Q&A: Controversial activist/writer Ward Churchill

On Thursday at 8 p.m., controversial activist Ward Churchill gave a speech in Herrick Chapel entitled “On the Nature of Violence: Observations on Genocide, Ecocide, and Omnicide.” The Voicebox, Grinnell’s umbrella organization for activist groups, invited Churchill as part of their program “Activist Week: Justice in Practice.” Churchill was a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder from 1990 to 2007, when he was fired for academic misconduct. He has written about Native Americans, U.S. foreign politics, and the repression of dissent in America. In 2005, Churchill gained attention for criticizing the victims of 9/11, claiming they deserved their fate for playing a strong part in an oppressive American society. He also came under controversy for not being able to prove his claims of Native American ancestry. Before his talk, Churchill sat down with the S&B’s Marcus Eagan.


I just have a couple questions about your ideology, or your central idea. We talk here about thesis statements, so I’d like to know the thesis that captures the essence of your life’s work.
In Iowa that’s a Republican statement, but I’m about law enforcement as a core value, but the big laws, not the little laws, or the treaty laws. Let’s start with where the title to the land that the United States claims as being its own came from in this nation of laws. From where did they acquire legal titles and what was the requirement, the reciprocal requirement for the acquisition of the title, and have you fulfilled that, have you paid the agreed to price? Or have you met the terms of the conditions and provisions? I’m saying that a hypothetical “you,” you being the United States? And the answer to that is, absolutely not. So since you are in default on the requirements of the legal acquisition of the land, what exactly are you predicating your right to occupancy and assertion of jurisdiction?

Yeah, that’s important.
Yeah, it’s something the fundamentalists never talk about in grade school when they’re talking about how the nation was formed. You’d think the Irish were here and they invited some guests. It wasn’t quite that way.

Certainly not.
That’s the big dangling question that they never want to talk about, and it leads to all other kinds of dangling questions. That particularly affects native people. I’m an indigenist first, I take native rights as being first rights, as in first people. We work those things out, see to their fulfillment and work our way on from there, so that we don’t end up with Mitch McConnell standing there. I don’t know how in the hell he can look at himself in the mirror in the morning without puking, that stands there looking all serious and sincere talking about how we can’t afford 250 bucks for grandma, while he insists upon authorizing an $104,000 average tax discount for people who earn more than a million dollars a year.

This is a Michigan Representative?
Actually I think he’s from Kentucky, and he’s a Senator. He’s the head of the Republican caucus. Even in it’s own terms, and I’ve been a little shaky in my investment in the American dream, probably as congenital, I’ve been that way since birth, but they are beginning to astonish me even in their own terms. I mean this idea of Americans, somehow being a collectivity, when I was your age, he says in his dotage, there was some sort of meaning to that, there was a sense of collectivity in that people understood that “we got your back,” not now. I don’t know how they stand up and say this insanity with a straight face, and the people that they’re taking the money from are insisting persistently, militantly, that by God they should be able to. You got 2% of the population who want to return things to the 1890s in terms of distribution of wealth in this country. And the country itself in the process of generating this imaginary wealth is being absolutely devastated, so the response to that is that I walk into the hall, see USA Today and find out that any exposure to any amount of tobacco smoke ever in your life is probably more harmful than nerve gas. Somebody sent around a big federal report that says if you’re ever exposed to any amount of tobacco smoke, it could actually just kill you, because there’re all these inflammations and things that you can’t calculate and there’s nominal effects and blah blah. What exactly does some exposure to diesel fuels have? Or how about dioxide? Or how about plutonium? I haven’t ever seen headlines on these things. But now those same poor people I was talking about, for their own good or the good of society or something, I can’t even really figure out what the something is, they along with maximum security prisons turning into being smoke free zones, it’s clinical insanity parading as civic virtue. Meanwhile the society itself disintegrates and disappears, the habitat upon which, whatever form society is to take, is absolutely dependent for its existence goes through the same process of disintegration perhaps even more rapidly. The society is imploding, the environment is imploding, what exactly do you have? We’re not talking about that we’re going to pass a law with debt and burden to two or three generations, as we should, what’s the upshot of this? There’s this old axiom in alcohol therapy and so forth, when they do a treatment for alcoholics about denial, in terms of the opposite of everything is true, welcome to America. Welcome to the world that’s being created from this sort of pathos. You’ve got to really look it in the face, see it for what it is, in order to figure out how to respond. The entirety of the social interaction I see, mostly cybernet simulated, but nevertheless what I see, is designed to divert and avoid mass hype and pretend the opposite of everything is true. I don’t know if that’s a statement of ideology but that’s where I’m coming from.

