Ward Churchill: AN EXCLUSIVE NATIVE VOICE INTERVIEW

Ward Churchill, agree with him or not, has become an internationally-known symbol of Native American protest against the United States goverament, the “establishment ” and against anyone who would challenge his right to speak freely.

Churchill’s controversial writings and speeches, and subsequent termination from his tenured position as an Ethnic Studies Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, have gotten unprecedented media coverage world-wide.

His very status as American Indian has been challenged, by Native and non-Native alike, yet he persists in current affairs as the number-one most recognized Native American voice in the mainstream media.

Churchill is representing Native America, in some respects, to the greater public and the world, with media coverage literally circling the globe. A quick Google search turns up stories from every major news agency in America, plus coverage on Al-Jazeera, the Chinese newswire, and news programs in New Zealand and India, to name only a few.

The first question a recent visitor to our offices from Germany asked was “What do you think of Ward Churchill?” Partially because of his references to Nazi’s, she said, “He really has people talking about Native Americans and what they went through historically. There is a lot of debate around this guy, even at home (in Germany).”

He is the center of a firestorm of controversy, and many Native people have become frustrated by the attention he has garnered in the name of Indian people. He has certainly been accused of making things harder for Native people in the Rocky Mountain region, as AIM support has given the impression to some that he does stand for Indian people at large.

Ward Churchill’s supporters, including Russell Means and the Denver Chapter of AIM, are fiercely loyal. They stand behind Churchill to support not only the man, but also his messages.

The day after Ward Churchill was fired by the Colorado University Board of Regents, he invited us to come out to his home in Boulder to interview him and talk about the issues. Russell Means was there, and became part of our conversation, which went long into the afternoon and covered some unexpected ground.

We look forward to your comments and feedback, some of which we will print in the upcoming editions of The Native Voice. Please send your emails to: thenativevoice@gmail.com

A Two-Part Interview

The Native Voice: A lot of people know of you from the headlines, but they don’t know you as a person, per se. You’ve become more of a symbol.

Ward Churchill: Sure.

TNV: Your work at the University of Colorado in Boulder has been presented as radical. When you first started working as a professor, as a teacher, were your goals different then, from what they became in recent years, what we see today?

Churchill: No It’s kind of like this interview. It may have been different in a sense that I may have had different points of focus because, if you work enough at a base to try to rectify the Indian-White relations, or how ever you want to frame that, there are almost an infinite number of points of focus that you have to select from, so you can move from one to another to another and basically you’re doing the same thing. It’s just that your framing is going to be different.

The truth of the matter is, I’ve been standing on the same bedrock, the same foundation all my adult life. Whether in the formal academic sense or an activist sense or a combination of the two, which has usually been the case.

TNV: Can you explain where that foundation comes from?

Churchill: In a way, it’s a paraphrase: In ’74 when they convened the International Treaty Council – the meeting, not the organization – what came of that was they gave the pipe to Russ (Russell Means) and he accepted it with a responsibility to take the 1868 Treaty in front of the community of nations to get involved in that particular discourse and to be considered in that way.

From the 1868 Treaty, then, by extension, you’ve got all these other sets of treaty relations between the Feds and indigenous peoples. In the end that translates to global treaty study that was undertaken by Alphonso Martinez during the later part of the 1980’s. That’s how these things hook up, but it was to take what was known to people in a particular context and put it where it belongs, which is in the international discourse because it is an international relations issue.

My thing has always to been take “Indian affairs,” as that term is applied by a federal government, the sets of relations that are involved there and the history of that, and put it into the discourse of the consequence of people.

More broadly, it is that consideration of indigenous people – their relations, their rights, and so forth – as not some esoteric side line field, but as part of the old world flow of the whole. That doesn’t land in a standard university Indian Studies position where Indians are developing knowledge and putting it in these Western forms for their own purposes, for internal education (that’s valid for as far is it goes, and I actually participated in it, but its not my focus).

It’s also not to try to make Indians a part of the greater whole in the sense of being minorities. Indians speak from their own position with the same integrity and right to be heard and considered in connection and comparison with other minority groups as anybody else.

TNV: So, who is your audience? Indians? Non-Indians?

Churchill: I’m always talking to Indians, to White folks, and Africans, Puerto Ricans and everybody else. We’ve got points in common. For one, we’ve got a common oppressor.

