Skip to comments.The Genocide That Wasnít: Ward Churchillís Research Fraud
Posted on 02/08/2005 7:54:20 AM PST by freespirited
This is a work in progress that I am making available due to the current interest in Ward Churchills writings. I show that Churchill has committed research fraud, and very possibly committed perjury as well. This article analyzes Churchills fabrication of a genocide. Churchill invented a story about the US Army deliberately creating a smallpox epidemic among the Mandan people in 1837 by distributing infected blankets. While there was a smallpox epidemic on the Plains in 1837, it was entirely accidental, the Army wasnt involved, and nearly every element of Churchills story is a total invention. My goal here was to show how and why Churchill engaged in such blatant fraud, and why no one has challenged him on it until now. --
Did the U.S. military ever carry out a genocidal assault on American Indian peoples by means of biological warfarei.e., distributing infected smallpox blankets? Few historians would dispute that during the Plains Indian wars, selected U.S. military forces did perpetuate massacres that can easily be construed as genocidal in intent. Furthermore, it is well-established that the British general Lord Amherst at least considered distributing smallpox-infected goods to Indians in 1763with explicitly genocidal intentand that his plan was carried out independently by his subordinates.
But did the U.S. military ever deploy smallpox blankets? Ward Churchill says they did. In a series of essays written during the 1990s, Churchill gradually elaborates his story of the origins of the smallpox epidemic that broke out on the northern plains in 1837, which probably killed at least 20 to 30,000 people. Churchill charges the U.S. Army with deliberately infecting the Mandan tribe with gifts of smallpox-laden blankets, withholding treatment, and thus causing an epidemic that Churchill says killed more than 125,000 people.
Ward Churchills habit of plagiarism and research fraud was well-documented by John Lavelle. Churchills tale of the Mandan genocide is but one more example. The first goal of this article will be to set the historical record straight, by comparing Churchills deliberately falsified version of events against the evidence, and by attempting to determine the actual cause of the 1837 smallpox epidemic. More crucially, I want to examine the political and cultural influences that lead to frauds such as Churchills, and to ask why Churchills fantasies take root among scholars who should know better.
Ward Churchills Version of the Smallpox Outbreak among the Mandans
Churchill first advanced his tale of the Mandan genocide in 1992, in the context of a brief supporting a motion to dismiss charges against Churchill and other activists, who were being tried for having disrupted a Columbus Day parade in Denver the year before. In Churchills trial brief, he claimed immunity from the state laws under which he was being prosecuted. Churchill made the argument that protesting the parade was tantamount to combating genocide, and was thus his legal duty under international law. Towards that end, in his trial brief Churchill described several historical examples of genocide against Indians, including this one:
At Fort Clark on the upper Missouri River the U.S. Army distributed smallpox-laden blankets as gifts among the Mandan. The blankets had been gathered from a military infirmary in St. Louis where troops infected with the disease were quarantined. Although the medical practice of the day required the precise opposite procedure, army doctors ordered the Mandans to disperse once they exhibited symptoms of infection. The result was a pandemic among the Plains Indian nations which claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number.
The only source that Churchill cites in support of this contention is Russell Thornton. It is enlightening to compare Thorntons rendition with Churchills. Thornton locates the origins of the epidemic in a steamboat traveling the Missouri River (94):
Steamboats had been traveling the upper Missouri River for years before 1837, dispatched by Saint Louis fur companies for trade with the Mandan and other Indians. At 3:00 P.M. on June 19, 1837, the American Fur Company steamboat St. Peters arrived at the Mandan villages after stopping at Fort Clark just downstream. Some aboard the steamer had smallpox when the boat docked. It soon was spread to the Mandan, perhaps by deckhands who unloaded merchandise, perhaps by chiefs who went aboard a few days later, or perhaps by women and children who went aboard at the same time.
Note the discrepancies between Churchill and Thornton. Thornton locates the site of infection at the Mandan village, not at Fort Clark. Nowhere does Thornton mention the U.S. Army. Nowhere does Thornton mention a military infirmary in St. Louis where troops infected with the disease were quarantined. Nowhere does Thornton mention the distribution of smallpox-laden blankets as gifts. On the contraryThornton clearly hypothesizes the origins of the epidemic as being entirely accidental.
Citing Thornton, Churchill holds that the pandemic claimed at least 125,000 lives, and may have reached a toll several times that number. But Thornton counts only 20,400 dead from a variety of tribes, plus many Osage, and three fifths of the north-central California Indians (probably an exaggeration). In other words, Thornton counts no more than 30,000 dead at most.
