Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Everybody wants to be an Injun

Remember Ward Churchill, the pseudo-scholar that penned the essay "On the Justice of Roosting Chickens," wherein he claimed that the 9-11 attacks were a predictable and justified response to U.S. policies and he called the people working in the World Trade Centers "little Eichmanns"?

Churchill was a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado (eventually he lost the position for various reasons of misconduct, including plagiarism) and has written many books on the Native American experience, usually through the prism of genocide. To that end, Churchill cutlivated an image of himself, that of a rebel, marxist, and--yes--a Native American. In 2003, Churchill proclaimed "I am myself of Muscogee and Creek descent on my father's side, Cherokee on my mother's, and am an enrolled member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians." As it turned out, he was only an honorary member of that Cherokee band. But he still insisted he was between 1/16 and 3/16 Cherokee.

In 2005, the Rocky Mountain news did exhaustive research on Churchill's genealogy, ultimately determining that there was no evidence Churchill had any Native American ancestors, whatsoever:
Joshua Tyner didn't die in that bloody raid sometime around 1778, although the Indians scalped his mother and kidnapped his two teenage sisters. 
In fact, Joshua Tyner lived a long and fruitful life and produced many descendants - including University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, whose disputed claims of Indian ancestry are tied to yet another family legend: 
The one that says Joshua Tyner was part Cherokee. 
However, an extensive genealogical search by the Rocky Mountain News identified 142 direct forebears of Churchill and turned up no evidence of a single Indian ancestor among them - including Joshua.
Fast forward to the present day and the Senate campaign of progressive darling Elizabeth Warren. I've spoken of her before, once or twice. In the latter piece, I said the following about the Senate contest in Massachusetts (back in March of this year):
In Massachusetts, Scott Brown had been looking vulnerable, but recent polling data suggests he's gaining traction. His opponent--Democrat Elizabeth Warren--attracts hard-core progressives and liberals, but comes across as a little too extreme for more moderate voters. I think Brown will end up winning reelection.
I think I'll stay with that prediction, given recent events. And what are those events? Well, Warren has been caught fabricating her own Native American heritage. Through the eighties and early nineties, while a professor of law, Warren registered as a minority professor--a Native American, to be precise--with the Association of American Law Schools. Asked to back up the asssertion, Warren has been scrambling.

Finally, it would appear that she has been vindicated. Kind of. A genealogist has found evidence that Warren's great-great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee, making Warren herself 1/32 Cherokee, at most.

That's not much, in my view. In fact, few tribes will recognize someone as a member without at least a 1/16 heritage, though some tribes do not use blood quantum laws at all, but instead follow direct descent (which may or may not allow someone with a 1/32 heritage to enroll). But we do know that Warren has never lived on a reservation, or the like.

Did her claims of a Native American heritage benefit her professionally? Members of various schools she taught at say no, her background had no impact on anything. And let's take them at their word, here. That still leaves a valid question: did Warren think having a Native American background would help her?

If not, then why did she claim to have one? Why did Churchill so desperately want the same? Pride? To impress people?

I think there is--for lack of a better way to say it--a "coolness" aspect to the idea of being part Native American. It's something you can let drop to impress people. And when it's listed on your bio, it's something that will often draw a response from others. More often than not, that response will be to express admiration or the like, since the person will likely assume an actual background in a Native American culture.

And let's face it, the history of the Native Americans--with regard to their treatment by the U.S. government--is a tragic one. The legacy of that relationship is on par with the legacy of slavery in the U.S., really. Claiming decent from a slave is a powerful tool, insofar as--politically--it can be used to engender sympathy and demand respect. Thus, for those engaged in the championing of group rights (i.e., the Left) it is truly a badge of honor. And for the typical non-black liberal or progressive, it's just not available for obvious reasons. But being part Native American, that's different. It's an easy tale to sell and provides the same sorts of benefits in the political realm.

In many ways, it's not much different than claiming military service, claiming to have seen combat, or even claiming to have been Special Forces. Amazingly, Richard Blumenthal survived making phony claims about service in Vietnam, but then he wasn't really highlighting the issue in his campaign and was always the favorite to win. Elizabeth Warren? While her claims may be literally true, she looks like a fool. And while she hasn't highlighted her Native American background, she's not exactly pulling away in the race. This may have an impact.

Personally, I find the whole thing both silly and offensive: it doesn't matter a whit who one's ancestors are. Such things say nothing about who we are as people, as individuals. They shouldn't provide any special privileges or the like and--as sources of vain-glorious pride--they should be largely ignored. But I guess that's just me. I'm not an Injun, so what do I know.

Cheers, all.

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