Bin Laden and Geronimo: What Makes an American Enemy?

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Apache leader Geronimo

Osama bin Laden’s U.S. militarily code name was Geronimo, who was a 19th-century Apache leader. The Washington Post reports:

In a triumphant moment for the United States, the moniker has left a sour taste among many Native Americans.

“I was celebrating that we had gotten this guy and feeling so much a part of America,” Tom Holm, a former Marine, a member of the Creek/Cherokee Nations and a retired professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, said by phone Tuesday. “And then this ‘Geronimo EKIA’ thing comes up. I just said, ‘Why pick on us?’ Robert E. Lee killed more Americans than Geronimo ever did, and Hitler would seem to be evil personified, but the code name for bin Laden is Geronimo?”

Geronimo fought neighboring Mexicans and spent 10 years eluding U.S. troops as he revolted against white settlement in Apache territory. He is considered a hero by many Native Americans. So is it appropriate to equate this Native American figure with America’s number one enemy? Holm’s comments are even more poignant given the over-representation of Native Americans in the military; in 2007, they made up .73 percent of the U.S. population but 2.86 percent of the new recruits.

In D.C., just 0.3 percent of the city’s population reported as being American Indian and no other race in the 2010 Census. Thus, local debates over racism in Native American imagery typically erupt over the name of D.C.’s NFL team, the Redskins. Efforts to change the name have been ongoing, although such campaigns hit a roadblock in 2009. That’s when the Supreme Court refused to take up a case brought by a group of Native Americans who wanted the team’s name changed because they considered it a racial slur.

But the bin Laden-Geronimo link picks at a sore point for Native Americans nationally and locally. Suzan Shown Harjo, president of D.C.-based Native American advocacy group Morning Star Institute, told the Post that nicknaming bin Laden as Geronimo shows:

… how deeply embedded the ‘Indian as enemy’ is in the collective mind of America… To this day, when soldiers are going into enemy territory, it’s common for it to be called ‘Indian country.’

  • Lisa Sforza

    She who screams loudest gets what they want.

    When the Afghan invasion was undertaken in 2001, it was originally named Operation Infinite Justice. When a number of religionists (including Muslims) complained that only a god could deliver infinite justice, the name was changed to today’s Enduring Freedom.

    I agree with the Native Americans who are complaining about the poor choice of code names.