Considering that Churchill wrote this initial story as part of a trial brief, it would appear that he may well have committed perjury, which is a felony under Colorado law.
Churchill would go on to invent new details for his story. Churchill published his 1992 trial brief as part of an essay collection in 1994. In 1998, Churchill revisited his Mandan genocide story in a new collection of essays, A Little Matter of Genocide. Churchill addresses the Lord Amherst affair of 1763, in which British colonial forces may have indeed distributed smallpox-infected goods to Indians in New England. Churchill argues that Amherst:
was by no means a singular incident, although it is the best documented. Only slightly more ambiguous was the U.S. Armys dispensing of trade blankets to Mandans and other Indians gathered at Fort Clark, on the Missouri River in present-day North Dakota, beginning on June 20, 1837. Far from being trade goods, the blankets had been taken from a military infirmary in St. Louis quarantined for smallpox, and brought upriver aboard the steamboat St. Peters. When the first Indians showed symptoms of the disease on July 14, the post surgeon advised those camped near the post to scatter and seek sanctuary in the villages of healthy relatives there is no conclusive figure as to how many Indians died but estimates run as high as 100,000.
In this version, Churchill elaborates on his initial version, adding new details. A new character appears: the post surgeon. Churchill implies that this character strategically encouraged the Indians to scatter and thus spread the disease. Churchill has also downgraded his outside estimate of the number of victims to only as high as 100,000.
Another example of Churchills difficult relationship with the truth can be found in a footnote.  Here Churchill charges Howard Peckham with suppressing the Amherst story during the 1930s. What Churchill fails to explain is how a historian in the 1930s could possibly have suppressed a story that has been in print since 1851, when Francis Parkman first reported it. Churchill attributes the suppression story to Donald Grinde, another neo-Indian historian. One wonders how Churchilla supposedly expert author of a book on Indian genocidecould be so totally ignorant of such a well-known source as Parkman.
What Really Happened?
Churchills tale of genocide by means of biological warfare is shocking. It is also entirely fraudulent. The only truth in Churchills version of the pandemic is the fact that a smallpox outbreak did occur in 1837, and that it was probably carried into the region on board the steamboat St. Peter. Every other detail of Churchills story must have come from his imagination, because his own sources contradict him on nearly every point.
None of the sources that Churchill cites make any mention of a military infirmary quarantined for smallpox. None of the sources Churchill cites make any mention of U.S. Army soldiers even being in the area of the pandemic, much less being involved with it in any way. Churchills own sources make it clear that Fort Clark was not an Army garrison. It was a remote trading outpost that was privately owned and built by the American Fur Company, and manned by a handful of white traders. It was not an Army fort, nor did it contain soldiers. Not being an Army fort, it did not contain a post surgeon who told Indians to scatter and spread the disease. Churchills own sources make all of this abundantly clear.
According to Churchills own sources, the only government employee present anywhere in the region was the local Indian Agent, who according to eyewitnesses did not distribute blankets or anything else at the time of the pandemic, as he has nothing to give his red children. The government agent functioned to serve the interests of the trading company, and had no independent incentive to infect the Indians.
Journals and letters written by the fur traders who did man Fort Clark make it clear that they were appalled by the epidemic, in part because they had Indian wives and children and were thus a part of the Indian community. The traders also had economic interests in keeping the Indians healthy. The trader Jacob Halseywho himself contracted the smallpoxlamented that the loss to the company by the introduction of this malady will be immense in fact incalculable as our most profitable Indians have died. Obviously the traders had no incentive to wage biological warfare on their own families and their most profitable Indians, much less put their own lives at risk.
Churchill claims that vaccine was deliberately withheld by the army, but this is once again pure fabrication on Churchills part. The very source that Churchill cites in support of this fabrication contradicts him, describing how great care was exercised in the attempt to eliminate the transfer of the smallpox by the traders, and how a physician was dispatched for the sole purpose of vaccinating the affected tribes while the pestilence was at its height.
