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Burke’s ‘peace pipe’ flap: I didn’t know, either

Updated: July 7, 2012 8:50AM

OK, I’ll admit it. I didn’t know that blithely referring to smoking a “peace pipe” was considered culturally offensive to Native Americans.

I’ll bet many of you didn’t know, either.

Then again, I’d like to think it would have struck me as such a trite cliche that I would have avoided the phrase just on principle, especially in the context Ald. Ed Burke put it to use Tuesday — the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Dearborn.

In suggesting that descendants of the Potawatomi and the occupants of Fort Dearborn “smoke a peace pipe” to mark the events of Aug. 15, 1812, Burke failed to recognize many Native Americans consider that an insulting reference to one of their most sacred traditions.

As explained to me, it was a little like someone suggesting to the Irish-Catholic alderman that he observe the anniversary by holding Communion and making sure there was plenty of beer on hand.

It’s not surprising — or particularly worthy of condemnation — that Burke would have made such a slip while introducing his resolution proclaiming a “Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation.”

What’s rather hard to understand is why Burke would have done so after being explicitly warned against using the phrase by a local Native American leader with whom he’d previewed his remarks, or why he repeated the insult a second time to City Hall reporter Fran Spielman while offering only a qualified apology.

At least Burke didn’t refer to it as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, the name long taught to Chicago schoolchildren before Native American sensibilities were taken into account.

I’m guessing the difference that will arise between us on this “peace pipe” matter is that now that we know, some of us will try to be more thoughtful in the future while others will continue to consider it their birthright to dismiss the Native American point of view as overly sensitive.

What some regard as being “politically correct,” I just view as being polite.

Of all the minority cultures you would think we would have learned to respect by now, the American Indian probably should top the list ­— that whole inconvenient business about them being here first.

Yet the opposite seems to be true. It’s as if having nearly wiped out the Native American people, we feel we are forevermore entitled to disrespect their culture.

I don’t claim to be particularly enlightened in this regard. I never took up the cause against Chief Illiniwek, whose halftime dances were something I greatly enjoyed as a kid. The Blackhawks logo has never bothered me. But I’m not too old to try to learn a thing or two.

That’s why I called Jim Denomie, board president of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston and host of Voices from the Circle, a Native American radio program produced in Chicago and heard nationally.

Denomie, a citizen of the Bad River Chippewa, said he can understand the frustration of Native Americans who were present for Burke’s peace pipe crack.

He compared it to meeting with African Americans on the subject of slavery reparations and someone suggesting: “Why don’t we just sit down and share some watermelon?”

“Smoking a pipe of peace is a sacred ritual,” Denomie said. “In most cases, you have to be invited to do that to begin with.”

Denomie said it is similarly offensive to bandy about the words chief, squaw and papoose in referring to Native Americans. Squaw is considered a particular insult.

“It kind of shows your ignorance,” Denomie said.

Denomie believes most Americans ignore the point of view of Native Americans because they comprise just 1 percent of the population.

“In America, might makes right,” said Denomie, so the attitude is “this ethnic group is not perceived to be a threat, so say what you want, do what you want.”

When called out for his offense, Burke offered the now standard apology of choice for politicians: “If I’ve insulted him, I apologize.”

Alderman, you did offend him ­— and others. If that wasn’t your intent, there’s no shame in offering a real apology.

Look on the bright side: This should increase the interest in your scheduled June 18 speech on the Battle of Fort Dearborn before the City Club of Chicago. You just might want to rewrite it a little.

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