Geronimo the Native American warrior who fought against the U.S. and Mexican governments during the late 19th century. Many Native people were offended by the use of his name in the story put out about the death of Osama bin Laden., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Indians say code name offensive but not surprising
By Susan Montoya Bryan
07:14:54 PM PDT
Geronimo was known as a legendary Apache warrior whose ability to walk without leaving footprints allowed him to evade thousands of Mexican and U.S. soldiers, much like Osama bin Laden evaded capture for the past decade.
But for Native Americans, there's an important difference: Geronimo was a hero -- not a terrorist.
So to them, the U.S. military's use of the revered leader's moniker as a code name for bin Laden was appalling -- a slap in the face that prompted statements of disapproval from tribal leaders, a flurry of angry comments on social network sites and a letter from the leader of Geronimo's tribe asking President Barack Obama to apologize.
Many Native Americans also say that while they are angered, they are not surprised. They say the code name is yet another insult in a long, tumultuous history with the federal government.
"We've been oppressed for so long, it just doesn't matter anymore," said Leon Curley, a Navajo and Marine veteran from Gallup, N.M. "The government does what it wants when it wants. The name calling is going to stay around forever. But when you think about it, this is an insult."
Even Jeff Houser, chairman of Geronimo's Fort Sill Apache Tribe, noted in his letter to Obama that the decision behind the code name stemmed from an ongoing cultural disconnect, not malice. But the damage is the same.
"We are quite certain that the use of the name Geronimo as a code for Osama bin Laden was based on misunderstood and misconceived historical perspectives of Geronimo and his armed struggle against the United States and Mexican governments," Houser wrote.
"However, to equate Geronimo or any other Native American figure with Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer and cowardly terrorist, is painful and offensive to our Tribe and to all Native Americans."
The White House referred questions on the matter to the Defense Department, which said no disrespect was meant to Native Americans.
The department wouldn't elaborate on the use of Geronimo's name but said code names typically are chosen randomly and allow those working on a mission to communicate without divulging information to adversaries.
The U.S. military has a long tradition of naming weapons and helicopters after American Indian tribes, chiefs and artifacts, a policy that became official with a 1969 Army regulation. The rule was later rescinded, but a 2009 Army Times article said the practice continues today "as a way to honor America's war fighter heritage."
The military also has a history with the word Geronimo; U.S. paratroopers in World War II started using it as a war cry in the early 1940s. It's possible they picked up the term from the Paramount Pictures movie "Geronimo!" -- about a West Point graduate and his Army regiment's attempt to capture the warrior -- which was released around the same time.
The reason behind the name's use in the bin Laden raid has been the subject of much speculation.
Some think it's because the al-Qaida leader, like Geronimo, was able to elude capture for so many years. Others say it's because the government considered both men terrorists, and some have suggested the guerrilla-style raid on bin Laden's compound was reflective of the Apache's fighting techniques.
Louis Maynahonah, a Navy veteran and chairman of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, said he doesn't believe the code name was meant to be derogatory. He pointed to the name's use as a paratrooper war cry and to the fleets of military aircraft named after Indian tribes, including the Apache helicopter.
"It's symbolic to me of the Army at the time trying to capture Geronimo," he said of the code name. "They had a heck of time because he used to slip back across the Mexican border. This bin Laden has been slipping from us for 10 years."