Bin Laden Code-name “Geronimo” Is a Bomb in Indian Country

Lise Balk King

The US government may have captured and killed Osama Bin Laden with a surgical strike, but it also dropped a bombshell on Native America in the process. “We’ve ID’d Geronimo,” said the voice of the Navy SEAL who reported the hunt for Osama bin Laden was over. The President, and all those gathered in the situation room, waited on edge for the voice to return with the triumphant news, that in fact, “Geronimo” was dead.

According to multiple sources, "Geronimo-E KIA" is the message that was sent to the White House by the strike team to announce that bin Laden, the “E,” or Enemy, was Killed In Action.

As news of bin Laden’s death spread relief across America and the world, revelations that the assigned code name of Enemy Number One was “Geronimo,” a legendary Apache leader, caused shock waves in Indian communities across the country. It is being interpreted as a slap in the face of Native people, a disturbing message that equates an iconic symbol of Native American pride with the most hated evildoer since Adolf Hitler.

The death of bin Laden is arguably the most important news story of the year, and embedded within it is a message that an Indian warrior, a symbol of Native American survival in the face of racial annihilation, is associated with modern terrorism and the attacks on 9/11.

The “bin Laden is dead” news story will make thousands of impressions on the minds of people around the globe, and the name Geronimo will now be irrevocably linked with the world’s most reviled terrorist.

Potentially the most disturbing fact is what this says to American Indian children. It equates being Native American with being hated, an enemy to the world, and someone to be hunted down and killed, and re-casts one of their heroes into a villainous role.

Time Magazine's Swampland blog first reported the details yesterday that the target, Osama bin Laden, was code-named Geronimo, in keeping with The White House’s afternoon press conference.

But the story coming from the White House evolved by evening, with what appears to be a “re-tooling” of the message, which now states that the “mission” was code-named Geronimo.

The CNN White House blog featured a historic black and white photo of Geronimo and the headline, “Osama bin Laden codename "Geronimo", for the duration of the afternoon at whitehouse.blogs.cnn.com. There is currently a post with the title "Osama bin Laden mission codename 'Geronimo" (emphasis added) with a timestamp of 4:46 PM, though some commenters express outrage over the earlier title.

Tribal members from around the country are turning to social networking sites Facebook and Twitter as an outlet to express their anger and sadness at the unwelcome association. “This sucks,” said Harold Monteau, an attorney and tribal member from Rocky Boy, Montana, “A lot of people are angry about the obvious stereotypes it implies.”

“It’s another attempt to label Native Americans as terrorists,” said Paula Antoine from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. Beaver North Cloud, a JemezPueblo tribal member from Albuquerque, New Mexico expressed her frustration, saying “Damn it!!!!! Why am I not surprised, yet so disappointed beyond words.”

It is unthinkable to many tribal people that the reviled killer and enemy of all Americans, Osama bin Laden, would be code-named after perhaps the most famous American Indian. But it is especially ironic in light of the fact that Native Americans historically serve in the United States Armed Forces in higher numbers per capita than any other ethnic group, and have been doing so for over 200 years.

More than 12,000 tribal members stepped up to fight in WWI for a country that did not recognize them as citizens. In 1924, the passage of the Snyder Act finally granted them citizenship, gave them the “right” to vote, and made them eligible for the draft. In WWII, they signed up in numbers far outpacing their expected contributions. More than 44,000 tribal members enlisted for military service out of an estimated total population of just over 350,000.

This makes one wonder: How many American Indians are serving in the Navy today, and how many are members of the SEALs, the heroic soldiers who performed the daring mission that took out bin Laden Sunday night?

In any case, this incredible lapse in judgment on the part of the Department of Defense, code named “Geronimo,” presents an opportunity to finally teach the American public, and the world, another lesson in American history.

Yes, it’s true that Geronimo and his cohorts were fierce warriors and chiefs, and they fought bravely against the decimation of their homes and families. It’s also true that their descendents are on the battlefield today, in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. They help to defend us against those who would commit acts of terror on what is now our shared homeland, which was once theirs alone.

They stand shoulder to shoulder with American citizens of all races. It’s time for the rest of America to stand with them.