A statement of ideology is where you’re coming from in the end.
Well, indigenism if you’ve got to put a label to it, and anti-Nazism, wondering if white people are ever going to be equal to the task that they’ve created for all of us.

Do you think the indigenous fundamentally or the native fundamentally is incompatible with the western forms of government?
It’s kind of like asking if Sharon Tate is incompatible with Charlie Manson, or whoever he was that ate the liver for dinner with some beans and a fine chianti was incompatible with Hannibal Lector. Maybe people exist at all in the European consciousness only to the extent that they have a utility to be used, and that can be something as fairly obvious and low grade as being exotic and entertaining, like putting them out in their little hula skirts or dance costumes or to do their basket weaving classes to make you some pottery when you go through Santa Fe. Or because they were the ones you can send into those mom and pop shop mines, that the SBA was funding down in the four corners area to mine uranium when they didn’t want to make the infrastructure investment to pump out the radon gas, or to be worked to death generation after generation after generation.

Like in Bolivia? Mercury poisoning?
All kinds of stuff, I mean you’re working underground, and there’s a few Welsh and Irish that could tell you about this in Appalachia. They weren’t mining metal, they were mining coal, but if you’re underground 16 hours a day…

You’re going to get sick.
Yeah. They were getting black lung. I mean these guys were getting whatever they were getting from the mercury and various other fumes that were emitted, and the body rots from all this water. It’s not like they had contemporary pumping systems, they still don’t for that matter, and they still do mine in that slag heap. They liked having Indians for scout units, and they used Indians against Indians, as long as you’ve got a utility, but the second that your utility is expended and sometimes your consumption, literally consuming you is part of the process that involves utility, that would be with the miners or the scouts when they’re killed. I’m of Cherokee descent, the Cherokees fought with Andrew Jackson against the Crete, but hey, that didn’t keep them in north Georgia and Tennessee, they sent them to Oklahoma. Actually the ones that fought with Andrew Jackson they sent them to Oklahoma first. You understand what I’m saying? People of color have value, not inherently, but only in terms of their utility, a use value as Marshall would have called it. Which leads me back around to wonder whether white people are ever going to measure up to the task they created for everybody. Because what is a white person? You know there’s that famous exchange between Steve Biko and the trial judge, and the judge says, “Tell me Mr. Biko why do they call you black? You look more chocolate brown to me.” And Biko looks at him without missing a beat and says, “I don’t know your honor, why do they call you white? You look pink.” These are contrivances number one, but they frame certain realities,

I wrote a column on trying to deconstruct the terms, instead of using white and black, which I mean inherently sort of hierarchize these two groups. But I don’t think we should get rid of race too soon because we’ve seen what happens, like in Latin America.
Get rid of race? Getting rid of the terms doesn’t do a damn thing. Actually, the terminology is relatively coherent compared to “east, west” for example. What the hell is Europe? Ultimately it comes to this cultural, there’s this racial veneer which adds to it, but essentially it’s a social construction of some sort, eurocentrism is what arises from that. What the hell is Europe? The west defined itself. Europe’s not a continent. It proclaimed itself not only a continent but the continent. What is it that defines western Christendom as better than eastern Christendom, which was the center of power at the time? And the answer to that is they pirated Arabic scriptural interpretation. None of these really arbitrary signifiers that they attach for purposes of hierarchy really are coherent when you examine them.

Are you a member of an American Indian tribe?
Keetoowah-Cherokee. They disowned me, but that’s okay—I disowned back.

Is there any movement that you would like to charge Grinnellians to get involved in?
There’re indigenous issues here. There are land rights around that, resource control issues around that, disempowerment, just straight up repression around that. So I’d like to see people not start a movement at Grinnell to whatever, but to make connections with the people themselves who are active and see what kind of support would be useful, which would be taking instruction from people whose issues, in fact, whose land it is.