Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Geronimo? Really?

No wonder Osama bin Laden was hard to find -- he was hiding in Vietnam.

In 1968.

Graphic novel by Don Lomax
During the Vietnam War, soldiers from the United States referred to areas controlled by the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army as "Indian Country."  The fighting itself was called "playing Cowboys and Indians."

Imagine if you were an American Indian serving in the U.S. military in Vietnam.  Playing this "game" meant you were fighting yourself.

In one sense, "Cowboys and Indians" was an extension of the games the soldiers had played in their youth back home.  Those games were played in imitation of the Western movies those boys had watched in theaters and on television.  Those Westerns were a continuation of one of the fundamental stories in American culture: the encounter between the Europeans and the American Indians.  In its most simplistic terms, this encounter was (mis)understood as a battle between Civilization (the Europeans) and Savagism (the Indians).

I thought we had moved beyond that this simplistic myth.  But I was wrong.

I write that because Osama bin Laden's code name for his assassination mission was "Geronimo."  Navy SEAL Team Six seemed to be playing Cowboys and Indians in the Pakistani resort town of Abbottobad.  Their target was named after the famous Apache leader/warrior who is rivaled by only Crazy Horse and Pocahontas as the most famous Indian in United States history.

Or their mission, and not their target, was named "Geronimo."  The White House has told conflicting stories.

Regardless, the Internet in Indian Country has been busy with folks registering their surprise, dismay, or anger with the mission's vocabulary.  You can see some of the reactions here, here, and here.  Also, my friend Debbie Reese, who blogs about American Indians and children's literature, has written about it (here).

Fortunately, the staff director for the Senate Indian Affairs committee has voiced objections to using Geronimo's name in this way.
Sikorsky Black Hawk

There is a long history of the U.S. military using American Indian names to identify many things.  For instance, the helicopters used to transport soldiers into bin Laden's compound were Black Hawks, named after a Sauk and Fox leader who fought against the United States in 1832.  Imagine the irony if the United States had sent in its most famous attack helicopters -- the Apache -- to kill "Geronimo."

I understand the inclination to
Boeing Apache
call Osama bin Laden "Geronimo." Like Geronimo, he was involved in armed resistance against the U.S. military.  Like Geronimo, he frustrated the U.S. military with his abilities to evade capture.  Like Geronimo, he had become a daunting adversary.

But unlike Osama bin Laden, Geronimo was not famous for killing thousands of civilians.  Unlike Osama bin Laden, Geronimo was a member of a community that is now part of the United States.  Unlike Osama bin Laden, Geronimo may have descendants who are now serving in the U.S. military.

So Apache people are puzzled when one of their historical and cultural heroes is chosen as the namesake for a reviled enemy.  And American Indians are puzzled when they see that the "Cowboys and Indians" narrative is still alive in American culture -- especially in President Obama's White house. 

Back in November, 2009, Obama told a gathering of American Indian leaders: "I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle.... So you will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House."

Many American Indians feel forgotten when such a code name is used.  I am sure whoever came up with the code name was not thinking of its implications in this regard.  That person was being swept up in a narrative older and bigger than himself.  But not thinking about its implications shows to what degree American Indians are absent in the national consciousness and conscience.  American Indians feel forgotten when they find themselves represented as savages again.  As "the bad guys" again.  As the target again.

From TPapi's Photostream on Flickr.com
The list of possible code names is endless, which makes the choice of "Geronimo" so telling.  Osama bin Laden could have been The Rabbit or The Fox, since he was so hard to catch or so crafty.  Personally, I like The Mole, because pursuing him could have been compared to playing Whack-a-Mole at the arcade. 

He could have been called Tickle-Me Elmo, for all I care.  The point is moot now, since he is dead. 

But next time, the U.S. military should remember that American Indians are American citizens and have been for a long time.  "Cowboys and Indians" is a game for the past.  Let's not play it anymore.