Lise Balk King is a Masters in Public Administration candidate at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, class of 2011. She serves as a Senior Editor, US Domestic Policy, for the Harvard Kennedy School Review. Before attending Harvard, Lise co-owned and operated The Native Voice, an independent national Native American newspaper. She can be reached at lise_balk_king@hks11.harvard.edu

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hamlaw's picture
Excellent commentary Lise. Some knucklehead will undoubtably respond that "we were trying to honor Geronimo". But, we're not going to buy that lame, overused excuse. It was thoughless and someones idea of being "witty" no doubt. I like Wade McGee's comment saying, "what if we had codenamed him Dr. King or Malcolm X or, even better, Custer.
yeknavaz's picture
This is an excellent article, thank you for writing this. It's another wake-up call about how connected all of these forces -- colonization, racism, imperialism -- affect more than the initial "target group." As a non-Native and a person of Iranian descent, I always need to learn more. I would like to add something too-- militarism itself is a tool of racism that the US continues to use at the expense of people of color and indigenous people all around the world. I agree with your statement that honors the sacrifices that American Indian service members are making. I take issue with the suggestion that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have anything to do with defending our shared homeland from terrorism. Let us appreciate the hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis -- those who have died at the hands of the US military, those whose land is being littered with depleted uranium (my parents just returned from a trip to Iran where concerns about DU in the sandstorms blowing from Iraq are very real), and those whose very futures are in question.
denverlowcap's picture
we as NDNs should quit thinking the US government is an ally or friend to our Native nations. from the US government's stance, our ancestors were the original terrorists. From the state's position, both Geronimo and bin Laden were threats to the security of the nation. it shouldn't come as a surprise to us that the military and DOD would use our 'freedom fighter's' names in this kind of way. interestingly, the military refers to the unsecured areas of Afghanistan as Indian Country. This was not a geographic label that Natives came up with, but was a term coined by the US government to define areas where Natives lived and made up the bulk of the population. Now, why would they call Afghanistan's unsecured areas Indian Country too? think about it, the US gov is no friend to Native communities, we are still at war with the United States ourselves.
sonnyskyhawk's picture
Thank you Lise, for writing about what is on a lot of Native peoples minds today. To me, as an advocate for our people in the realms and mediums of Film and Television, I can't express my total disappointment enough. Negative imagery has probably been one of the most demeaning and egregious forms of representation that we have had to struggle with for many years, and here we go again. There will be those who would go on to say ( and even some of our own) that it is no big thing and that we are being too sensitive. What a travesty in thinking. We, as the Native peoples of this land now called the USA, have paid a very dear price for our existence, and as you say, have been more than proud to send our young people into harms way, before and after this land became known as the USA. The Apache Nations, specifically the Chiricahua, and the descendants of Goyakla , aka,"Geronimo", should be totally disappointed, that our "leaders" and especially a minority President, would allow, regardless of intent, the Geronimo" name to be used in this disparaging manner. It will be in the history books forever. What a shame. Pilamaya pelo.
anthonymele's picture
As a US Army veteran and global security consultant with a professional background in counter-terrorism, I applaud the Navy Seals and everyone responsible for bringing justice to OBL. However, the guy in charge of code-names needs a bit of a refresher course. The Department of Defense names entire weapons systems and attack helicopters after Native American tribes for the very reason of equating their noble attributes to it. There are no attributes of OBL that can be equated to Geronimo. Geronimo like Cochise were of the Chiricahua Tribe defending their tribal lands and people from foreign encroachment and broken treaties. OBL and Alqaeda are a violent political movement attacking everyone to include other Muslims who do not agree with them with the intention of converting them to their style of religion and political beliefs. They abandoned their tribal loyalties to join Alqaeda. Geronimo and the Chiricahuas weren't trying to convert non Chiricahuas to their beliefs through political violence at all. They never denied their tribe, they protected it. I agree with the author here [Lise Balk king]. I would only add that it does not diminish the accomplishment of the mission but omits an entire class of Native American citizen from embibing in that achievment by denigrating them with inaccurate characterization of an American Icon. It was wrong to equate the legendary and historic Geronimo or any other American icon with OBL at any level. I would have preferred the Lakota word for "steaming dung heap", but thats just me.
