Geronimo Is Not bin Laden

Laurie and Debbie say:

If you aren’t living under a rock somewhere, you know that the United States’ government’s operation which succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden was code-named Geronimo. As you probably also know, Geronimo is not just a cool-sounding word that a kid says when her sled barrels down the hill. Geronimo was a heroic Native American (Chiricahua Apache) leader who fought against the United States in an attempt to preserve Apache lands.

Indian Country Today Media Network published an excellent interview with Jeff Houser, Fort Sill Apache Tribe Chairman, who has asked President Obama to issue a formal apology for connecting Geronimo’s name to the most hated man of the 21st century.

[Tuesday] I was looking at the local paper and the headline said, “Relentless: How U.S. Brought Justice to Bin Laden’s Doorstep.” And there was a little quote that says the Seals killed Bin Laden with a bullet to the head using the code that Geronimo had been killed in action. I thought, “Geronimo”?

I think it was something done without a whole lot of thought as to how it would be represented to most of the Indian community. So often we’re not really thought of, we’re not really considered, so I think it was just another example of that. But this is the second time this year that the federal government has referenced Native people as similar to al Qaeda. There was a filing in federal court that compared the Seminoles to al Qaeda.

[If President Obama doesn’t apologize], then he misses an opportunity to really show Native people that he understands our struggles. So often tribes struggle and so this would just be another in the long line of problems we’ve faced and any number of things that have arisen over and over again. So if nothing comes of it, I wouldn’t really be surprised and I wouldn’t really be upset, but I’d be disappointed.

I’m very thankful for the response throughout Indian county and hope that at the very least this does provide an opportunity for tribal leaders to speak with a unified voice. For us (Geronimo’s tribe, the Chiricahua Apaches), having been imprisoned and referred to as enemies and savage and violent people and walked away from for nearly 30 years to have this association return is painful and I hope the collective response of Natives around the country and around the world will show that it’s not the appropriate thing to do. Our tribe was a prisoner of war with Geronimo. Unlike bin Laden, Geronimo didn’t resist; he willingly surrendered, relying on the promise of the American to return to his homeland in two years, and we’re still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.

Neither of us expects Obama to apologize either, although of course he should.

Racial, religious, and ethnic terms slip all-too-easily into the language, in ways that let people who use them pretend (and even sometimes believe) that the terms don’t have their own history. These terms can be slurs, or complex cultural concepts, or names of heroes (or anything in between). It’s easy to say, “You’re behaving like a Jewish mother” without realizing that you’re feeding anti-Semitism. It’s easy to say, “Oh, those children were stolen by gypsies” without realizing that you’re categorizing an entire population as thieves, especially if you don’t know anyone that you know is Romany. It’s easy to say “Keep your cotton-picking hands off me” without thinking either about the hard labor of picking cotton or the “horny, calloused (and usually black) hands that picked cotton.” It’s easy to use the code name “Geronimo” for bin Laden without thinking about what you’re implying about the real Geronimo.

People who would never use the known ethnic slurs use terms like “gypped” and “Jewish princess” much more freely. We’re very appreciative of Jeff Hauser (and the unified Indian country reaction behind him) for calling for the apology. Calling out these underlying meanings regularly and clearly is the only chance we have to restore the history and change the language.

9 thoughts on “Geronimo Is Not bin Laden

  1. I will always give a person benefit of the doubt on gypped the first time I hear it; I’ll point out the etymology if it’s appropriate in context, but my experience is that the majority of people using it have never thought about the origin, and make a concentrated effort to stop doing so once its pointed out. There are exceptions like the former coworker who referred to a company he was unhappy with as “a bunch of Gypsies”, then when I called him on it pulled “I can’t be racist; I’m engaged to a woman of another race!”[1] Him, I reported to HR.

    My (very white) paternal grandfather did pick cotton, among other migrant-type work; probably my dad’s older siblings and his mother did, too. I don’t use “cotton-pickin'” much these days, though, as it’s not common parlance in SoCal; I don’t know whether I’d continue to use it if I were still in an area where it is. Contextually, it has always seemed a functionally-meaningless euphemism; “rassin’-frassin'” substitutes exactly in my experience.

    [1] What he actually said was “Look who I’m engaged to!”; his fiancée also worked in our department.

  2. This is interesting. I assumed when I heard that the bin Laden operation was code named Geronimo that the reference was to us, the Americans: that we were associating Geronimo’s courage and warriorship with the Seal team. Is there any reason to assume that this is not the case?

    1. I had the same thought originally, but a little digging conclusively proves otherwise. Here is one of the many mainstream news links that clarifies that Geronimo was the code name for bin Laden himself, not the operation. The first message was “Geronimo E-KIA,” which is shorthand for “Geronimo, Enemy Killed in Action.”

  3. I know, and avoid, all ethnic slurs that I can … but I would have wandered into “cotton-picking”. Also, I was in my late 20’s before I realized “gypped” had something to do with gypsies. I swear. We you are not raised by racists, you often just don’t know. However, even with my Pollyanna upbringing, I would have known not to codename OBL “Geronimo”. I don’t think there is any possible excuse for it, and I think that Obama should apologize. I am not holding my breath, but he should do it.

    1. Betty, “cottonpicking” was on my mind because someone else had just warned a friend of mine about using it in the American South. I don’t actually use it, but I didn’t recognize it as a slur, either.

  4. In the parts of the South where I grew up, I don’t think anyone considered it a slur. It may be something that has changed over the years since I moved west, but I doubt that perception is widespread yet.

  5. Still not convinced. According to the article, “Geronimo” was the code name for the operation, not the man.

    When I was a child, we used to dare each other to do scary physically challenging things — jump off a fence or out of a tree, for example. The person taking the dare used to shout “Geronimo!” It meant, “I’ve accepted your challenge, and here I come!”

    I wonder…

  6. Deb, I have no idea why the military wouldn’t comment, but I don’t think the absence of comment supports your position.

    The article points out that the army’s first parachute division (1st Battalion Airborne, 509th Infantry Regiment) adopted the nickname “Geronimo” as a symbol of bravery and willingness to engage with the enemy. The U S military is a lot of things, but I continue to assert that the use of the word “Geronimo” in this case cannot be ascribed to racism: there’s simply no evidence.

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