Ward L. Churchill has been angry for years, shaking a clenched fist at American power from the streets of Denver and the lecterns of academia.
He has compared his country to Nazi Germany and urged the hanging of “war criminals” like Henry Kissinger, President Clinton and Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of State whom he called “that malignant toad.”
Most of all, he has been a firm believer in karma: What America sows, it shall surely reap. “Payback,” he said. “Can be a real mother.”
For years, the radical views of the gray-haired professor in the dark glasses were heard mostly by his students at the University of Colorado at Boulder and his fellow travelers on the far left.
That all changed two weeks ago, when a paper surfaced that Churchill had written comparing victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to Nazis.
Now he’s fighting for his academic life. Churchill has resigned as chairman of the ethnic studies department, but remains a professor. The university board of regents is investigating whether he should be fired, the governor wants him dismissed, the state Legislature has condemned him. And Indian groups are calling him a fraud, saying he’s not a Native American, as he has said.
The controversy flared when Churchill, 57, was invited to speak at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., on Native American prison issues. Before the lecture, a paper he wrote after the Sept. 11 attacks, “Some People Push Back: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens,” was unearthed by Hamilton academics.
In it, Churchill argued that America deserved what happened Sept. 11 and had gotten off “very, very cheap.”
Using occasionally crude language, he ridiculed Americans in general and spoke in admiring terms of the Al Qaeda hijackers.
If anything, he wrote, the “combat teams” were too patient and restrained in their attacks.
Churchill called the Pentagon a legitimate target and said: “As for the World Trade Center.... Well, really. Let’s get a grip here, shall we? ... True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break.”
The guilt of those who died at ground zero, he wrote, was having toiled in the “very heart of America’s global financial empire.” For that, Churchill called them “little Eichmanns,” after Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann.
Hamilton College canceled the speech. On Thursday, University of Colorado regents publicly apologized to all Americans for Churchill’s comments, while the state Senate passed a resolution denouncing the statements as “evil and inflammatory.”
Controversy isn’t new to Churchill. The longtime activist’s writings include “Life in Occupied America,” “Acts of Rebellion,” “In a Pig’s Eye: Reflections on the Police State, Repression and Native Americans” and “Fantasies of the Master Race.”
Churchill did not respond to numerous requests for comment. But in a CNN interview Friday, he said he “probably could have been clearer” in his writing, but his goal had been to provoke the public. The point, he said, was to make Americans realize they were not immune to the suffering their government inflicted on others. As for the “little Eichmanns” comment, he said it didn’t apply to janitors, food service workers and children killed in the attacks.
“I don’t believe I owe an apology to anyone,” he said.
Born near Peoria, Ill., Churchill has a master’s degree in communications and is a U.S. Army veteran.
He has led numerous protests on behalf of Native Americans. Two weeks ago, Churchill and seven others were acquitted in the blocking of last year’s Columbus Day Parade in Denver, which they said honored genocide.
“Ward is an extremely intelligent man, an advocate of nonviolence,” said David Lane, a civil rights attorney representing Churchill. “He is very concerned about the underdog, both nationally and internationally. In this case, all he was doing was calling for an analysis on why 9/11 happened. When you are commenting on matters of public opinion, you can say whatever you want. He is blunt, direct and to the point -- and that puts a lot of people off.”
But others see him differently, including some Native Americans angry over his claims to be one of them.
At the top of his resume, Churchill lists his enrollment in the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. Yet the chief of the Oklahoma tribe, George Wickliffe, said they “had no association with Churchill in any capacity whatsoever.”
Churchill says he is three-sixteenths Cherokee.
Suzan Shown Harjo -- president of the Morning Star Institute, a Native American rights group in Washington, D.C. -- has Census data showing Churchill as born to parents listed as white. She said he had not shown up on the rolls of the tribes he said he belonged to.
“This is not a Native person. He goes around college campuses, saying he was at the occupation of Alcatraz, Wounded Knee and at the Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover in 1972. But no one can remember him being there,” she said. “I was at the BIA takeover as a reporter, and I never saw him.”
David Bradley, a well-known Indian artist in Santa Fe, earned Churchill’s wrath by championing federal legislation that required those selling their work as Indian art to be able to prove their tribal ties.
“In the 1980s, money was flying like confetti around here. You had dozens of people pretending they were Indian and selling their art,” Bradley said. “We had everything stolen from us for 500 years, and I wasn’t going to let them take our art as well.”
Churchill, who is also a painter, took issue with the effort.
“He wrote this slanderous attack about me. He tried to impugn my motives,” Bradley said. “He ought to be fired. Shame on CU [University of Colorado] for giving this con man a job.”
Bradley believes Churchill opposed the law because it affected his ability to sell his paintings.
Churchill attacked the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts legislation, saying it gave rise to “witch hunts” among tribes looking for phony Indians and put undue importance on racial purity.
The American Indian Movement, based in Minnesota, has called for his dismissal from the university, saying he “fraudulently represented himself as an Indian” to build his career.
But firing a tenured professor isn’t easy, and University of Colorado officials worry about stifling free speech.
For the next month, Interim Chancellor Phil DiStefano will review Churchill’s writings and recordings to see if there is evidence that could end in dismissal. Insubordination, incompetence and inciting violence are offenses that can lead to firing.
“One argument that could be made is that his writings and speeches have degenerated to a point where they are representative of professional incompetence,” said Paul Campos, a law professor at the university and a columnist for the Rocky Mountain News. “In the same way, a college would not tolerate a member of the history department who said the Holocaust didn’t happen.”
Campos said even professors should have limits.
“A position that says you cannot fire a tenured professor because of anything he says is untenable -- politically, morally and ethically,” he said. “And I have had people in positions of power tell me that if this guy can’t be fired, they can’t support the notion of tenure.”
Among Churchill’s staunchest defenders are his students.
Thursday, dozens of them protested at the board of regents meeting, eventually shutting it down with their shouting.
“I agree with the spirit of his paper,” said Shawn Baily, a former Churchill student. “If I wrote it, I wouldn’t have put it that way. If they fire him, I will withdraw from the University of Colorado.”
Even some who didn’t agree with his Sept. 11 comments enjoyed his class, saying he welcomed dissent and argument.
“He’s an amazing professor -- the one I will always remember,” said Darrell DeFabry, 21. “I was challenged on so many levels. How often can you say that?”