By Maurice Switzer
A guy who writes books with titles like “An American Holocaust” and calls a lecture on Native American history “A Little Matter of Genocide” does not need posters to make him look tough.
So I gently chided Ward Churchill about the photo of him wearing dark glasses and camouflage fatigues, and brandishing an automatic rifle. This is, after all, a man who has devoted a great many pages in the 20 books he has written about the damaging impact of stereotypes on Native American peoples.
The American Indian Movement activist was a bit sheepish about the handbills that had helped pack a lecture theatre in Laurentian University’s Fraser Auditorium on an Indian Summer October afternoon. He had lost control of some photographic images from his late wife’s collection that were actually intended to be spoofs of Indian stereotypes, he explained, before quickly shifting into a high-gear examination of one of the nastiest Native stereotypes -- the “drunken Indian”.
With some staggering for special effect, Churchill conceded that, yes, there might be statistical evidence that 50 per cent of Native American men are significant abusers of alcohol. But those findings need to be considered in context of the fact that many of those same men were survivors of the notoriously abusive residential school system.
Cause and effect are an integral part of the approach that Ward Churchill has used to bolster arguments that make many EuroCanadians and their U.S. cousins squirm uncomfortably in their comfortable seats.
On this afternoon, speaking to an audience comprised largely of sociology students, the University of Colorado professor honed in on the term “colonialism”. He had heard a University of Toronto academic speaking about “post-colonialism”, a term for which Churchill has nothing but contempt.
“Canada began as a colony of England,” he noted, “and it may be that Canada has been de-colonized. But there has been no de-colonization of Native peoples in Canada.”
Churchill referred his listeners to philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s definition of colonialism: genocide. This equation argues that “theoretically, you can commit genocide without killing people.”
“Not one square inch of Canada exists absent the expropriation of Native land,” he said, asking if there was a soul in the lecture theatre who doubted that historic fact. “Everyone is aware that Native land has been taken – not by a consensual set of relations – but through coercion.”
While the United States achieved its territorial objectives by a series of Indian Wars, in Canada the same results had been accomplished through “sleazy real estate transactions.”
An “inversion of realities” has been created whereby First Peoples – who really have a right to the land – are said to have “claims” on the land, when in fact the reverse is true -- -- First Nations have rights to the land and settler populations mere claims.
“Euro-Canadians are brought up to have a self-entitlement to land expropriated from others,” possessing “a colonial mentality of white supremacy or superiority.”
Churchill identifies three types of colonialism.
“Classic” colonialism was the historic practice of such European nations like Britain, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal, whose so-called voyages of discovery and exploration became assumptions of authority over invaded populations, leading to the “colour-coding” of maps and globes.
“Internal” colonization involved the partitioning of entire continents – like Africa and South America – by European powers, often cutting homelands in two, much like the U.S.-Canadian border did to the traditional territories of Indian nations. The resulting social fractures have seen colonialism “imposed by Africans on Africans,” he observed, pointing to some of the major conflicts that have erupted in places like the Congo.
He sees “Settler State” colonialism as the “most virulent strain”, pointing to the U. S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as entities where it is rare that “white folk aren’t in charge,” even though they were not native to those places. He hastened to add that “white” to him is more a state of mind than a skin colour. “Condoleezza Rice is the whitest person I’ve ever met.”
As a result of these “self-appointed superior cultures”, says Churchill, “what was true for Native peoples in 1492 is true today.”
Like many of Churchill’s audiences, this one looked shell-shocked, overwhelmed by the relentless logic of his messages, which are as well-supported by research as the heavily-footnoted pages of his essays and books.
In thanking Churchill on behalf of the Laurentian community, Elder Barb Riley said people like him usually discover there is a price to pay for speaking the truth.
The price for Ward Churchill, since he wrote a controversial 2001 essay arguing that U.S. foreign policies provoked the World Trade Centre attacks, has been a call for his dismissal by the chancellor of his own university.
He was warmly received by his Northern Ontario audience, and individually thanked by some of us who have been profoundly influenced by his outspoken words .
Shaking his hand, I gave him my card, and offered to send him a photo I had taken of him before his lecture, a “better” one than the one on the university poster. He grinned, put back on his dark glasses, and lit a cigarette.
Maurice Switzer is a citizen of the Mississaugas of Alderville First Nation. He serves as director of communications for the Union of Ontario Indians and editor of the Anishinabek News.