Gary Witherspoon: The Churchill Firing ... Research misconduct is in the eye of the beholder

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Gary Witherspoon is a professor of anthropology and American Indian studies at the University of Washington.]

Many conservatives believe the firing of University of Colorado Professor Ward Churchill will now reduce liberal politics in academia. Many liberals believe that his firing will uphold high standards of academic scholarship. Both are wrong — because the firing of Churchill reveals a very pernicious kind of exclusionary dogmatism in scholarly research and writing and media reporting. The firing of Professor Churchill for alleged research misconduct ignored evidence to the contrary provided by professors who know his work best, ignored evidence from a committee of scholars who found the investigating committee itself guilty of research misconduct, and ignored all Indigenous evidence and perspectives that are critical of Eurocentric versions of the history of the European invasion of the Americas.

Research misconduct is in the eye of the beholder. Euroamerican teachers and scholars have taught and written for several centuries that Columbus discovered America. That is a more profound and easily provable case of research misconduct than anything of which Churchill has been accused. The Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been here at least 13,000 years and more likely, according to recent DNA research, 50,000 years. This Columbus lie, which is at the foundation of Eurocentric American history, dehumanizes all those who are now called American Indians by discrediting any of their accomplishments as not being human accomplishments. Everyone who has perpetuated this myth over the years should be found guilty of deceit, research misconduct and racism, according to the standards of the investigating committee.

The 1987 edition of the standard American history textbook, American History: A Survey begins by saying, “For thousands of centuries — centuries in which human races were evolving, forming communities and building the beginnings of national civilizations in Africa, Asia and Europe — the continents we know as the Americas stood empty of mankind and its works” The book informed its readers that American history “is the story of the creation of a civilization where none existed.” Now that is a very egregious form of “research misconduct.” That statement bears no resemblance to the truth and serves only to continue to misinform and to indoctrinate students in Eurocentric lies.

The committee should have read the 2005 national best selling book 1491, by Charles Mann, for a thorough critique of the statements quoted in American History, and for extensive support for Churchill’s arguments about the history of the Americas. Summarizing research and writing over the last 30-40 years, Mann shows that in 1491 the population of the Americas surpassed that of Europe, that American cities such as Tenochtitlan were larger than any found in Europe at the same time and, unlike European cities, had running water, beautiful botanical gardens and clean streets. I would add that nowhere in Indigenous America in the areas of my research (North and Central America) have any jails been found, so far as I have been able to determine. The earliest American cities were thriving before the Egyptians built their pyramids, and the feats of Indigenous American agriculture were unparalleled anywhere else. The journal Science recently pronounced the development of corn from its ancient noble grass ancestors as probably the greatest botanical achievement of genetic engineering in human history....

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