200 Years Later, Chicago Battle Sparks New Fight

Local Native American leader Joseph Podlasek stands next to a plaque commemorating the Battle of Fort Dearborn on Monday, June 18, 2012, on Chicago's Southeast side.

CHICAGO - Just because a battle happened in 1812 doesn't mean there isn't anything left to fight about.

Chicago Alderman Edward Burke has learned that for himself as he's pushed for a "Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation" on Aug. 15 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, which left about 60 Americans and 15 Native Americans dead.

From offering a resolution about the battle that had much more to say about soldiers than Native Americans to a speech in which he described in grisly detail how Indians scalped and tortured their enemies, Burke has angered and offended some Native Americans. At one point he suggested it was time to "smoke a peace pipe," but that phrase also got him in trouble.

"This is what kids are learning today," said Joseph Podlasek, executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago. "These types of stereotypes and myths are several generations old, and people tend to believe them."

Burke's comment about a peace pipe took an item sacred to Native Americans and reduced it to the status of a movie prop, Podlasek said, citing it as yet another example of the kind of trivializations and distortions of Native American traditions and history that he and others have spoken out against, including during a decades-long fight over the University of Illinois' now-retired mascot, Chief Illiniwek.

There's long been dispute between Native Americans and mainstream historians about what happened at Fort Dearborn and in other battles involving American Indians. Three years ago, the city of Chicago changed the name of a park at the approximate location to Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, abandoning the former reference to what happened at Fort Dearborn as a "massacre."

The fight happened during the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain. As U.S. soldiers and civilians evacuated Fort Dearborn, they were attacked by Potawatomis allied with the British.

Podlasek didn't dispute the outcome of the battle or the number of dead but said there's no evidence to support the violent descriptions of atrocities recited by people like Burke. There's no evidence scalps were taken at the fort, Podlasek said, and he questioned how much can be known about what was, in the end, a 15-minute battle.

"How come every time native people win it's a massacre, and when we lose it's just a war?" he asked.

For his part, Burke, whose fascination with history is evident to anyone who has ever heard him quote everyone Ralph Waldo Emerson and Albert Einstein at council meetings, tried to soothe bruised feelings.

After Podlasek wondered why the resolution detailed information about the soldiers, including some names, but little about those on the other side, Burke added the names of tribes and leaders who supported a treaty letting the U.S. acquire land for the fort. The resolution approved by the City Council also includes a plea to city officials to "encourage thoughtful and inclusive discussion and education involving Native American history and culture."

On Monday, after a speech to a Chicago civic club about the battle, Burke said he made the changes in an effort to "get the Native American contingent on board." Then he delved once again into the battle's gruesome details, talking about wounded soldiers who were "tortured to death" and "possibly burned ... at the stake."

Podlasek said he remains bothered by what he sees as the alderman's spreading of misinformation about the battle.

"How would he feel if I said that kind of thing about his heritage?" he asked.

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