“I Never Claimed I Was F***ing Sitting Bull”

Ward Churchill, fiery ex-professor and Native American rights activist, is ready for his comeback.

Ward Churchill in 2006, before he was fired from the University of Colorado. Thomas Boyd/Zuma

One Saturday afternoon, Ward Churchill returned to the University of Colorado-Boulder, where 10 years earlier he’d been fired and stripped of tenure as chair of the college’s ethnic studies department. “I thought Bill O’Reilly would’ve stirred up a few protesters,” he said before taking the floor in a carpeted conference room half filled with about 50 professors, students, and activists.

Standing before the crowd, the 69-year-old Churchill cut the image of the bomb-throwing radical—“a traitor,” as O’Reilly put it—that he’d been cultivating his entire life: 6-foot-5 in cowboy boots, with a long gray-black ponytail cinched with a black band and his waist lassoed with a beaded belt. He grit his teeth while talking, like he was chewing tobacco, and spat out his words with disgust. “American jockstrap sniffers,” he called his critics, in particular the academics who’d picked apart his scholarship and helped get him fired. He compared them to SS officers, to apparatchiks helping the trains of a supposedly corrupt University of Colorado system run on time. “That’s what Eichmann did,” he said. The crowd gasped with delight.

Churchill’s penchant for this comparison, ad-Nazium, runs deep. Each of his 18 books is a brick in a monumental project dedicated to proving that Native Americans were subjected to a genocide comparable to the Holocaust. The day after September 11, he published an essay describing the stockbrokers and technocrats who died in the Twin Towers as “little Eichmanns.” Right-wing media was incensed: The O’Reilly Factor aired 41 segments on him. The Weekly Standard tagged him “the worst professor in America.”

His scholarly work was investigated by a University of Colorado special committee—overseen by CU President Hank Brown, a former Republican senator who co-founded the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a conservative campus watchdog, with Lynne Cheney in 1995. Churchill was accused of plagiarism and falsifying his research, and he was fired in July 2007.

After reviewing 17,000 pages of evidence, the American Association of University Professors would later find most of the claims leveled against Churchill “almost entirely false or misleading.” When Churchill sued CU, a jury reached the same conclusion. But it was too late. Churchill’s career and reputation were eviscerated.

In the decade since Churchill’s dismissal, his case has not only become just one in a long line of right-wing attacks on academic freedom, it has also served as a precursor to today’s “free speech” battles. While ACTA once published a list of instructors opposed to President George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism policies, groups such as the Bradley Foundation and the Koch Foundation spend hundreds of thousands of dollars funding centers on college campuses dedicated to promoting so-called free-market ideas—a professor at a Koch-backed center once described the students as foot-soldiers—as well as backing groups that target “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” as antithetical to free expression.

Republican legislators, meanwhile, attempt to silence other types of speech on campus, such as when, in 2015, GOP lawmakers in North Carolina shut down the Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school for allegedly being too left-leaning. Or earlier this year, when Republican state legislators threatened to withhold funds from the University of Wisconsin-Madison until it agreed to fire the instructor of a course on “The Problems of Whiteness.” Churchill’s firing, and ACTA and right-wing media’s cheering of it, belies, in some ways, campus conservatives’ concern for protecting academic freedom, and Churchill is a reminder that today’s right-wing-led free speech fights are mostly about politics and power, not the First Amendment.

Now, in Boulder, he had returned to say I told you so. “Academic freedom in America is dead,” Churchill told the crowd. “I had my identity before I was a professor, I had it while I was a professor, and I have it now.”

After his decadelong absence from public life, he had just published a volume of his collected work, Wielding Words Like Weapons. There’s also a forthcoming volume and “a half-dozen books in varying states of completion.” His return was an attempt at a comeback, and a vindication. He’d been invited to give the keynote address at a conference organized by the lead author of the American Association of University Professors report that concluded that Churchill had been the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt that violated “the most basic principles of academic freedom.”

After his hourlong speech, Churchill shook hands and signed some books before walking to the parking lot carrying a check for his $550 speaking fee—before he was fired, he charged $5,000. He climbed into a red Dodge Durango, lit a filterless Pall Mall, and drove toward downtown Boulder, past the building where he got his start as a writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine, past the corner where he’d been arrested for protesting Columbus Day in 1991. A spring storm had painted the streets with a fresh coat of snow. “I don’t even recognize this fuckin’ place,” he said as he passed a new Barnes & Noble and condo towers. “It’d be nice to blow it up.”

The truck’s seatbelt warning dinged. Churchill “doesn’t do seatbelts.” He doesn’t do airplanes either. He’d driven from Atlanta, where he now lives—it took a whole week—just to get here. Driving, he said, clears his head.

When he arrived at a brown ranch house on Wicklow Street, he slowed to a crawl. He’d lived in the house for 30 years, until he sold it in 2012 after his appeal to be reinstated at CU-Boulder was rejected by the Colorado Supreme Court. He recalled shooting jackrabbits in the pasture across the street. It was now the yard of a McMansion. “That house would look really good,” Churchill said, “if it was on fire.”

