Ward Churchill Speaks[I chaired a talk by Ward Churchill last Friday night at the Brecht Forum in NYC, where he spoke about his most recent book "A Little Matter of Genocide." This post is based on my notes and my reading of this extremely important book, which is about 3/4 complete.]
Churchill opened up his talk by explaining the genesis of "A Little Matter of Genocide." When he was a visiting professor at Alfred University in upstate NY during the fall of 1990, local journalists asked him for his opinion on Columbus Day. When he compared Columbus to Himmler, it set off shockwaves on and off campus. Two angry letters in particular unsettled him to such a degree that he decided to write his book. One was from a member of the Jewish Defense League who claimed that such a comparison diminished respect for the suffering of the Jews. The other was from a colleague at Alfred University who was an exchange faculty member from Germany and a social democrat. He argued that Himmler was following a deliberate policy of extermination, while Columbus was merely a sailor who set off a chain of events whose trajectory he never could have anticipated, like the "butterfly wings" in chaos theory.
Since Churchill is widely read in the literature of genocide, he surmised that it would be possible to appropriate the methodology of those scholars who have challenged the Jewish holocaust deniers for use against the American Indian holocaust deniers. After all, the problem facing the American Indian was similar. The minimization of their numbers before Columbus's arrival and the tendency to whitewash their murderers was comparable to the methods of such neo-Nazis as Faurisson, Harwood and Butz.
One of the most prominent of these anti-Nazi scholars is Deborah Lipstadt, whose "Denying the Holocaust" effectively demolishes claims, for example, that the gas chambers at Auschwitz and elsewhere were really delousing chambers, or that Anne Frank's diary is a fraud. The only thing that bothered Churchill was that Lipstadt's book went on to make the case that not only were the neo-Nazis guilty of holocaust denial, so were those individuals who questioned the special suffering of the Jews. The Jews, according to Lipstadt, were the only race that was deliberately singled out for extermination. He could find not a single reference to American Indians in her book.
Even worse was the scholarship of her colleague Stephen Katz, which did take up the question of the suffering of the American Indian, only to specifically challenge the notion that "holocaust" describes what happened to the native peoples. The numbers lost to actual genocide as compared to warfare were difficult to sort out. The victims of outright genocide fall somewhere between 150,000 and 500,000, according to Katz. The mendacity of Lipstadt and Katz is closely linked to their uncritical support of the Zionist state. They, along with Daniel Goldhagen, constitute what might be called the "holocaust studies" industry. It serves to define Israel as a state with a political investment in a certain interpretation of historical events. Challenges to this interpretation, such as the kind that came from Norman Finkelstein, are tantamount to antisemitism.
If Ward Churchill had the same kind of task that people like Lipstadt and Katz did, then the job would be relatively easy. After all, people like Faurisson, Harwood, Butz et al, are perceived as neo-Nazi charlatans and have virtually no support among mainstream politicians. Furthermore, the scholarly consensus is that the facts of the Judeocide are correct. The job in refuting the holocaust deniers consists of simply presenting the truth, such as demographic figures from before and after the "final solution".
The problem in the United States, however, is that minimization or denial of the American Indian holocaust is the OFFICIAL POSITION. There are two ways in which the lie gets put forward. Firstly, there are attempts to undercount the original population of indigenous peoples. Secondly, there are attempts to represent their demise as "inadvertent," particularly blamed on the spread of diseases to which Indians were tragically immune.
For example, the Smithsonian Institute has stated that the native American population in 1492 was not more than one million. Under repeated challenges, they have revised that figure upwards to two million. The original figure is based heavily on the interpretations of anthropologists like James Mooney, whose work was filled with racial bias. For example, he refers repeatedly to "half-negro mongrels" and people who have "fairly healthy blood." Using dubious field surveys, he came up with a figure of 1.1 million.
What's even more disturbing is that so-called friends of the Indian have not proven much more reliable. For example, James Axtell, who is angling to become the "dean" of American Indian studies, denies that the genocide is an applicable term at all. In tones that evoke Rush Limbaugh, he cries out: "We can stop flogging ourselves with our 'imperialistic' origins and tarring ourselves with the broad brush of 'genocide.' As a huge nation of law and order and increasingly refined sensibility, we are not guilty of murdering Indian women and babies, of branding slaves on the forehead, or of claiming any real estate in the world we happen to fancy."
Axtell repeated these arguments in a debate with Churchill at a conference of the American Historians Association and threw in what he thought was the perfect clincher. How can you accuse the USA of genocide when most of the deaths were due to disease rather than conscious murder? An exasperated Axtell pleaded with the audience: If you don't have a modern-day understanding of how microbes work, then you can not possibly be found guilty of killing people whom you infect with smallpox or measles?
Churchill calmly replied that you don't have to have a working knowledge of ballistics or physics to know that when you point a .357 Magnum at somebody and pull the trigger, that when they die, your ignorance is not an excuse. The colonizers, by their own admission, saw a cause-and-effect between their presence and the death of the indigenous peoples. Since they were on a mission of conquest, this discovery was joyfully welcomed in the name of Jesus Christ and all the saints. The magic bullet that killed all the heathen was a gift from god.
