn't. Churchill himself has made a career of tagging "fake Indians," so he deserves no mercy now that it is clear that his own claims are sheer hokum. Tellingly, he has not presented a single definition of "Indian" that supports his claim. His "proof" consists of the very "blood quantum" he is on record as denouncing. And his particular quantum is, it turns out, fake too.
Churchill grew up "white." That fact is never in dispute. His Indianness is a costume he created after his academic career began. His own family does not claim to "be" Indian. Their Indian claim is that universal claim so many Indians have been weary of for generations: an obscure ancestor who might have been part something or other. In this case, the identified ancestor is one Jacob Tyner, who lived nearly 200 hundred years ago. And the catch is, an enthusiastic family genealogist finally arranged the ultimate blood quanta verification, a DNA test, which demonstrated incontrovertibly that Tyner was not Indian after all.
If he were, would that make Churchill Indian? One wonders how we can take this question seriously. Churchill would like us to. He would have us believe that an Indian ancestor, barely remembered, seven generations ago, validates his Indianness. But if he is Indian by this proof, what of the thousands of people who are clearly not Indian but have similar pedigrees? Are they "Indian"? If the answer is "yes," then we have to address the obvious next question. What does that mean? If we are all "just as Indian as Ward Churchill," then the idea of "being Indian" is diluted to meaninglessness.
I say "we" because my own pedigree has a vague spot in it that could well be "Indian," an obscure grandmother about whom my race-conscious family refused to speculate. Her husband's records go back to colonial Vermont. Her own are non-existant. And no, I have never claimed to be Indian. I'm not.
No one, except a few American Indians, is asking the obvious question. How is Churchill Indian? Since he rejects the "blood quanta" definition as a bit of white racism invented to propagate genocide (this argument appears in a number of his books), surely he must mean something else when he says, "I am Indian." So what does he mean?
All he can offer is a bizarre "adoption" by the Keetoowah Cherokee. The Keetoowah Cherokee themselves have insisted repeatedly was merely honorary. They've also pointed out that his honorary membership was bestowed in return for promises that Churchill never kept. There is a certain controversy about the credentialing of Churchill's membership, but since the genealogical record provides no Indian ancestors, Cherokee or not, his claims that the tribe examined and approved his evidence to the contrary aren't very compelling.
Is he Indian because he joined AIM? Because he teaches Indian studies? There are any number of non-Indians who were present from the inception of AIM, most of them farily clear about whether that makes them "Indian." As for the academic position, since Churchill secured his job as a teacher of Indian studies by convincing CU that he was "Indian," that argument is a bit circular. And a bit embarrassing to CU, which gave Churchill preferential treatment because he was supposedly Indian, and now is stuck with the consequences of having pretended he was a qualified academic scholar. At least he doesn't coach football.
What matters is not blood but the life. Churchill did not live an "Indian life." There are any number of them, the varities of Indian life experience, and we must leave it to the Indians to argue over which ones are valid, which not. Fullbloods at Turtle Mountain in the '70s regarded their Métis neighbors as not Indian. In my mind, and the minds of my Michif (Métis) students, they were Indians, but perhaps not as Indian as their fullblood neighbors. Many reservation Indians do not regard fullbloods who grew up relocated in the city is "real Indians." It seems to me that the experience of "being Indian" is much broader than "growing up on the rez," but it's not my call.
We can't say with any certainty who is Indian. Perhaps Scott Momaday is right, that being Indian is a matter of thinking about one's self in a certain way. There is a certain Gnostic risk in opening that door to the channellers and charlatans, but his point is a truth we can only try to cope with. That "certain way" must include awareness and honesty, at least.
We can't say who's Indian. However, it does not follow that we cannot say who is not. I'm not. Norman Mailer is not. George Bush is not. Albert Einstein was not. Marie Curie was not. Osama bin Laden is not. Natalie Wood was not. Britney Spears is not. And neither is Ward Churchill.