Recent events in Chicago over the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Dearborn have pitted Chicago 14th Ward Alderman Edward M. Burke against American Indian Center of Chicago Executive Director Joe Podlasek, a citizen of the Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe in Northern Wisconsin.
The first offense occurred June 5 when Burke suggested the descendants and the occupants of Fort Dearborn “smoke a peace pipe” as part of the anniversary celebrations. This happened even after Podlasek had warned Burke to not use the term.
“He went ahead and did it in a public meeting less than 12 hours later,” Podlasek said. “There’s this huge ignorance we [Native Americans] have to deal with.”
Burke’s initial resolution marking a “Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation” didn’t sit well with Podlasek either who said it didn’t include the Native perspective of events at Fort Dearborne, a battle that occurred during the War of 1812. Podlasek does give Burke credit for changing the resolution to be more inclusive of Natives though.
But Burke didn’t stop with the stereotypical remarks even knowing he had offended Podlasek and others. At a civic club meeting on June 18 Burke described details about how Indians scalped and tortured their enemies during the Battle of Fort Dearborn, which Podlasek says isn’t historically accurate.
He said the things Burke said were actually “worse than his first comment,” and that “we’re going backwards.”
Podlasek said it really boils down to one thing: “There’s a huge need for cultural education in this area.”
When asked how these kinds of misrepresentations affect people’s perceptions of Native Americans, Podlasek said: “It’s huge… We have to break the stereotypical Hollywood images… If we’re not in regalia they don’t believe we’re Native people, things like that are still very much alive, which is a shame. We have a lot of professional people in many fields. If you want to know and learn, come to our communities across the country. You can pick about any state and there’s an Indian representative.”
The American Indian Center of Chicago provides programs through its education department as well as a professional development curriculum in the community.
“We want to teach teachers that are reaching kids outside our community so they get a better understanding of our community at a young age,” Podlasek said.
He said one of the biggest problems in the state of Illinois and most of the Midwest is a lack of awareness of Native communities.
“In Chicago specifically… we’re a forgotten community,” he explained. “In Illinois there’s no tribal land… we’re just not on their radar enough and that happens a lot across the country.”
Podlasek decided to start the cultural education with Burke, he invited him to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago so the two of them could go through the collections there and Podlasek could teach him about Native culture and history . Podlasek said he has received no response to his invitation.