At the heart of all of Ward LeRoy Churchill’s lifetime of activism, political writing and speaking is passion about indigenism and a deep dedication to the aim of decolonizing the United States.
Sponsored by the Big Idea Collective and Bookstore, Churchill will speak in Pittsburgh at the Union Project September 24th. He will surely talk about his views on pacifism, radicalism and the current state of things.
“My framing is what is referred to indigenist,” Churchill told the Pittsburgh Current from his home in Atlanta, “which is indigenous rights, the structural nature of the US as being an internal colonial settler state and that you really don’t address issues of liberation, ultimately, unless you take as a priority the decolonization of indigenous nations with respect to those rights.
“Otherwise, no matter how much readjustment to these existing systems you might accomplish, you still end up with a fundamental basis in colonialism. And the colonial paradigm in effect gives rise to a whole lot of the other maladies people seek to address.”
He has spent his life teaching and also kicking over anthills; there is never a lack of controversy swirling around him. Even his native american heritage has been called into question. It can be confusing, though, as he himself has reported differing accounts of his ancestry at various times (one-sixteenth Creek and Cherokee; or three-sixteenths Cherokee; or some combination of Muscogee, Creek and Cherokee.) He told Mother Jones, “I never said I was fucking Sitting Bull,” and beyond which, he rejects the notion that the government can or should decide who is native and who is not (issuing ‘Certificates of Degree of Indian Blood’).”
Such notions and measurements are always used by the colonizers to decide who gets to decide, which makes it both easy and inevitable to strip identity away and eventually eliminate first nations people altogether.
“The implications would be — look at the disposition of resources. These are resource colonies, at least in the west. … The disposition of the uranium resources are predominantly places like Navajo, the Black Hills, the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. That’s exactly where they’re homing in on — what they want to do is leeching, as they call it. It’s basically fracking uranium,” Churchill said.
Never one to shy away from a provocative position, he wrote an essay shortly after the 9/11 attacks titled, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, in which he referred to the workers in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns.” It spurred Bill O’Reilly to fits of nightly apoplexy. (O’Reilly aired forty-one segments on Churchill.) To posit that those who died in the Towers were somehow complicit is objectionable. On the other hand, using the FDR theorem that a person should be judged by the enemies they have made, Churchill has O’Reilly. So, at least there’s that.
He may be a flawed messenger but his thoughts on the genocide of Native Americans are compelling. He embraces radical systemic change, asserting that colonialism is the very root of the United States. The foundational paradigm is what Churchill seeks to dismantle. Basically, if you grow your garden on top of a poisonous mound, it doesn’t matter how much you tend and landscape it — you still have a poisoned garden.
Churchill’s most recent book, Wielding Words as Weapons: Selected Essays in Indigenism, 1995-2005 (PM Press, 2017) contains a decades worth of essays on these subjects, including essays on Cherokee anthropologist Robert K. Thomas, Standing Rock Sioux luminary Vine Deloria, Jr., and his take down of the Indian Claims Commission (it also includes the notorious 9/11 essay.)
In 2007, the University of Colorado Boulder fired Churchill, who was a tenured professor of ethnic studies at the time, citing research misconduct. Churchill asserted that he was fired for his controversial opinions (see above) and an investigation by the American Association of University Professors found no research misconduct. But the damage was done to Churchill’s career.
At 71, age hasn’t softened his views. He remains unbowed and defiant.
“Babies are being starved to death systematically, the world is being foreclosed upon and in the face of that you’ve got some moral principle about your relationship to an ant? Later. Eat what you want. Have sex with who you want. Dress however you want. I could care less. You want to assert your right to do that, I support you in it. But you didn’t solve what it is that’s fundamentally at issue. You can make as many tweaks as you want to the status quo — the status quo can absorb that, make adjustments and go right along.”
By Jody DiPerna covers literary events and book reviews for the Pittsburgh Current. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org