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February 6, 2007

Birds of a feather: A Native American group is protesting something a WHAS radio jock said. Should we be surprised?

Matt Cordes: a full-blooded member of the Dakota subset of the Sioux Nation tribe, sprinkles tobacco during a prayer for healing in downtown’s Founder’s Square last weekend. Cordes, his wife Lynny (left, behind the tree) and a small group were protesting comments by W“Why does everything America has ever done bother these people? If they hate America so much, and want to apologize for everything that ever happened, that happened hundreds of years ago, you know what, just go to Canada and go bug the Canucks. Because I’m up to here with you.” —Francene Cucinello, WHAS radio talk show host, during a Thanksgiving program. She’s referring to a Native American woman in California who asked the public school her child attended to stop dressing kids up as Indians for Thanksgiving celebrations, because it was offensive to her as a Native person. The school complied.Matt Cordes is fondling an eagle feather in his chapped, meaty hands and talking about the indignity he feels when he thinks about the fact that what he’s doing right now is a federal offense. We’re sitting in his late-model Ford Explorer just before noon last Saturday, parked aside Founder’s Square on Muhammad Ali Boulevard just past Fifth Street, and the wind is wild, contouring this SUV to find resistance only in its large side mirrors.Fronting the park’s south side are about 15 protestors, many of Native American descent, settling in for a daylong affair by the Red Road Awareness campaign. A subset is huddled in a tight circle dancing, both a means to keep warm and, Cordes says, an expression of a culture that, sadly, exists more as a token than a recognized set of firm spiritual beliefs. The protest is over a nine-minute segment on the Francene Show, the WHAS radio talk program hosted by Francene Cucinello, which aired last Thanksgiving. In it, the peppery host skewered a third-grade teacher in California for a lesson on Thanksgiving in which he showed up to class wearing a black “pilgrim hat” and stole things from the students, saying he “discovered” them and, therefore, they were his.Audibly exasperated, Cucinello went on: “Then, of course, there are the people from the National Congress of American Indians who say (at this point her voice shifts to a mocking tone) ‘schoolchildren need an accurate, historical picture. This stuff is not to be taken lightly. It wasn’t happy for the Indians. You can’t just throw an Indian costume on a child.’”Like the federal law prohibiting possession of certain migratory bird feathers — the eagle feather is a sacred object to the Dakota tribe, a part of the larger Sioux Nation, and of which Cordes is full-blood — Cordes and the others argue Cucinello’s comments buttress the lack of respect in modern America for Native culture. They’ve asked for, and been denied (because so much time has passed), time on her show to rebut.For her part, Cucinello maintains that she said nothing wrong, and that her show is one of opinions — both hers and callers’.The Red Road Awareness campaign, created as a direct response to Cucinello’s comments, has held two protests of the Francene Show — this one and another a couple weeks ago at Clear Channel’s Louisville headquarters. Cordes says they’ve used this incident not so much to malign Cucinello as to call attention to Native Americans living in Louisville — according to the 2000 U.S. Census, American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 0.2 percent of Louisville’s population and 0.9 of the national citizenry.They met at Founder’s Square because it’s home to a healing tree planted last November by Arvol Looking Horse, carrier of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe for the Sioux. The story the protestors have created by calling out Cucinello is in part about what we, as a society, need to do to allow Native Americans their place in American culture, starting with a healthy respect for their beliefs — placing them in context with Christianity, Judaism, Islam and so forth. Concomitantly, the story is about standards to which we hold those on our airwaves. Should Cucinello worry about crossing a line into speech that can be interpreted as bigotry? How much credence should we give to talk radio at all?Guys like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have no credibility among those who don’t share their points of view, mostly because they distort facts and lie to support those points. Though typically conservative in her politics, Cucinello has not fallen prey to the dogma of the Far Right. Lynny Cordes, Matt’s wife, says Cucinello should be more culturally sensitive. “She needs to harness her emotions before she opens her mouth.” On the contrary, Cucinello says she’s held to a lower standard than the average person for political correctness. “I think what you’re asking is if my opinions have to be more sanitized or carefully couched,” she wrote in an e-mail response to questions from LEO. “Some hosts do both. I do neither. I just say what I think.” Indeed, arguing that talk radio has made its dime on a PC reputation is absurd. That may even be the antithesis of its charm. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com