An essay written by Casey Kelly, visiting assistant professor in the College of Communication’s Media, Rhetoric and Culture (MRC) program, appears in the latest issue of Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, a peer-reviewed journal published four times a year by the National Communication Association.
The essay, “Blood-Speak: Ward Churchill and the Racialization of American Indian Identity,” argues that criticism of Churchill, an author on Native American issues, may be based on racial prejudice. Churchill was dismissed from teaching ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder (UCB) after suggesting that unlawful U.S. foreign policy prompted the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“This is a very important publication for me,” Kelly said, adding that the journal typically rejects 90 percent of all submitted articles. He and Assistant Professor Kristen Hoerl, also of MRC, coauthored another essay selected for Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies in 2010.
Kelly writes that after Churchill was dismissed, his “scholarship and personal identity were subjected to a hostile public investigation.” Charges included Churchill’s alleged misrepresentation of himself as having Muskogee, Creek and Cherokee ancestry to gain preferred minority status in hiring at UCB.
Kelly said his essay “concerns the discourse and language used to cast Churchill out of the American Indian studies community.” Opponents, including some Native Americans, used what Kelly calls “blood-speak,” the concept that a person must prove that he has a certain percentage or higher of Native American ancestry to be legally recognized as a tribal member.
“They claimed Churchill is not a ‘real Indian,’ ” Kelly said, “and should have his whole research dismissed” — research that has advanced Native causes. “While it is strategic in some circumstances, using blood as a standard for community has had negative impact historically on indigenous communities in the United States.
Europeans introduced “blood-speak” thinking in the New World, according to Kelly, and it still can be seen in the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs policy limiting benefits to only those who have one-fourth or more Indian blood. That policy “continually shrinks the number of legally defined Indians in the United States,” Kelly said, reducing their sovereign nations’ political power.
“The question is: In the process of repudiating Churchill, is it worth the associated risk?” Kelly said. “Churchill’s scholarship should be judged by whether or not it advances social justice and indigenous causes.”
Blood-speak also promotes racial stereotypes, according to Kelly. “We get stuck in an idea that Indians look a certain way. It doesn’t recognize that we live in hybrid society with people of mixed race. It leaves little room for people whose multiple ethnic identities intersect.”
Kelly has covered similar ideas in a Butler first-year seminar on Native Culture. In spring 2012, he will teach a new MRC elective, “Representations of Race and Difference.” It will look at how racial categories are used in public discourse, TV, film and other communication.
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