On the night of May 31, 2000, Churchill’s 25-year-old wife, Leah Renae Kelly, died about a hundred yards from here. She and Churchill had been sitting on their porch when they got into an argument. Churchill went inside. When he returned, Kelly, who had been drinking heavily, was gone. Soon Churchill saw flashing blue lights down the road and went running toward them. He found Kelly splayed across the road’s center line. She’d been run over. Churchill picked up her body, like a “broken bird,” and she died soon afterward.

“Leah Renae Kelly was not simply an ‘inebriated pedestrian killed by [a] car,’ as the local newspaper so casually remarked on the date she died,” Churchill writes in his 2013 essay, “Kizhiibaabinesik,” collected in Wielding Words Like Weapons. (Kizhiibaabinesik means “great bird circling the earth” in Ojibwa.) “There were reasons why that young, beautiful, incredibly promising, and catastrophically drunk Ojibwe woman was running barefooted down the middle of the road that night.”

Those reasons, Churchill argues, are the same ones that have animated all his work. From his controversial cri de coeur against nonviolent protest, Pacifism as Pathology, to Fantasies of the Master Race, a book on representations of Natives in film and literature, he’s always examined how the violence of America’s past has disfigured the identity of modern Native Americans by prompting them to internalize narratives of inferiority and inculcated in them tremendous self-hatred.

He’s looked at how this has disfigured the white oppressors, in turn, by demanding self-denial of their crimes in order to maintain a positive self-identity, what Churchill calls the “Master narrative.” Kelly’s minor role in the Master narrative—years of self-abuse and neglect, the crushing poverty and despair of reservation life, and the alcoholism she relied on to salve those psychological wounds—was a personal tragedy, but the power of the essay is to also insist that it was a collective one. “Her life,” Churchill writes, “illustrate[s] and reveal[s] the grinding horror that destroyed her…Give the crime its name. Call it, as I have, colonialism.”

“Fucking white people,” Churchill muttered as the house on Wicklow Street faded in the rearview mirror and he headed toward the highway. “They’re the problem.”

Yet by Churchill’s own admission, he, too, is part of the problem. During the inquiry into his scholarship, numerous newspaper investigations concluded that he’s at most only a sliver Native American. A 2005 investigation for the Rocky Mountain News by an Irish American reporter, Kevin Flynn, “turned up no evidence of a single Indian ancestor” among 142 of Churchill’s ancestors. Two of his great-grandparents identified themselves as Native American on census records—a fact that seems to support his claim to be 1/16 Cherokee—and the genealogical records Flynn consulted list the race and ethnicity of Churchill’s family members as “unknown,” not Caucasian. But none of that satisfied the critics who derided Churchill as a “pretendian.” “His words got him in trouble,” author Sherman Alexie told Mother Jones in 2009, “but he had lost plenty of Indian credibility before he lost white people’s credibility.”

“Even if that fucking Irish reporter is 100 percent right,” Churchill said, “how is the exact measure of how Native I am relevant to me being railroaded and stripped of tenure? I never claimed I was fucking Sitting Bull.”

He described growing up in a working-class part of Evanston, Illinois, how he never knew his biological father, and how at the age of 10 his mother and grandmother told him he was the descendant of Cherokees (an account corroborated by Churchill’s brother). His maternal family had identified that way for years. In the 1890s, one ancestor argued before the Supreme Court that he was Native American and demanded to be given a land allotment by the federal government. He was denied.

“This is precisely how structural racism works,” Churchill said as he drove. “The state and its institutions exert their ability to define another’s identity at will and give or withdraw benefits and protections accordingly.” He refers to the “blood quantum”—the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ common requirement that tribe members demonstrate one-quarter native ancestry—as an “extension of the project of genocide.”

As more Natives intermarry with non-Natives, Churchill fears that eventually no one will satisfy the blood quantum. “Tribes are kicking fucking guys who look like Geronimo off the rolls because they can’t prove they are 25 percent Native,” he said. “Why the fuck does the federal government get to decide how much blood is required to make someone native? Follow this to its logical conclusion and soon there will be no ‘Natives’ left.”

When I asked him whether he’d ever write about his own ancestry and the controversy surrounding it, he bristled. “I don’t like being vulnerable,” he said. But what might Churchill write about his own life if he applied to it the same unsparing analysis that he applied to Leah Renae Kelly’s? What might he say about the lacunas and inconsistencies of his biography—his childhood, his Vietnam service, his years in the American Indian Movement, the formation of his consciousness as a self-identifying Native?

Answering these questions with his acid pen might illuminate how, perhaps, embodied in his own life story, in his own identity, is yet another version of the violent clash between colonizer and colonized.

Back on the highway, Churchill stomped on the pedal and gunned it to 80 mph. He lit his last Pall Mall. “I’m only human,” he said, as the city he no longer recognized gave way to farmland and snowy peaks. He went even faster—85, 90.

It was as though he were trying to outrun Boulder, but without a clear destination in mind. The seatbelt warning screamed. “It hurts,” he said. “I’ve been hurt. No one said the fucking process of decolonization was going to be painless.”