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USA: Native Americans Take Offense at Osama Nickname

This post is part of our special coverage The Death of Osama Bin Laden and Indigenous Rights.

For the United States government, “Geronimo EKIA” (Enemy Killed In Action) is the code for Osama Bin Laden's death. For many Native Americans, however, comparing their folk hero Geronimo to the world's number one terrorist is offensive.

Geronimo was the most famous Chiricahua Apache figure who fought against Mexican and US armies to defend Apache lands. He eventually surrendered to the US army and lived as a prisoner of war.

Apache leader Geronimo in 1887. Image available in public domain.

Apache leader Geronimo in 1887. Image available in public domain.

Matt Thompson at Savage Minds – a blog ran by anthropology scholars – writes:

[W]hat does a nineteenth century Apache leader have to do with twenty first century Saudi millionaire? Perhaps nothing when viewed from an academic standpoint, it seems more like a non sequitur. But when read as expression of an underlying ideology, one that has legitimated American military action for centuries, the answer is: quite a lot, actually.

[…] Making Bin Laden into an Indian elevates him. The Washington Post isolates Geronimo’s elusiveness, “[he] was rumored to be able to walk without leaving any tracks,” as the key trait that links him to Bin Laden. This is meant to illustrate some degree of respect the American military leaders have for their foe. It also serves to cast the United States in a better light. We are, after all, magnanimous in victory. By heaping praise upon one’s enemy, likening them to such a worthy opponent as Geronimo, the American military bestows prestige upon themselves. They won the fight by besting a legend.

Lise Balk King, a student at Harvard writes on Indian Country, a website that brings “essential news and information from Indian country”:

[…] As news of bin Laden’s death spread relief across America and the world, revelations that the assigned code name of Enemy Number One was “Geronimo,” a legendary Apache leader, caused shock waves in Indian communities across the country. It is being interpreted as a slap in the face of Native people, a disturbing message that equates an iconic symbol of Native American pride with the most hated evildoer since Adolf Hitler.

[…] Time Magazine’s Swampland blog first reported the details yesterday that the target, Osama bin Laden, was code-named Geronimo, in keeping with The White House’s afternoon press conference.

But the story coming from the White House evolved by evening, with what appears to be a “re-tooling” of the message, which now states that the “mission” was code-named Geronimo.

An e-mail statement from Harlyn Geronimo, a descendant of the famous fighter, reads:

Whether it was intended only to name the military operation to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden or to give Osama Bin Laden himself the code name Geronimo, either was an outrageous insult and mistake. And it is clear from the military records released that the name Geronimo was used at times by military personnel involved for both the military operation and for Osama Bin Laden himself.

Obviously to equate Geronimo with Osama Bin Laden is an unpardonable slander of Native America and its most famous leader in history.

[…] As the son of a grandson of Geronimo, who as a U.S. soldier fought at Omaha Beach on D Day and across West Europe to the Rhine in World War II, and having myself served two tours of duty in Vietnam during that war, I must respectfully request from the President, our Commander-in-Chief, or his Secretary at the Department of Defense, a full explanation of how this disgraceful use of my great grandfather’s name occurred, a full apology for the grievous insult after all that Native Americans have suffered and the expungement from all the records of the U.S. government this use of the name Geronimo. Leaving only for history the fact this insult to Native Americans occurred in all its pity.

This post is part of our special coverage The Death of Osama Bin Laden and Indigenous Rights.

1 comment

  • Rick Stewart

    If the army nicknamed Bin Laden ‘Rick Stewart’ (my name) I would care not a whit. Sticks and stones …

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