|Graphic novel by Don Lomax|
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.
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
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|
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.