Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Churchill Trial, Day Whatever: The Destruction of Michael Yellow Bird

Yes, Ward was supposed to take the stand today, but CU law prof and head of the Churchill investigating committee Mimi Wesson was still on the stand when I got there for the afternoon session, then came Sumi "Hegemonic free expression" Cho, and then, miraculously, Michael Yellow Bird. O'Rourke's cross of Yellow Bird was a thing of beauty, and a foretaste of what's in store for the Big Guy. It was a game-changer, a turning of the tide, the Comeback Kid coming back, and any other cliche you can think of.


But there's no question that Patrick O'Rourke, CU's lead attorney, made a fool out of one of Churchill's most dogged academic supporters, and exposed for the convenient fiction it is the claim (made over and over again in this trial) that "different standards" are required to judge scholarly work in ethnic or American Indian studies.

Yellow Bird, a "citizen of the Sahnish (Arikara) and Hidatsa Nations", director of something called the "Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Critical and Intuitive Thinking" and associate professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Kansas, after being qualified as an expert in indigenous studies, was questioned by one of Churchill lawyer David Lane's associates.

The subject was the famous Mandan smallpox epidemic at Fort Clark in 1837. Under the lawyer's friendly questioning Yellow Bird pointed out how the investigative report's section on the incident used sources that "once again" blamed Indians for the outbreak. Some accounts, the report says, tell how three Arikara women traveled upstream on the St. Peter's, the boat on which the smallpox developed, then disembarked at Fort Clark after possibly being exposed to the disease, then spreading it because they were hoors.

These women, Yellow Bird said, were put in a "really bad light,"essentially called "prostitutes" who had themselves infected their own people--just another example of blaming Indians for the "death and destruction" white people had brought on them.

He also sneered at another possible explanation for the outbreak the committee mentioned, that a Mandan had gotten aboard the St. Peter's and acted "Like Rambo sneaking up to steal the blankets, so now he's the one who started the epidemic."

How, Lane's associate asked, moving along, do oral traditions work without being written down?

Brain plasticity, YB responded. Neural pathways. It only takes a couple of cues. He also claimed that "all this criticism" of the accuracy of oral traditions has been "pretty much debunked." I did not know that.

O'Rourke began his cross examination by noting that Yellow Bird, Evelyn Hu-Dehart and Churchill all questioned the "master narrative"--in this case, white folks' version of Indian history--especially in how the narrative changes over time to cover over inconvenient facts. "Where the story keeps changing somebody's probably not telling the truth," O'Rourke said. "Correct?" Yellow Bird smelled the rat:

YB: Maybe, or it could be incomplete information.

O'Rourke then asked YB (sorry, already tired of spelling it out) if it were he who had been accused of research misconduct, wouldn't he "respond by describing how you reached your conclusions and where your [information?] came from. True?"

YB: No. If there were sources I said I was going to protect, I wouldn't say where I got them

O'R: You ever seen Professor Churchill say "I'm protecting a source"?

YB: No. [. . .]

There was a whole lot about protecting sources from YB, including mention of "sacred sources"--elders and medicine men and the like--but nothing about Churchill ever having used that particular excuse.

O'Rourke began wading through the several versions of the Fort Clark story Churchill offered to the committee. In the first, he noted, Churchill said he relied on traditional written sources, not even mentioning oral tradition.

O'R: Now, if you were relying on oral history, would you write that you were relying on traditional written sources [to protect a source]? . . . You wouldn't make up another story about "here's what I relied on [written documents] . . ." would you?

YB: . . . I would have integrity and protect the source that could be compromised or attacked, so that shows scholarly integrity in that sense . . . [paraphrasing and skipping some stuff I couldn't decipher]. Sometimes people go to great lengths to hide sources. American Indians Studies is an emerging discipline, and a lot of these voices that have been censored and trivialized, a lot of them punched in the press [?] . . . Some of these people are from Indian boarding schools, where they've been tortured and beaten, and whenever they talk about these things they're accused of making things up, accused of lying . . . and they've learned not to trust people. It's like having a big family secret . . . and you protect that source. . . . American Indian Studies is really a different discipline . . . that has to contend with a really horrible history. It's really a horrible history. And sometimes if that's what it takes to protect your sources . . .

Unfortunately, O'Rourke noted, in another version submitted to the committee, Churchill actually named his alleged source, sort of blowing away that argument.

O'R brought up yet a third version (this one he named: submission H: "The Fort Clark Smallpox Pandemic Revisited: A Case Study of Genocide and Denial") and asked, "Do you see how this is changing over time"?

More word (or maybe ward) salad from YB, the upshot of which was that there should have been an American Indian scholar on the committee, which would have precluded this problem at the very start because he would have understood oral history and been able to explain it to whitey, er, the other committee members.

O'Rourke moved on to Churchill's book Since Predator Came, in which Churchill says flatly that the U.S. Army knowingly distributed smallpox blankets to the Indians, and backs it up by citing Russell Thornton's American Indian Holocaust and Survival. Naturally, there's nothing at all about smallpox-infected blankets in the pages Ward cites. O'R again asked YB if he wouldn't expect to be able to find a source where it was cited. YB, though it took him a while, finally came up with this gem by way of minimization:

Scholars do this kind of thing all the time.

This was to be something of a theme. For example, O'Rourke asked YB: If I were doing oral history, I couldn't go in and add additional details that I made up just because it makes for a better story?"

YB: People do it all the time. . . Look at the Bible. . . Look at stories about Christmas and Thanksgiving and . . . it's a very common practice that people do. Scholars do the same thing.

There was much more, of course--the (non-existent) St. Louis smallpox infirmary; the (non-existent) St. Peter's infirmary; the (non-existent) Fort Clark doctor; the (non-occurring) "scattering." O'R went after them all, forcing YB to emit clouds of argle-bargle to escape (which he didn't)--but it's too late to go into it.

Oh, one more thing: O'Rourke ended with a little surprise, noting that Ward's article in the special "Academic Freedom" edition of Works and Days, which came out about two weeks ago, contains yet another version of the Mandan smallpox incident. In this one, O'R said, Churchill dispenses altogether with the St. Louis infirmary. Instead, a fur company employee named William May brought the smallpox blankets from Maryland.

It's hard to get across how different from his earlier forays O'Rourke's cross-examination of YB was. He was sharp but polite, and after each fogout of verbiage from Yellow Bird, he'd say, "Okay," with just the tiniest stretch of the word as if to not quite imply, "well, if that's how you want to answer (you miserable pudknocker)," and move on to the next question. He was always ready with the refuting quote or (existent or non-existent) cite. It was dee-lightful.

It was also the first time I'd seen the jury obviously regarding a Churchill witness with the ol' hairy eyeball. At times they looked very skeptical indeed. O'Rourke's cross of Yellow Bird made David Lane's oft-repeated "All Ward Churchill, all the time," sound very hollow. More, please.

Update: At one point Yellow Bird commented that Churchill's assertions should be challenged by others in his field, and "'That's why it's important that this remain in the Academy and not in the courts' he told the jury." As a commenter at the Camera blog asked, "Uh, who brought this debate into the courts?"

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