Note: Since this was originally posted, we have learned that the Navy SEALs may have used a "stealth" helicopter in the attack, rather than a Black Hawk.  Also, President Obama, in an interview on 60 Minutes, stated that "Geronimo" was the code name for bin Laden; not the code name for the whole mission.


  1. I've added a link to this from my site, Scott. This morning I added the link to the NCAI statement.

    I'm also starting to see commentators saying things about how Obama has bin Laden's scalp.

  2. I'm posting this to my Facebook page too. Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. The videos of Obama show him saying one thing to one group in the morning and another opposite thing to another group in the afternoon. Did you listn to his inaugural speech? American identity needs to treat American Indians this way. I can suggets some readings. So stop being so suprised and stop expecting a different outcome by continuing to elect the one party, two faced dem-Repubs. Walk into the light

  4. Scott well said and I agree...but just to show how some others are seeing this, a non-Indian woman tells me on my blog:

    Karen wrote:
    "I'm thinking it's being used as defined in dictionary:

    1. (Military) US a shout given by paratroopers as they jump into battle
    2. an exclamation expressing exhilaration, esp when jumping from a great height"

  5. sjtrgrs said...on my blog comments:
    Dear Danny Bloom
    I believe you and others have misunderstood the use of the name. American children have used the name for generations to signify a leap into an all or nothing battle. It's meaning in that use is actually honoring a Great Chief the Apache Geronimo, who engaged in many all or nothing battles to save his people and his lands from invaders. REALLY, it was used by the SEALS in a derogatory manner, it was not to name Bin Laden or associate him personally, it was as I said a cry for battle and victory in a very dangerous mission. Please don't make this into something negative, we have enough of that as a people, Native Americans should be proud that our military uses the names of our Great Chiefs to name the baddest of the bad, helicopters, battles, and mission such as this one. We do...Sara.

    and she added later:
    sjtrgrs said...
    Thank you for posting that Danny, I am really glad you have reconsidered because I truly believe it was as I said. Debbie, it is unfortunate that this got started in the media. That is bound now to be a big stink. I hope it quiets down. The term as I said was used in an honoring way rather than to be racist or negative. Some people are going to turn it into garbage, it's a shame but it happens all the time. The best we can do is to post the positive view of it, the true view everywhere to counter act their ignorance. By their ignorance I mean anyone who now chooses to make cracks like the scalp thing. x Sara

  6. "I am sure whoever came up with the code name was not thinking of its implications in this regard. That person was being swept up in a narrative older and bigger than himself."
    Regarding the "alternate narrative" thinking of "Geronimo" in a bright-sider kind of way, an "honoring" way... it's kind of like the dude who came up with the mission name: Danny's commentors seem to also be swept up in that bigger, older narrative. In that same way so goes the arguments over high school mascots... my daughter's school (Westlake High) uses an arrow with a feather and the moniker "Warriors" (it was changed sorta to this in response to complaints).

    Native warriors being held in high regard, respect and honoring their courage, discipline and skill needs a different narrative or better path... OTOH, then we need to do the same with other warrior ass kickers of the past, like the samurai. There IS a changed tradition for that one... (Morehei Ueshiba came up with it, the founder of Aikido), but that's another story for another day.

  7. People's justification in making this issue sound like it is something insignificant is totally ridiculous. They claim that somehow us Native Americans should feel honored because they cant admit a mistake and they have no other excuse but to try to cover up their ignorance and insensitivity. Flattery is only flattery when the other party feels honor and respect. When the other party is offended then it is straight up derogatory. So people stop trying to justify the meaning in the use of the codename Geronimo. I just ask one question to those who believe that we just misunderstood the use of the codename. What if the codename for Osama was Custer in rememberance of Custers last stand at the battle of Little Bighorn?

  8. Jack (Smith, not Juste)May 5, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    "Custer" would have actually made more sense. Hell, the mission name "Little Big Horn" would have worked awesome. Much cooler sounding and accurate for the effort's goal than the otehr stupid mission names like "Enduring Freedom" and other crap they came up with so far.