I was not really familiar with Axtell's work, but will be sure to not to waste my money on his books in the future. I am sorry that I had not read Churchill's book before I started my research on the American Indian last January. I would not have bothered with Richard White, who has a good reputation as an ecologist and who is the co-author of a book on the Columbia River with Marxist historian Eric Foner, which I spent good money on. White assigns equal blame to the British and Great Lakes Indians "empires" for the misunderstandings that led to bloody wars in the period 1650-1815. Guess which empire got the shitty end of the stick.
Another dubious "friend of the Indian" is Alfred Kroeber, the author of "Ishi: Between Two Worlds." Kroeber established as canonical "truth" in 1939 that the population of this hemisphere in 1492 was around 8 million, rather than the 125 million accepted by more impartial demographers recently. (For example, recent scholarship describes Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city, as the third largest in the world at the time of Columbus.)
(Kroeber's attitude toward Ishi was telling. He thought that the last surviving "stone age" Indian in California belonged in a museum. This is depressingly reminiscent of George Bird Grinnell's banning of the Blackfoot from Glacier National Park when he was administrator, while collecting and publishing their lodge tales as a memento of this "dying" race. Obviously, banning them from their ancestral homeland would accelerate the "dying" process.)
After reading "A Little Matter of Genocide," there can be no doubt about the intentions of the US conquerors, who were exactly like the 'conquistadores' who exterminated the Aztecs and the Incas. They felt it necessary to remove the inhabitants of the land because they wanted to take advantage of the resources there. The "Manifest Destiny" of the 19th century was exactly like the 'lebensraumpolitic' of the Nazis. The documentation Churchill comes up with, while owing much--as he acknowledges--to the primary research of others, is like a powerful club that he uses to demolish the lies of our own holocaust deniers. On almost any page you can find evidence such as the following newspaper editorial that appeared just prior to the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado:
"Eastern humanitarians who believe in the superiority of the Indian race will raise a terrible toll over this policy, but it is no time to split hairs nor stand upon compunctions of conscience. Self preservation demands decisive action, and the only way to secure it [is through] a few months of active extermination against the red devils."
(William Byers, "Rocky Mountain News", Aug. 10, 1864)
Newspapers and politicians had built up such a frenzy of hate that it was almost inevitable that the following acts took place, according to one eye-witness:
"I saw five squaws under a bank for shelter. When the troops came up to them they ran out and showed their persons, to let the soldiers know they were squaws and begged for mercy, but the soldiers shot them all...There were some thirty or forty squaws collected in a hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six years old with a white flag on a stick; she had not proceeded but a few steps when she was shot and killed. All the squaws in the hole were afterwards killed... The squaws offered no resistance. Every one I saw dead was scalped. I saw one squaw cut open with an unborn child, as I thought, lying by her side...I saw quite a number of infants in arms killed with their mothers."
(Robert Bent, in US Senate report "The Chivington Massacre")
Scholars estimate the North American Indian population at 15 million at the time of Columbus's arrival. In 1900, the US census found that there were 237,000 Indians in North America. This dwarves anything that Hitler ever did. What is interesting about the American architects of genocide is that they don't even feel the need to use euphemisms. They openly called for the "extermination" of the Indian, while nobody can find a single statement by Hitler that is so blunt.
During the discussion period, someone asked what the policy toward the American Indian tells us about American civilization, especially its foreign policy. Ward Churchill was very succinct. He stated that the best analogy is to think of the Axis as victors in WWII and Hitler, or his successors, ruling over a worldwide empire. Taking advantage of my prerogatives as chairman, I added that imagine what Jews would feel like if they were living in such a Europe under Axis rule, in which they were still in ghettoes. Furthermore, they were poverty-stricken, addicted to drugs or alcohol, and were committing suicide out of despair in numbers all out of proportion to the rest of the population. To add insult to injury, a number of the leading soccer teams were called the "Hebrews" or "Jewboys" and had mascots with big noses. That is what American represents to the indigenous peoples.
I suspect that Ward Churchill does not view his talks as a way to advance his career, but as part of a crusade to defend the survival of his people. If 1/10th of the intensity that moves him were disseminated across the left, we would be much more effective, I'm sure. From the brief experience I have had with them, the intellectuals of American Indian radical movement appear to be the most motivated and most uncompromising people involved in struggle today. The reason for this is that they, like African-Americans, have fewer reasons to have illusions about the true nature of this country. For the European descendants, it is possible to be seduced by notions that this country is democratic and civilized. In reality, it is a country that is based on conquest and genocide.
One of the unfortunate features of the American socialist movement is that it has ceded entirely too much to the notion of the United States as a beacon on the hill, or as James Axtell puts it, "a huge nation of law and order and increasingly refined sensibility." On the contrary, the United States has come into existence by breaking sacred laws and by betraying a sensibility on a par with the SS or Attila the Hun. All the rest is sheer cosmetics.