TNV: White folks too?

Churchill: A lot of these groups even including some of the White groups, have our different histories. We understand our differences and our commonalities clearly among ourselves. We have a basis for interacting and respect in the real world.

How do you get to that understanding? Well, you don’t do anything without consciousness, okay? Because consciousness is not insular, nor is it homogenous, like stirring cream into coffee.

TNV: So what was the basis of the problem at CU? Why do you think, ultimately, that they built a case against you to fire you?

Churchill: I don’t strive for either of these poles, so there is this tension at CU. But that’s where Indian studies was supposed to fit in the first place. Most people have forgotten this. We’ve got so many damn people trying to be professional according to quote-un quote standards that we were supposed to transcend! Our purpose was to transcend our understanding of Indian studies, to change them, to make them other than what they were through standard education.

TNV: When I was in college taking Native American studies, the first thing the professor said on the first day of class was that “Anything you ever learned in any classroom about Native America was all wrong. For you to be successful in this class past this day with me you have to be able to forget it” and start over to build your knowledge and understanding. I thought it was brilliant.

Churchill: And you’re telling the Indian students, “Well that’s in the past now, can’t you get over it and try looking at it another way?”…

TNV: …No, the professor meant it as a “de-programming” from American public schools…

Churchill: (continuing )…well truth of the matter is they can’t. That’s what’s scary, its not like you give em a pill. But in variable degrees of openness they can unpack a lot of this stuff and they can do it in a hurry if you approach them right.

And maybe that’s what the Creator gave me was an ability to straddle those two things because I can talk to Indian students and other people. I’m consistent with Indian peoples’ understanding, but I can nail these little White buggers right there in their seat and you can almost watch them undergo transformation. It’s like the cartoon of the lightbulb going on its like, “Oh sh*t.” You know, walk em into it. Let them walk themselves into a box of an argument.

And they realize they are in a box and they have to think their way out and it scares them to death because the final product of any course that I ever teach is that you gotta sit down and tell me what was important in the subject matter, and why you thought it was important. Pick anything you want from the whole subject matter. One little point in it or something you connected to from your own experience to the subject matter. But, you gotta explain why that is and then you’re gonna tell me what you’re gonna do with that outside the goddamn classroom in the real world.

It’s traumatic. Nobody ever asked them assign a significance to things. They’re always being told what the significance is, so they memorize, they write in forms, they fill out tests, little bubble circle things, fill in the blank multiple choice. You know, all that sh*t. You’re memorizing information, you’re regurgitating it, you’re never really learning, you forget it soon as you’re out the door, once you got your ticket punched for that school credit…

It propels them to engage, you gotta think your way to a conclusion. They are terrified but ultimately most of them do pretty well

TNV: Do you think that the part of that experience that you have with the students has been the context of the a big, public, state university system that you’re teaching in? For example, different schools have different expectations for their students, how they want them to learn, what they expect them to do with the information, etc. Meaning, a large university system undergraduate college versus a private liberal arts institution?

Churchill: Yeah, and you can still do it in a big school context. But where this does start to break down is with the number of students in the classroom. I’ve taught sections of 200 students, and you can’t really do what I’m talking about with that many students.

That starts to debilitate towards these idiotic instruments where you’re assigning arbitrary scores and you end up with people who are really able to do something with the information, they’ve got a handle on the subject matter, and they get a C because they’re not good at taking tests. And you got people who are total ciphers in terms of moral implications or the ethical implications or so on but they know how to do well taking tests and they are getting A’s. I taught 100-student blocks and I could get closer to what I’m talking about.

TNV: One of the things the media has focused on is how much money you make and how much you have cost CU. It has been reported that you will be paid $96,000 in severance for this upcoming year, and that the court case cost CU $352,000.

Churchill: It takes roughly 25 students at the University of Colorado to pay for a course. Anything beyond that is excess, is profit. So, if I’m teaching a 200 student block then I’m generating three dollars in profit in the institution for every dollar I’m using to deliver the course.

One line on that is the quote that tax payers of the state of Colorado, who anti-up six cents on each dollar of the operating budget for the institution, are paying for me. In fact, they have never paid me a dime, ever.

I’ve been at CU since 1978 in different capacities. In fact, if we were to settle accounts, they could send me a few million dollars that I’ve generated in income for them.

