American Indians Irate over Bin Laden Code Name “Geronimo”

“Geronimo E-KIA.”

That’s the message from the Seal Team that raided the compound in Pakistan informing senior administration officials, including the president, that “Osama bin Laden,” an “Enemy,” had been “Killed in Action.”

But the use of “Geronimo” as the military code name for the architect of the 9/11 attack has ignited a firestorm of criticism from American Indians across the country. 

Joseph Geronimo, a great-grandson of Geronimo, called it a “slap in the face” to the three generations of military veterans among the descendants of the Apache spiritual leader. 

Jeff Houser, Chairman of the Fort Sill Apache tribe, the place where Geronimo lived and died after 23 years as a prisoner of America’s Indian wars, sent a letter to President Obama immediately after details of the code name controversy were revealed. He wrote: 

Geronimo was a renowned Chiricahua Apache leader who personally fought to defend his people, territory, and way of life. Unlike the coward Osama bin Laden, Geronimo faced his enemy in numerous battles and engagements. He is perhaps one of the greatest symbols of Native American resistance in the history of the United States.

What this action has done is forever link the name and memory of Geronimo to one of the most despicable enemies this country has ever had.

Choctaw Indian Ben Carnes wrote on his blog that he felt that Custer or Columbus would have been a more appropriate code name for bin Laden, and that the use of Geronimo was just another example of how “We’ve been reduced to caricatures as mascots and entertainment in sports and media.” 

In fact, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held hearings recently on American Indians and racist stereotypes, and one of the first items of business was a discussion of why this particular code name was chosen.

Geronimo was the name given by Mexicans to Goyalthlay, a Chiricahua Apache religious leader (1829–1909), while Americans who lived in the Arizona territory used his name to invoke “terror” in the hearts of white settlers to justify military actions against Indians—including the Apache. 

Goyalthlay’s early life was undistinguished in Apache society. As a young adult his few attempts to lead military expeditions against the Mexican government resulted in near disaster. In 1858 while the men were off trading in a Mexican village, 300 soldiers under Colonel Jose Carrasco attacked the peaceful camp of women and children and killed dozens of Apaches including Goyalthlay’s mother, wife, and three children. It was said on the long journey back to the Arizona Mountains he spoke not a word and walked alone behind the rest of the survivors.

Within a short time after this tragedy, he began to lead successful military operations and once fought so fiercely with only a knife as a weapon that his victims pleaded for the intervention of Saint Jerome with the cry, “Geronimo,” the name he is known by to this day.

The angry response by American Indians is due in large part to the continued use of a military and political vocabulary that is degrading and insulting to our people, our culture, and our long history of service to the US Armed Forces.

American Indians serve in the US military at six times the rate of any other minority. The first woman to die in combat in the Iraq war was Lori Piestewa, a Hopi Indian woman. And yet throughout the United States, Native women are remembered only by the place names that use the deeply offensive “s” word which is historically connected to the rape and sexual exploitation of Indian women.

During the Vietnam War the US military referred to indigenous-controlled territory as “Indian Country.” Fire bases and military operations were named after Indian leaders or significant events in the longest war in human history, the war against the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Most famously, the military has long encouraged paratrooper trainees to call out his name when they jump out of airplanes instead of counting to three before pulling the ripcord.

The reaction of the US military to criticism was to say that Geronimo was “randomly chosen,” but it isn’t difficult to imagine the top brass associating the pursuit of bin Laden through the mountains of the Afghan Pakistan border with accounts of the American military chasing Geronimo through the mountains of Arizona and northern Mexico.

The two are very different, of course; the Apache leader was born and raised in the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico and was fighting to stay free in his own homelands, while Osama bin Laden, who may have adopted the ways of mujahedeen, including their dress and customs, was an outsider rejected by his own family and country. He was only able to survive by hiding in a major city in Pakistan known for its military academy. It would be as if Goyalthlay had chosen to hide out in the 1880s from General George Crook by moving into a house down the street from West Point.  

And Geronimo was an American patriot who loved his country, though after his capture he was imprisoned for some years in Florida before living his later years in exile in Oklahoma where he was ultimately buried. In a twist of fate it has long been rumored that the skull and bones of Geronimo were stolen from his grave in Fort Sill, Oklahoma by the Skull and Bones society at Yale University.

Fact is, Geronimo has been part of military lore for more than one hundred years. When he was being hunted during the last of the Indian wars in Arizona and Mexico in the 1880s it was said to cost the American military over one million dollars to kill each Apache. 

Compare that cost to the nearly one and a half trillion dollars the United States has spent since 2002 tracking down Osama bin Laden and the two or three hundred members of al Qaeda said to be fighting from the mountains of the Afghan/Pakistan border. 

It’s safe to say the United States military hasn’t learned much over the generations about how to fight a war against a well-entrenched band of locals who know the country, and the conflation of Geronimo with bin Laden once again illustrates the failure of the United States to consider its own history in fighting insurgent wars.

So what’s the lesson here? 

Redskins, savages, braves, warriors, and Geronimo are only part of the rich history of Native Americans. Until that history and its lessons are woven into the fabric of the American consciousness, we will continue to squander precious resources around the world failing to hear the same message over and over again.

Steven Newcomb, a Shawnee Indian, said it best in a column in Indian Country Today:

What the hell were they thinking… the code name was based on an extension of the metaphor “Indians Are Enemies” to “Geronimo was a Terrorist,” thus perpetuating the US tradition of treating Indian nations and peoples as enemies.

Maybe if the lessons of the Indian wars had been pondered before the misdirected invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq countless lives and riches could have been saved. The lesson of Geronimo was one of patience, stealth, and striking when the time is right; which are exactly the virtues exhibited during the operation in Pakistan over this last weekend.