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Ald. Ed Burke’s ‘peace pipe’ remark offends Native Americans

Ed Burke 14th ward alderman listens while Mayor Rahm Emanuel joins U.S. Department Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu inside Wrigley

Ed Burke, 14th ward alderman listens while Mayor Rahm Emanuel joins U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu inside the Wrigley Building to discuss efforts to improve the energy efficiency of buildings across Chicago and spur job creation on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 7, 2012 8:41AM

Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th), the City Council’s resident historian, had hoped to turn the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Dearborn into a “Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation” with descendents of the Native Americans involved in that deadly battle.

Instead, he made matters worse — by using a term many Native Americans consider derogatory and

tantamount to a racial slur.

It happened Tuesday during a City Council hearing on Burke’s resolution calling for the planning to begin on an appropriate city celebration.

Burke suggested that descendents of the Native Americans involved and of the occupants of Fort Dearborn may want to “smoke a peace pipe” as part of the bi-centennial celebration of the Aug. 15 battle of the War of 1812.

The remark infuriated Joseph Podlasek, executive and technical director of the American Indian Center of Chicago on the North Side, who shook his head as Burke spoke the words.

“That’s very offensive,” said Podlasek. Podlasek even said he warned Burke not to use that expression during an earlier phone conversation, but “he ignored what my advice was to him.”

He explained that suggestions of “smoking a peace pipe” feed into racial stereotypes about Native Americans that should have been put to rest decades ago.

“It’s a ceremonial pipe,” he said. “ … Our pipes are very sacred items to us. We work with the Field, with the Smithsonian — many museums. They don’t use that language. That’s 40 years ago, 50 years ago. … Those are living, breathing parts of our culture. That pipe is very sacred to me. That would be [like] calling someone in your family some derogatory name. That’s the way we look at elements of our culture. It’s part of who we are.”

Frances Hagemann, an educator and historian with Ojibwe ancestry, was equally offended.

“It isn’t a peace pipe. The ceremonial pipe is a calumet. … It’s a part of the culture — the sharing of the tobacco. It’s about people being and working together honoring each other,” Hagemann said.

Informed that Native Americans had taken offense to his remark, Burke said, “If I’ve insulted him, I apologize. I think the term ‘peace pipe’ is something that’s commonly understood in North America to be a symbol of reconciliation and conciliation. That was my only intention.”

So he didn’t intend it as a slur?

“No. I viewed it as in opportunity — if that is a symbol of reconciliation and friendship — to incorporate that into the commemoration ceremonies. What I said was, if that was a tradition in the Pottawatomi nation that, perhaps, that can be included in this kind of a day of reconciliation.”

But Podlasek also accused the City Council’s resident historian of pushing through a “one-sided, stereotypical” resolution that “does not give credit to Native people at all.” Burke’s resolution makes no mention of the Pottawatomis.

At the time of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, Podlasek said, “These were Pottawatomi lands. We need to tell the story from that point. Fort Dearborn folks were warned and advised not to move at that time and they felt they didn’t need to and moved forward into Pottawatomi land, which then, our warriors just defended our lands. That’s not the story that’s told. It doesn’t share anything different about the history of Fort Dearborn and the Native perspective.”

Burke denied that his resolution was lopsided, then made matters worse.

“We should smoke a peace pipe with him, too,” he said of Podlasek.

He added: “I don’t have any pride of ownership. But by the same token, we can’t rewrite history. It is what it is. The land here that we occupy now as this great metropolis was ceded to the federal government by the terms of the Treaty of Greenville, Ohio after the Battle of Fallen Timbers. So, it is what it is.”

Thirty-five soldiers, 12 militiamen, two women and 12 children were killed in the Battle of Fort Dearborn. So were as many as 15 Native Americans. That’s even though the battle only lasted 15 minutes.

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