Ward Churchill shortly after winning his wrongful dismissal court case
Ward Churchill shortly after winning his wrongful dismissal court case

This will be a long post. It began Thursday afternoon, but could only be posted today because (as we all know from experience) life intervenes. I apologize in advance for any mistakes or fudging of the material for whatever reason.



There are about 450 people, maybe more, sitting in a large lecture hall in the old Concordia building in downtown Montreal. It’s the same building that black activists and students occupied in the ’60s, back when it was Sir George Williams University. They awakened in some Canadians, if only for a while, concern over segregation, the civil rights movement, black consciousness. That keen awareness faded because it was easy for people here to see those issues as someone else’s problems.

We’re there to watch a film entitled American Outrage about Mary and Carrie, the Dann sisters of northern Nevada. They’re Western Shoshone. They’ve been locked in a battle with the United States Government for the past forty years. The film reminds us that the battles haven’t only been legal. 

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), acting on instructions from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., has engaged in threats, physical intimidation, arbitrary arrest. Officials have invaded (there’s no other word that fits) the Dann ranch and those of other Western Shoshone with helicopters in the air and heavily-armed officers on the ground to rustle their horses and cattle, or stampede the herds off grazing lands. The film makes it clear that someone, or something, wants the Shoshone people off their lands.

The U.S. Government argues that a treaty signed in the 1800s was nullified “by steady encroachment,” a non-existent legal concept the Dann’s lawyer tells us is bullshit. The Federal Government also charges the Dann with “unpaid grazing fees” on “unoccupied federal lands” to the tune of $5-million. These are fees, the Danns say, for using their own land, Western Shoshone territory. Yet, U.S courts have backed up the U.S. position to the consternation of the United Nations’ Committee for the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination. CERD has investigated and informed the U.S. that it has violated the rights of the Western Shoshone and it wants answers. 

That was two years ago. Since then, the U.S. has ignored the CERD finding. Mary Dann has died; she was in her 80s. The U.S. decided to explode a nuclear device on the lands of the Western Shoshone and render it useless to anyone. Anyone, that is, except the huge, international gold mining conglomerates that the film’s producers tell us have been behind the decades-old campaign to displace the Western Shoshone all along. A victory is won though when the government cancelled that A-bomb explosion in the face of growing opposition across the country.

The audience is primed by the time Churchill takes the stage. He’s taller than I pictured. Trademark jeans, leather jacket, and neck-length hair. I expect a high-pitched, strident voice for some reason. He delivers a low, almost mumbling rumble with occasional humour and irony. He picks up on the general theme of righteous anger against racism, colonialism and evil or corrupt governments despite arriving near the end of the film. He fumbles around at first, then picks up.

He compliments and condemns at once. He speaks of the “legitimate aspirations to liberation” of Indigenous peoples across the Americas. Not your fault, he says to the audience, because… “Most people don’t choose to be complicit in genocide. Most people don’t choose to participate in or condone genocide.” Yet they do, he implies, by inaction or sitting by and doing nothing. They allow it to happen nonetheless. Genocide has been committed and is being committed, Churchill tells the audience. That was the message in the film: colonialism is still here, in so-called post-colonial America.

Churchill says cultural assimilation has been and still is the aim of today’s forms of internal colonialism throughout the Americas.

“The aim is to confuse Indigenous peoples of their tribal identities so they lose the ability to define themselves. Eventually, they will not be defined. They lose all sense of their own tribal identity. Indigenous people will then be indistinguishable from anyone else. When that takes place, colonialism will have accomplished what it set out to do.”

He reminds the audience of the international definition of cultural genocide. “It isn’t the eradication of a single person or individual. You need to eradicate the group. What do you call it when the group’s ability to define themselves no longer exists? When the group no longer has its tribal identity? I call that cultural genocide, and that is exactly what is going on today in the Americas, and elsewhere in the world.”

“I’m not going to differentiate between one genocide going on in the world or another,” he continues. “I’m not going to compare genocides. You know, Auschwitz versus smallpox. I’m not going to argue about the scale of one or another; this one is bigger or worse than that one. I’m not going to argue about the scale, or the method of delivery, or whether this method was more efficient than some other method or way of measuring. I just want to make clear that it genocide is going on today, and we all know it.” 

Churchill was fired a couple of years ago from his teaching job at Colorado University. He had written an essay years earlier about the terrorist attacks that brought down the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City in September, 2001. He tied the terrorist attacks on 9/11 to U.S. foreign policy. “The chickens had come home to roost,” he told the audience in Montreal.

Churchill has recently won a wrongful dismissal lawsuit he filed against CU. The reason, according to CU, was Churchill’s less than rigorous research methods and plagiarism. Churchill won his case, and a $1 award for damages (he asked for $1-million), because he argued, and the judge agreed, that the real reason was political pressure applied on the university to get rid of Churchill for that article he wrote. This Montreal audience has obviously followed the case. They applauded when Churchill summarized his firing, the court fight, and the judgement (although no mention of the symbolic $1 damages award). 

There are several perspectives on Churchill, who has written several books mainly on U.S. Indian affairs policies, but some touching on topics such as colonialism and post-colonialism in Africa or India. For example, some Native Americans have attacked Churchill as a wannabe, a white man in buckskin. Read more here, and here, and here. <all links to Indianz.com with links to the original stories> 

I had to leave early so I didn’t hear the rest of Churchill’s presentation or the Q&As that followed. However, two things, a quote from Churchill, followed by a comment from a Mohawk who attended and left early as well:

“There are some who ask how can this (cultural genocide) be legal in the U.S., or in Canada for that matter? Well, it was made legal. They made laws to make these things legal. Laws existed to further these policies and make these actions by the state legal. Remember that Hitler’s Germany had laws too. The [NAZI] state enacted laws and acted legally when it committed its genocide. Just because it had laws making everything legal did not make it right. It wasn’t.”

“I guess it’s important for people in there (the auditorium) to hear what he has to say, but I’ve heard it all before. I know this stuff. We learned it the hard way or at home. For a lot of them, it’s important to know what their government does in their name.”