When Times Collide: Ward Churchill's Use of an Epideictic Moment to Ground Forensic Argument

Article excerpt

1991 marked the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. Around the world, and in the United States, celebrations were planned and held. Jose Barreiro's introduction to the special issue of the Northeast Indian Quarterly dedicated to "American Indian Perspectives on the Quincentenary" explains the significance of this moment: "To the degree that Quincentenary spectacles exalt Columbus as metaphor for the expansion of Western materialist culture a debate is joined that focuses issues of cultural values survival, environmental ethics and practice and sustainability in economic activity" (2). (1) Many Native Americans saw Columbus Day as a moment that called forth deliberation and debate (Barreiro 59), even as Euramericans participated in a moment of epideictic celebration. (2)

During Denver's Columbus Day parade, Native Americans sought to publicize their arguments by engaging in civil disobedience, leading to arrests and a trial. (3) Fifty Native Americans, many of them members of the American Indian Movement (AIM), briefly blocked the parade. The protesters chanted "No Parades for Murderers," and poured two gallons of blood-colored water on the street (Johnson A8). Russell Means, "who can be credited with breaking through the media wall more often than any other national Indian personality" (Barreiro 14), poured a pint of blood on a statue of Columbus, explaining "Columbus makes Hitler look like a juvenile delinquent" (qtd. in Barreiro 14). As a result of their blockade, four protesters were arrested for refusing to obey a lawful police order, obstructing a public thoroughfare, and disturbing the peace: Ward Churchill, Russell Means, Glenn T. Morris, and Cahuilla Red Elk (a.k.a. Margaret Martinez). If convicted, their combined offenses would carry merely a $1,500 fine and six months' incarceration.

As part of the legal proceedings surrounding the trial of these four protesters, activist and academic Ward Churchill authored a legal brief that was used initially to support a motion to dismiss the charges. (4) This brief argued that the seemingly innocuous Columbus Day celebrations were "expressions of non-indigenous sensibility which contribute to the perpetuation of genocidal policies against Indians" and represented the "celebration ... of [Native American] destruction" (Churchill, "Bringing" 43, 44). Although charges were not dismissed, a Denver jury acquitted the four protesters on June 26, 1992. In post-verdict interviews, jurors indicated that they had been persuaded that the Columbus Day celebrants and the city, not the defendants, were guilty of a crime (editor's note qtd. in Churchill, Indians 46). In addition, Denver canceled its Columbus Day celebrations for nine subsequent years, primarily to avoid protests from Native American groups (Cortez; Fong; Huspeni; Jackson; Lowe; Yang). Even if cancellation does not signal wider social acceptance of the argument that Euramericans committed genocide against Native Americans, the briefs arguments demonstrating the legality of the protests (and the criminality of the parade) did achieve one desired effect: suspension of Columbus Day parades.

By traditional standards of effects, the briefs argument clearly was successful, both in acquitting the protesters and in laying the groundwork for cancellation of subsequent parades. However, the effects of Churchill's brief are not confined to Denver or to the legal proceedings concerning the four protesters. (5) Churchill, a professor of Communication and of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, is Creek and an enrolled Keetoowah Band Cherokee. He also is a member of the Governing Council of the Colorado Chapter of AIM. He has been national spokesperson for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee, a delegate to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, and a jurist with the International People's Tribunal. His positions as a professor and an indigenous people's activist afford Churchill numerous opportunities to present his argument. …