Contrary to Churchills claims, there was no post surgeon to tell the Indians to scatter. The trader Halsey complained that he:
could not prevent [the Indians] from camping round the Fortthey have caught the disease, notwithstanding I have never allowed an Indian to enter the Fort, or any communication between them & the Sick; but I presume the air was infected with it 
What if the U.S. Army had been active in the region? Given the opportunity, would Army officers have had any motive to use biological warfare against the Mandans? Five years earlier, in 1832, Congress passed an act and appropriated funds to establish a program for vaccinating Indians on the Missouri River. Given this Congressional mandate to protect Indians from smallpox, given the lack of hostilities between the U.S. military and the Mandans or any other Plains Indians at that time, and given the militarys lack of presence in the area of the Mandans at the time, Churchills version of events does not seem at all plausible, even in the context of counterfactual speculation.
Churchills sources make it abundantly clear that the diseases vector was not Churchills mythical smallpox blankets given as gifts. Not a single source mentions any such blankets. The diseases vector was the trader Jacob Halsey himself, who arrived on the St. Peter already infected. The disease was entirely accidental, and as unwelcome by the local whites as by the Indians.
The Mandans do seem to have developed suspicions about the traders as the source of the disease. But the contemporary Mandan grievances did not involve the Army or even mention it. Furthermore, Churchill does not cite Mandan oral history. He cites documentary sources that radically contradict his version, and that show Churchill to have fabricated all of the crucial details.
Legitimating Indianness in Terms of Oppositional Identity
One has only to read the sources that Churchill cites to realize the magnitude of his fraudulent claims for them. We are not dealing with a few minor errors here. We are dealing with a story that Churchill has fabricated almost entirely from scratch. The lack of rationality on Churchills part is mind-boggling. Why would a tenured professor decide to make up dataperhaps the most scandalous possible abuse of the academys normsespecially when in the Amherst affair, Churchill had a verified example of precisely the type of incident he wanted to invoke for his polemic purposes? How did Churchill expect to get away with a fraud that is so easily detected simply by reading the sources he cites in his own footnotes?
The answer comes into focus when you consider that Churchill is not writing for a scholarly audience. He originally wrote this story to inflame the emotions of a jury. Churchill publishes the bulk of his essays in small left-wing presses or in obscure journals that lack a rigorous peer review. He is writing for a non-specialist audience that takes him at his word. Mainly, Churchill is writing for other Indian activists, and for the broader reading population of leftists.
In Indian activist circles, prestige and legitimacy often accrues to those who most successfully express an oppositional identity. The way the equation works within the movement is that the more opposition you express, the more Indian you become. Anti-white racism within AIM is largely perpetrated by peoplesuch as Churchillwho are insecure in their own Indian identity. Hence Churchill indicts the U.S. Army by fabricating a new, even more disturbing atrocity, thus raising the stakes on Indian grievances, in order to garner acclaim as a real Indian activist whose legitimacy is beyond question. Given the movements anti-intellectual environment, few are likely to bother tracking down Churchills citations, especially considering that his core audience is already primed to believe such accusations against the U.S. government.
Is it conceivable that one could become a holocaust denier by denying a holocaust that never happened? Is it possible in todays political climate to deny a non-existent genocide, and retain your reputation within the academy?
Ward Churchill has carefully framed his smallpox blanket canard in precisely these terms. Anyone who would speak truth to fraud must be willing to face Churchills trademark firestorm of ad hominem accusations. Churchill accuses his white interlocutors of being neo-Nazis, his Indian interlocutors as being hang-around-the-fort sellouts.
It is obvious how research fraud harms the academy, which is why it is the ultimate sin among scholars. But do frauds such as Churchills also do damage to the efficacy of Indian political activism, especially activism on behalf of historical memory?
Ultimately, yes. Ward Churchill has attained status as the most prominent voice currently articulating Indian political interests to the broader left. When Churchills credibility is shreddeda process begun in the pages of Wicazo Sa Review by John LaVelle, one that is being continued in this article, and one that will certainly not end herewhat will be the result in the way the broader polity views Indian issuesespecially considering that many interested readers were first introduced to Indian issues through the writings of Ward Churchill?
The fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf comes to mind here. True historical instances of genocide may well become delegitimated by the promiscuous promulgation of mythical genocides such as Churchills. The triviality of Churchills falsifications comes into sharper focus when you consider that he originally invented his story of the Mandan genocide in order to evade an indictment that carried a maximum penalty of a $1500 fine and six months in jail.
Maybe we can't get Churchill fired, but we can certainly make sure he's discredited as the fraud that he is...
