On the Identity Issue

"Is Ward Churchill really an Indian?" There are so many things wrong with this question, it is difficult to know where to begin.

Why the attacks?

Assaults on identity are a classic component of smear campaigns, as we might recall from similar attacks falsely claiming that Edward Said wasn’t really Palestinian, or that Nobel Peace Prize recipient on Rigoberta Menchú had “falsified” her biography. Even with a mainstream politician like Barack Obama, people who just a few years ago had no clue he existed took it upon themselves to debate whether he’s “black enough.” Typically, these are attempts to discredit the message by attacking the messenger. As many scholars have pointed out, this is what’s happening with Ward Churchill. (See Michael Yellow Bird’s “On the Justice of Charging Buffalo.”)

In Ward Churchill’s case, the “not Indian enough” charge first came from political opponents; individuals with no personal knowledge of his family or community, who also say things like “he must be a federal agent because he wrote the book exposing COINTELPRO,” or “he supported the contras in Nigeria.” (We weren’t aware there were any contras in Nigeria, but what’s a fact here or there.)

It says a lot about (mis)conceptions of “race” in this country that people who would laugh off those attacks claims believe it’s appropriate to debate his identity.

What does “Indian” mean?

“Indian” is a category invented by European and American colonists, crudely lumping together the members of the hundreds of Indigenous nations that did and still do occupy this continent. But it is the prerogative of a nation to decide its own criteria for membership. Historically, what we now call American Indian nations made these determinations using a combination of assessments about descent (genealogy), intermarriage, adoption, and naturalization.

Today, this system has been overridden by the U.S. federal government’s imposition of racialized definitions of “Indianness” which trace back to the 1887 Allotment Act, and the “Dawes rolls.” Under the Allotment Act, each person who was defined as sufficiently Indian by federal agents and listed on those rolls received land allotments. Many of the most traditional Indigenous people resisted enrollment and, as a result, weren’t counted as “Indians.”

After individual Indians received their allotments, the rest of their lands were opened to white settlers. R, so reestrictive definitions, based on “blood quantum” were used both to steal native land and to make it seem as if Indians had “disappeared,” thus white-washing the occupation of North America. exclude many Indigenous people. (“Blood quantum” was used in the opposite way to make sure more people were slaves – hence the “one drop” rule for defining “Black” people.)

It’s a long history, but that’s how we got to this eugenicist notion of an Indian “race,” and the idea that it is socially acceptable to quantify “Indian blood.,” It’s as if Indigenous people are show dogs who must display their pedigrees. And we have to add to this the United State’s long history of constructing “races” based in large part on phenotype (what you “look like”).

How does this relate to Ward?

So, back to what’s being asked about Ward Churchill. “Indian” according to what definition? A lot of people mean, “He doesn’t look like what I think an Indian should look like.” Those are the people who probably think Ward Churchill’s Japanese American wife is an Indian. And then there are the people who don’t think Indians write books, at least not dozens of them, with footnotes.

Moving on, let’s get to “real” definitions, the kind that governments write down. There are at least 33 federal definitions of “Indian,” plus the hundreds of criteria used by various American Indian “tribes” for enrollment purposes. But for census and equal opportunity counts, a person need meet only 1 of 4 possible criteria:

  • 1. Self-identification - not who you imagine you’d like to be, but you and your family’s understanding of your ancestors and your identity.
  • 2. Community recognition – whether you’re recognized as a functioning member of an American Indian community, by that community.
  • 3. Tribal enrollment.
  • 4. Certification of Degree of Indian Blood (the federal documentation of blood quantum).

Ward Churchill meets not just one but three of these criteria, having declined to apply for a CDIB card which he, like many other Indians, finds repugnant.

His family has always identified as being of Native descent, and he has been recognized as a community member for well over thirty years. He is a card-carrying, enrolled associate – not honorary – member of the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB). Associate UKB membership required evidence of Cherokee descent, and this was established in Ward’s case by the Band’s genealogist, who traced Ward’s family back to the Dawes rolls.

You can read Ward Churchill’s more detailed explanation of each of these points, as it was submitted to the University of Colorado’s race police, by clicking here.

. . . Identity Continued


  "The Canary Effect " 
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Ward Churchill has sued the University of Colorado for violating his 1st Amendment rights. Trial is set for March 2009.


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