TNV: What about the point that there are two sides to every story, or at least two perspectives.

Churchill: Yeah, that’s what the Nazis said about the Holocaust.

TNV: Well, that’s a whole other discussion.

Churchill: No, it’s not. You said “every story.” That is a story (the Holocaust). No one expects that there will be another side to that story.

TNV: I’m talking about the story of what’s happened to you at CU, that there’s…

Churchill: …That’s just another story. There’s not necessarily another side. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. The other side could be absolutely fraudulent. There is no other side.

TNV: People frame the truth based upon their own perception and perspectives and justifications and agendas. Now you start with a theory of what you were saying…

Churchill: …I’m not accepting that there’s two sides to every story. I’m saying that there can be the truth and there can be bulls*** and that’s the two sides.

TNV: Interpretation can be the whole issue…

Churchill: Then what the Nazi’s said about the Holocaust. How do you interpret their “truth?”

TNV: I don’t know how to answer that question.

Churchill: Nobody does, and there’s no expectation that they should which puts the lie right off the bat to this sort of liberal. “There’s always two sides and they should be treated equitable.” When you treat the Nazis equitably, bring a Jewish survivor from a camp to talk about that experience, it’s expected that will be counterbalanced by the testimonial of one of the guards? Then you can say that, but no one ever says that. So why is it that we gotta have perpetrators’ points of view given equal weight or even superior weight in historical understandings of what happened to Native people or the political understandings or the economical understandings? “Well, there’s always another way of looking at it.” Yeah, there is. There’s the Nazi way of looking at it.

TNV: So you are using the Nazis in comparison to what happened to you at CU? Well, there are justifications, and …

Churchill: Nazis have no justifications.

TNV: Absolutely not. I’m not saying that they are correct, or that you’re accusers are correct, I’m saying that people use different interpretations to justify their positions…

Churchill: …Well what I’m saying is that there’s no expectation that the other story has the integrity to be told.

TNV: I’ve looked at all the reports in the news, and someone likened it to…it’s a bad analogy, but their analogy was that it was worth using whatever means necessary to get you fired, and they compared it to getting a mob gang leader on tax evasion,…

Churchill: …And sometimes they fabricate something.

The way that it looks is that there were lots of little pieces of evidence pulled together to create a comprehensive body of evidence against you, in terms of your scholarly work. And its seemed that they had to take a little piece from here, and a little piece from there, etc., to remove you from your tenure at the University. (Professors who have been tenured have a secure position, for life, or until they retire. It is very difficult to terminate a tenured professor.)

Churchill: They had to create a pretext and an illusion. The pretext is that they were up and concerned about my footnotes (in published writings).

That was not the issue but that’s what they needed to say the issue was in order to do what it was they wanted to do for another reason.

TNV: And you have denied all wrong doing.

Churchill: Absolutely. Yes.

TNV: There is some concern over how your firing creates an imposed threat against being radical or controversial within the university context. There are other professors, who are may or may not agree with your politics and may or may not agree with the way that you would express yourself, who are concerned with what happened to you. They say your firing is a result of people disagreeing with your politics and your platform.

Churchill: Then where are they?

TNV: They’re quoted in the local newspapers, The Boulder Daily Camera and The Rocky Mountain News.

Churchill: I’ll give credit amply due, and to I could name them all, but there’s no need to take up the tape recorder…

TNV: There were only a few willing to speak out against your firing on the record.

Churchill: There are a number who come up to me in the grocery store or at McGuckin’s Hardware or when I’m buying flowers down at Frujos. They confide to really be behind me, but what are they really saying is that “I agree with you, I value what you’re doing and I don’t really value anything about it, so why don’t you carry the weight for us.”

TNV: Why do you think that is? Because they don’t agree with your politics or don’t like your delivery style?

Churchill: Because they’re scared.

TNV: What are they scared of?

Churchill: Because they’re scared of what the implications of this are. The implications are that the academic institution, which is supposed to be a protected environment of true thought and expression, has now had the attention of the Governor to put pressure on the University to take can of removing someone who they thought was, whatever, making too much noise, getting too much press attention, making too many waves, saying things that made them look bad in some way.

For accusing the United States of genocide, for example.

TNV: You’re not the first one to do that.

