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.