Geronimo and the Myth of the Bloodthirsty Savage

Ruth Hopkins

The anger in Indian country over the association of Osama Bin Laden with Geronimo is palpable, and rightly so. Aligning the Apache leader Geronimo—who fought valiantly for his tribal homeland and people against incredible odds—with the cowardly mass murderer Osama Bin Laden is beyond offensive. Such insult extends beyond Geronimo because he is a symbol of the American Indian warrior. To paint Geronimo with the same brush as a global terrorist like Bin Laden suggests that American Indians are bloodthirsty savages. This stereotype is a complete falsehood. The honor of a native warrior was never found in violent acts committed during wartime; rather, it was in the fact that they had chosen to lay their lives on the line to save others from harm.

American Indian warriors did not fight just to kill. Among many plains tribes, combat between tribal nations involved counting coup, where a warrior humiliated his opponent by touching him with a coupstick, rather than killing him. In doing so, a warrior’s honor was elevated and while his enemy was disgraced, he lived to fight another day.

The American Indian warrior was a defender and protector of his people above all else and there was no limit to what a warrior would do to save his people. A number of Tribes had a select group of warriors among them who would stake themselves to the ground before an invasion by the enemy so the rest of the Tribe could escape, buying time with their lives.

Even when Tribes stood against the U.S. Calvary in the 1800s, the main purpose of war was not solely to kill, it was to remain free on Tribal lands, and to protect innocent elders, women and children. Their defiance was a statement: Native people have the right to exist.

Since then, native nations have suffered greatly. However, the values of courage and bravery survived with the people. During World War I, American Indian men were not eligible for the draft, because they were not yet citizens. That didn’t matter. American Indian men volunteered in droves anyway. The United States Congress was so impressed with their bravery in military service that they made all American Indians who served during World War I citizens in 1919. The service of American Indians in World War I later influenced the federal government’s decision to make all American Indians citizens of the United States in 1924. Our contribution to U.S. Military forces didn’t end there. In World War II, Native soldiers were instrumental in the defeat of axis powers as American Indian codetalkers used their respective languages to pass coded messages for the military that were never deciphered by the enemy.

With every war the United States has engaged in since then, Natives continued to heed the call of military service. Compared to the general population, American Indians have served in this in the United States military in the higher numbers per capita than any other racial group.

Today’s Native veterans are still admired, respected, and held in high regard within native communities. Many Tribes have warrior societies. Among the Oceti Sakowin, also called The Great Sioux Nation, our veterans are called Akicita. Their status as veterans means that they serve as the protectors and defenders of their people for their entire lives.

On March 23, 2003, just three days after the start of the Iraq War, a young Hopi woman who was a member of the Army’s 507th Maintenance Company was traveling through the desert when her convoy was ambushed. She successfully drove through heavy enemy fire until an RPG explosion caused her Humvee to crash. Several soldiers were killed. She suffered severe injuries as a result of the accident, and was taken prisoner along with two other female soldiers. Lori Piestewa, a single mother of two children, died of her wounds soon after capture.

Lori is one of thousands of American Indians who have fought, bled, and died for this country. Surely her memory, as well as the memory of countless other American Indian soldiers who suffered injury, disability, disease and death, warrants some modicum of respect from those they died to protect.

President Obama and member of Congress, please don’t allow the original inhabitants of this land who have sacrificed so much for this country to be relegated to the stereotype of the bloodthirsty savage. It is a lie. Use your apology for the use of Geronimo as a code in association with Osama Bin Laden as an opportunity to open a dialogue about American Indian stereotypes, and to help cure the ignorance that pervades mainstream American society about native people. Furthermore, honor the memory of heroic native warriors like Geronimo, Lori Piestewa, and many others, not by promoting false stereotypes, but by bringing attention to the plight of veterans, both native and non-native, who continue to be plagued by substandard health care and homelessness. That is where true honor lies.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for the Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at cankudutawin@hotmail.com

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kinajin's picture
If one says they are Lakota/Dakota then they must speak Lakota/Dakota. Otherwise its strengthening a false stereotype( a romantic image).
chuhamok's picture
Excellent time-line of the Natives. I often wondered of the “plight” of the United States dealing with terrorist acts—when similar tactics were used against us (Natives). It appears the old texts “How to a be an Indian fighter” were dusted off and used against osama, and the implications of using Geronimo’s name as an inspiration to kill a terrorist—is just too weird for any further comment from me.
montanamiddle's picture
Well, the military refers to unknown or 'hostile' land as "Indian Country," go figure, but they also have names like Apache, Blackhawk, and Chinook helicopters, and the Tomahawk missile. Will we go as far to be habitually offended by those as well? Probably not. The Special Forces in the Army have their patch shaped like an arrowhead - a leftover symbol from the Canadian/American First Special Service Force in WWII - as a sign of respect for Natives. It represents "the craft and stealth of the Indians, America's first warriors" according to the Special Forces Chapter 44 website. A Special Forces Officers has 2 crossed arrows indicating their status because Indian scouts used to wear them as symbols of peace with the U.S. government. The Special Forces crest that says De Oppresso Liber - or 'To Free the Oppressed' - also has the 2 arrows crossed and a knife, "A silent deadly weapon, used by the American Indian." (ibid). Knowing things like that can make one feel less inclined to automatically assume 'racism' when judging such matters. Geronimo was a hard guy to find a catch, hitherto, so was Bin Laden. Also, the 501st Parachute Infantry Division is called "Geronimo," out of respect that they yelled "Geronimo!" when paratrooping to show thier bravery and daring when jumping out of an airplane and into battle. I don't think it always necessarily constitutes as racism or even ignorance in this case, but maybe misguided reverance. The Special Forces respect the hell out of Geronimo, realize. But this whole scenario ironically does bring to mind the cool "Homeland Security Since 1492" t-shirts that feature Geronimo and a few other Apaches warriors on them.
chuhamok's picture
Racism: a belief usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others. I can conceptualize the thinking of U.S. forces using “Geronimo” and other sacred ceremonial rituals as a symbol of the ultimate warrior. However, the definition of racism in part—“idea that one’s own race is superior” is applicable. The dominant culture arbitrarily “taking” a historical Indian warriors name and claiming ownership is an example of racism.
regionnusrattis's picture
I didn't hear anyone complaining about the Apache gunships, Kiowas or even Blackhawks. Besides, Geronimo wasn't even his real name...it was what the Mexicans called him when THEY saw him.
hjwjc's picture
I am not impressed with this article. There isn't much in here that hasn't already been written. I don't agree with your generalized statements: To paint Geronimo with the same brush as...et al. Anyway Geronimo wasn't an Apache Chief. There were others who fought who held the status of "Chief", i.e., Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, Victorio, just to name a few. After the "surrender" of Geronimo, even the Apache Scouts were made Prisoners of War by the U.S. Government. I don't refer to myself as an American Indian, I am Apache...