Colorado Professor Faces Claims of Academic Fraud
University of Colorado professor Ward L. Churchill has come under fire recently for comparing the Sept. 11 victims to Nazis and for questionable claims of Indian ancestry. Now, fellow academics are accusing him of fraud.
Several professors have alleged that in his writings, Churchill distorted events surrounding a smallpox outbreak among Indians in North Dakota, as well as the facts concerning requirements for tribal identity.
“If you read his writings, you will find extremist Indian nationalist ideologies and claims of history that just don’t feel right,” said Thomas Brown, an assistant professor of sociology at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, who has researched Churchill’s work. “Then I came across this story of genocide, and I thought: ‘Why didn’t I hear about this before?’ As soon as you read his sources, you realize he is making it up.”
Brown was referring to an essay in Churchill’s book “A Little Matter of Genocide,” in which he says the U.S. Army distributed blankets infected with smallpox to the Mandan Indians on the Upper Missouri River in 1837.
“The blankets had been gathered from a military infirmary in St. Louis, where troops infected with the disease were quarantined,” Churchill wrote. “Although the medical practice of the day required the precise opposite procedure, Army doctors ordered the Mandans to disperse once they exhibited signs of the infection. The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000 lives.”
Churchill cited his source as Russell Thornton, an anthropology professor at UCLA specializing in American Indian studies.
Yet when Brown compared Thornton’s account of what happened to Churchill’s, he found serious discrepancies. Thornton, in a 1987 book, said nothing about the U.S. Army handing out blankets infected with smallpox.
Thornton said a steamboat came up the river June 20, 1837, stopped at Ft. Clark -- in what is now North Dakota -- then arrived at a Mandan village.
“Some aboard the steamer had smallpox when the boat docked. It soon spread to the Mandan, perhaps by deckhands who unloaded merchandise, perhaps by chiefs who went aboard a few days later, or perhaps by women and children who went aboard at the same time,” Thornton wrote.
In Thornton’s account, the death toll was between 20,000 and 30,000, not the 125,000 Churchill wrote of.
“I don’t disagree with any of the conclusions drawn by professor Brown,” Thornton said this week. “I think people can make mistakes in quotations occasionally, but to blatantly misrepresent someone else’s work is totally inappropriate.”
Churchill has refused numerous requests for comment, and his lawyer did not return calls Friday.
Thornton, a Cherokee, said there were historical cases in which blankets were used to try to infect Indians, but not in this instance.
“If Churchill has sources that say otherwise, I’d like to see them. But right now I’m his source for this, and it’s wrong,” he said.
Brown, an expert on Indian nationalist movements, said Churchill had invented the story.
“From my perspective, it’s academic fraud and it’s a firing offense,” he said. “There is probably more here than I found, but this is a fraud sustained over several essays.”
Churchill’s writings are being reviewed by the University of Colorado’s interim chancellor to determine whether there are grounds for his dismissal.
The ethnic studies professor ignited controversy with an essay he wrote after Sept. 11 comparing some of those who had worked in the World Trade Center to “little Eichmanns” -- referring to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who designed the Holocaust. The essay was not widely known about until recently.
Churchill, 57, gave a fiery speech at the Boulder campus Tuesday, refusing to back down and promising to fight for his job.
While many, including the university Board of Regents, question whether a tenured professor can be fired for what he says, academic misconduct is another matter.
John LaVelle, a law professor at the University of New Mexico and a Santee Sioux, has written extensively about Churchill’s treatment of history. LaVelle said Churchill had repeatedly fabricated a key element of the General Allotment Act of 1887, a measure designed to break up Indian reservations into individual allotments, with the rest of the land sold off to white settlers.
Churchill said the law required tribe members to have 50% or more Indian blood to receive land. Tribes later imitated this standard in setting tribal enrollment standards, he said.
In numerous essays, Churchill fulminates against this “blood quantum” -- likening it to the racial policies of the Nazis and apartheid in South Africa. He also accused Indians of racism.
“The ugly burden of imposing racism is now carried out by the oppressed themselves,” he wrote.
But LaVelle said there was no mention of any such blood requirement in the General Allotment Act. The act allowed tribes to set their own standards for membership, he said.
From 1992 until 1997, LaVelle said, Churchill promoted this claim “no fewer than 16 times in 11 essays published in 16 different books.”
Critics say Churchill’s motives were clear: As long as tribes required some standard of proof for membership, he would never be admitted.
Churchill has claimed membership in the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees, but leaders say he has no affiliation with them.
On Friday, Chad Smith, principal chief of the 250,000-member Cherokee Nation, said there was no evidence of Churchill having Cherokee heritage and that he was not eligible for citizenship.
“The best evidence that he is not an Indian is that he knows so little about Indians,” Smith said. “Indians are superpatriots; this is our land. Brian Moss, one of our citizens, was killed in the Pentagon on 9/11, and he disparages these victims.”
In a 1978 application for a lecture position in Native American studies at the University of Colorado, and again in a 1990 application to be an associate professor, Churchill claimed to be American Indian.
“Academic fraud concerns me a great deal,” said university Regent Patricia Hayes. “I believe in tenure, but I also believe we have to do a good job as far as making sure his credentials are in order. The important thing is if he lied on his resume, not if he is an Indian.”