Churchill: I know.

TNV: Look at Vine Deloria, for example.

Churchill: Well, you know, from their position in a weird way I’ve done that far more effectively than Vine, and Vine’s my mentor. Vine was my uncle, my friend, so I’m not dissing Vine any way at all here. He had a problem with the word “genocide.” He didn’t really understand it and he used it straight up, for example, with regard to Guatemala, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to that here. And he would do cultural critique in the sensibilities of White people, but but he falls into what I call the “opposition trap of the United States.” That there is always this cast of characters that you can name that are the “evil doers.”

TNV: What is the “opposition trap of the United States” and who are these “evil doers”?

Churchill: Okay, so now it’s Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Rice. Now, which one of them ever picked up a rifle and killed an Iraqi or anybody else for that matter? I mean, Bush is a draft-dodger, Cheney’s a draft-dodger…Cheney said he had other things to do.

It requires somebody besides those evil figure heads to actually do it. And who is that? That s grass roots Americans, and a lot of Indian people. I’m fairly harsh on them, and I’m one of them (who served in the military). You are accountable for your actions.

This is the Nazi defense, saying, “Well, ultimately nobody was responsible but Hitler because it was after all the fuhrer’s state, and the orders ultimately issued from Hitler so he was the ultimate responsible party and everybody else was obeying orders, even highly-placed government officials. And, of course Hitler’s dead so there’s no nobody to blame now. So, let’s revile Bush and Cheney and all of them. Let’s state our opposition. Let’s protest against them even while we benefit from it and do not come to grip with the fact that our next door neighbor and the things we even embrace go into making this process work. In that way we’re not an effective opposition, we’re chasing our tail around and around the same rock.

Like alchemist thinking, if we do the same thing often enough it’s going to come out with a different result, rather than doing what actually would be required, which is to change the nature of the system.

When you get out of ritual forms that are approved by the State, it starts to scary ‘cuz there might be consensus for the state which becomes this immoral state that s slaughtering people all over the world.

By virtue of being a pacifist they might hurt you, that’s why cops carry guns. You know that’s why they employed Delta Force at Seattle when things got unruly (at the World Trade Organization meeting in 1999). What is Delta Force? It’s a surgical elimination unit. It kills people selectively. That’s all it is for. They were prepared to do that to maintain the economic state.

Okay, we’re non-violent. We take a pledge of non-violence, so we guarantee that were gonna be goddamn ineffectual…we’re only purer to you because were risking nothing.

TNV: Who specifically are you talking about?

Churchill: Mass movements. Go over here to the Peace and Justice Center in Boulder.

TNV: So you’re encouraging…you’re saying that peaceful movements, nonviolent movements are ineffectual? What about Ghandi? Nelson Mandela?

Churchill: I’m saying that is true if you constrain the realm of your activity to things that are sanctioned by the state, like free speech zones. You have to have a permit to express yourself, to assemble, to all the rest of this. You know what I’m talking about, we’re gonna do eternal prayer vigils with individuals burning incense, change our diets, build bike paths, everything, anything and everything that the state would approve and the one thing that might be effective is just, “I’m gonna exercise my rights and get the f*ck outta my way, I don’t negotiate my rights, I don’t need your permission to exercise a right.”

My whole point is to de-stabilize your point because your process is criminal. I don’t endorse it. I, in fact, oppose it in meaningful terms am I killing people beyond that set of principles.

TNV: So what are you calling on people to do?

Churchill: Am I making some argument where the only purity is an armed struggle? No. There’s no purity in forms of struggle. There’s no purity in pacifism, there’s no purity in armed struggle, there’s no purity in any point in between. Purity is to figure out how to effectively take that which you find to be morally intolerable – morally lethal, in fact, to primarily but not exclusively brown-skinned people the world over. And, we’ve got plenty of experience of that here that’s called day-to-day life – and change it into something that does not have that effect. The current system sanctions only those things which will not disrupt its current function.

TNV: Well, of course its primary purpose is to thrive in it’s own system…Having this conversation with you it is clear that the sentiment and argument against you goes way deeper than any footnotes in any book. You are challenging “the system” at large.

Churchill: And so is the line of historical interpretation which sets things completely on their heads. Everything that was celebrated, anything that was trumped up in American History, I challenge.

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