The treatment of the aboriginals by the government of the U.S. was a fairly straightforward military conquest, full of atrocities (the Nez Perce, the Cherokee, Sand Creek, etc.) and leaving us little of which to be proud. But it did not include biological warfare, nor was it an organized attept to wipe out American Indians. It is important not to ignore it, but it is also important not to simply make stuff up.
I have heard the smallpox blankets story many times and I'm ashamed to say I believed it. It's quite a revelation to learn the source.
He also came from Sangamon State University, a Marxist school set up by anti-War protesters from the Vietnam era and Woodstock leftovers. Sangamon didn't have a grading system nor traditional curricula. What's also strange is that they didn't appear to have a Bachelor's degree program at the time that Ward Churchill claims to have gotten his... details, details...
THIS HAS BEEN SHAMELESSY LIFTED FROM ANOTHER SITE:
In 1970 Sangamon State University, the smallest of Illinois' 12 state universities, was a different kind of place. Many students were not graded, for example, but received individualized evaluations instead. There were no large classes. No deans or department chairs--in fact, no departments. Interdisciplinary courses were the norm. Faculty were hired for their interest in teaching--without teaching assistants--and had no publish-or-perish requirement. SSU was designated "the public affairs university of Illinois" at a time when public affairs, for many of the faculty at least, meant opposing the war in Vietnam and devising alternatives to mainstream institutions. It was an upper-division institution designed for older students transferring in from community colleges and traditional four-year institutions less suited to their needs; the average age of undergraduates was over 30. Faculty and students who were around at the time describe those days with obvious affection.
In the interests of truth in advertising, though, SSU might more accurately have been deemed a university with at best radical potential and at worst radical pretensions. In hindsight, its initial design was flawed. From the very beginning it was vulnerable both to the external pressures of the market and to reactionary local elites and political conservatives in the state legislature and the governor's office. The radical interpretation that some of the new faculty and students had given to the "public affairs mandate" they had authorized came as a surprise. Within two years of the school's founding, SSU's administrators began to purge policies and personnel that stood in the way of normalization, beginning more than two decades of struggle between competing visions of what kind of university Sangamon was to be. Inevitable faculty debate over educational policy has almost always allowed administrators to selectively claim they were merely responding to those faculty desires most in keeping with their agenda, such as the conversion to a four year university. With the recent transition from SSU to UIS putting the administration and its faculty supporters firmly in control, the initial radical potential has now been almost totally gutted.
Is Churchill's middle name "Bellesiles"??? Their scholarly veracity seems quite similar.
While I despise tenure sometimes I also believe in the First Amendment and in academic freedom. No professor should ever be fired for expressing an unpopular thought; that's the essence of the First Amendment and academic inquiry. But propagating demonstrable lies is counter to every principle of the Academy. If liars are allowed to fluourish under the protection of tenure the institution will collapse. I now believe Ward Churchill is toast. It's time to go after more of these academic frauds, and there are some who have very high profiles.
Yes. Academic freedom protects his rather stupid political ideas, but not fraudulent scholarship. It's rare to get someone for fraud, but it does occur. Thomas Brown's article is a good start.
Interestingly enough, the well known painter George Catlin visited with and memorialized the Mandans just before they were almost wiped out by the smallpox epidemic. They are one of the best documented Indian groups. Besides, his paintings are gorgeous. We saw an extensive collection in D.C. year before last.
Medicine man Mah-to-he-ha in his ceremonial regalia.
I've read pros and cons about Amherst's guilt, but the letters I read seemed to indicate that he was guilty.
Thanks. I just sent the link to the article to UW-Whitewater's chancellor, Jack Miller, (email@example.com) with a polite note to please consider its contents when making his decision.
They don't look Welsh to me, but what do I know? My grandmother was part Welsh, but still . . .
The more I read about this guy, the more I believe he's mentally unstable.
In other words, they knew . . . they just didn't know WHY.
In so doing he has the right to express whatever views he wishes -- short of treason, libel, fraud, perjury and the most extreme and direct provocation to riot or insurrection (that is before a crowd already primed to act with violence). Moreover -- and this is where the 1st comes in -- the GOVERNMENT IS FORBIDDEN EXPRESSLY to infringe upon that common law right. You see, the Constitution is a charter upon the Government's activities, not a charter constraining or permitting any action of the People's. That is so except for two specific clauses that do restrain the People, by their assent of ratification of the Charter. One such clause is the allowance for grant of copyright and patent. The other is treason.
Where does government get the authority to restrain the free actions of the People -- through the common law.
You will find this interesting.
Thanks for posting this.
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