hjwjc's picture
Now that we have heard from everyone. Why not ask how the Apache tribal people/leaders feel about all of this. Geronimo's real name if this is the same person, was Goyale', one translation was "One Who Yawns". He was an Apache Warrior not an Indian warrior. Generally speaking I would not want someone else to speak for me.
lyndapedro's picture
Yes, this is just more of the abusive language that American Indians have to tolerate from mainstream America. In prime-time television we hear: "bury the hatchet", "she's on the war-path", "tribal-council"...By demeaning our warriors, our culture in language--it absolutely impacts our own being as adults and especially our youth. And so I agree that such references "equate being Native American with being hated, an enemy to the world, and someone to be hunted down and killed, and re-casts one of their heroes into a villainous role"...So, be aware, explain and complain. We are often accused of being politically correct and that no one listens to us. Instead, we need to band together and teach others how we expect to be treated.
ottawaman001's picture
First off i want to ask the Creator to lay his Blessings on our Nations Warriors and their Families. Please don't confuse or try and separate the word warriors to meaning only the nDn's, my Prayers go out to all of our Proud Warriors. It saddens my heart that with all of the so called political correctness that you here that their is still no regard for the Native People. We will not here an apology because there will never be an admission of GUILT. Just the same old political two step. Just as Goyalka "Geronimo did we need to do, but our battle needs to be with the pen. write your President, Congressmen and Senators let them no you are not happy with this and that we will not allow this to continue any longer. We may not win but we cannot give up. Aho
tmsyr11's picture
TELL THE BARACK OBAMA ADMINISTRATION THEY WERE WRONG! Where is the National Congress of American Indians? Where is the National Indian Gaming Association? Where are these Progressive-Educated Informed Young Indian Professionals, Educators, Intellectuals? Unless some-body steps up OR a representative group/organization on Indian Affairs says anything or takes the mantle of telling the US Government THEY WERE IN-SENSITIVE and WRONG in using a family name to associate with a man (deemed an Enemy to the United States), then American Indians will be continued to be relegated to news/stories of the past Generation! Do you realize living Grandparents (Grandmas/Grandpas) still recall and acknowledge their Great, Great Grandparents? Considering Geronimo, Fort Sill Apache Member (Chiracahua Apache (relative to Navajo/Dineh), died in 1910, he is still considered as family/relative in being a Great, Great, Great, maybe Great Grandfather to the generations of American Indians born in 60s/70s! Let Barack Obama know he was wrong and let him know unless HE APOLOGIZES or acknowledges his insensitivity to American Indians and the Fort Sill Apache Nation, then any Gaming Association Donations to his Political Campaign for 2012 will NOT HAPPEN! There are a great many highly, educated and democratically-informed American Indian Professionals, where are they are NOW - are they willing to forego their political aspirations in return to educate and inform the American Government and the American People, the labeling with a Enemy to the United States was wrong and insensitive! Is there a call for American Indian action by American Indians? Or is the article and comments just another representation of all talk while American Indians continue to migrate and chastise other American Indians of being a "Good American"? We'll see....
lanadawarjack's picture
I can't give a high five for terrorist activity by any side. As "Americans" many of us were against the war and signed petitions demanding Bush not to go to war under the alleged threat of "weapons of mass destruction". This only makes certain people incredibly wealthy selling their weapons of mass destruction for capitalist gain. The military has always used ethnocentric terminology to dehumanize us since the genocidal invasion of our country so it's not incredibly new that a US President would stoop so low by perpetuating the same injustice and discrimination against us. Isn't it standard operational practice to eradicate the Indigenous and colonize the survivors? I am amazed that they were so transparent in making such a high profile blunder exposing their real view that Native Indigenous people are still the enemy. What a blessing in disguise in so many dimensions. Warfare is such a highly sophisticated art when it comes to colonization of the Indigenous populations. I don't know how we are to heal ourselves from the historical trauma, let alone present day warfare continuing the theft of our lands and resources on reservations via congress and the courts. We know how this all translates with the environmental destruction. We can debate the politics but must seek Peace as our goal before our Mother Earth has the final word. Bless us all for world wide peace!