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Debate Over "Indianness" A Flashback To COINTELPRO

by H. Mathew Barkhausen III

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Ward Churchill

(PNS) -- A firestorm of controversy has erupted around a Native American ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I had planned to attend graduate school. Because of an essay he wrote immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, Ward Churchill has been accused of glorifying terrorists as heroes and encouraging future attacks on the United States. Now a debate over his right to free speech, and his Native blood, is being waged in Indian Country and beyond.


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Debate Over "Indianness" A Flashback To COINTELPRO

Ward Churchill's Defense

Ward Churchill Has Rights, And He's Right

As an advocate of free speech and future University of Colorado student, I think it is wrong that Churchill's job has been threatened as a penalty for speaking freely. As a Native American who -- like many of us -- is not federally recognized and does not have a tribal enrollment number, I find it ridiculous that the question of whether Churchill is a "real Indian" has resurfaced as part of an effort to silence him and discredit his views.

After Churchill published a post-9/11 essay entitled "Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," he was forced to resign as head of the Ethnic Studies department. In February, he was thrust into the national spotlight again after New York's Hamilton College canceled an appearance due to threats of violence. Now, he faces a university review that could lead to his dismissal.

In the midst of the controversy surrounding Churchill's opinions, efforts to attack his credibility by challenging his "Indianness" have gained momentum. Churchill is a member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees in Oklahoma, and his father was part Creek, which makes Churchill around 3/8 Indian, for all the racial purists out there. But now people like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly have joined some Native critics in claiming that Churchill is "not really an Indian."

Debates over blood strike close to home in Indian Country. If you want to discredit someone, all you have to do is say, "He's not really Indian." Casting such doubt has the potential to destroy the reputation of a formerly well-respected Native American leader. That is the legacy of FBI/COINTELPRO operations against the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s -- a technique known as "bad-jacketing," which destroys a grassroots organization from within by causing internal conflict. The resulting need to prove "Indianess" through blood quantum -- and tribal enrollment via a system imposed upon us by the federal government -- has led Native people to commit a self-inflicted statistical genocide.

It is fortunate for Indian history that the blood quantum police were not always so influential. If they had been, people might have also dismissed Quanah Parker, the celebrated Comanche chief who was only "half Indian," or John Ross, a well-respected Cherokee chief who was only 1/8 Indian. Renowned leaders Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and Chief Joseph were not "enrolled" Indians. Famed American Indian Movement activist and actor John Trudell is a non-enrolled Dakota Sioux. Native American political prisoner and author Leonard Peltier is Turtle Mountain Chippewa and Dakota Sioux, but is not enrolled in either tribe.

I myself meet the blood-quantum for the Eastern Band Cherokee tribe, but because my ancestors are not on a list that goes back only as far as 1924, I cannot enroll. I would also be eligible to enroll in the Tuscarora tribe if it weren't for the fact that my Tuscarora blood comes from North Carolina, and the Tuscaroras there are not state or federally recognized.

Travis Elston, a 21-year-old Kickapoo and Powhatan student at the Art Institute of Colorado, questions the relevance of the debate over the professor's bloodline.

"Honestly, I don't think you have to be of the ethnicity you are willing to stand up and fight for," Elston says. "I guess the question is what makes a Native American, other than blood quantum? Is it the cultural environment? Is it a traditional lifestyle? Is it someone who is willing to stand up for those who are Native?"

I had planned on attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, in great part because Churchill was there and I wanted to take his classes. Now, because of the university's actions against him, I'm thinking of enrolling at the Denver campus instead.

I am disturbed by the actions being taken against Churchill. As a future University of Colorado student, I feel my education will be diminished by the silencing of this critical voice. As a Native American, I object to the use of "bloodlines" to aid in this silencing.

Barkhausen, 25, is a staff writer for Seventh Native American Generation (SNAG) and an interactive media design student at the Art Institute of Colorado

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Albion Monitor March 1, 2005 (

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