Geronimo Again? The Indian Wars Continue Ad Nauseam

Steven T. Newcomb

What the hell were they thinking? Why would the first African American President of the United States, as U.S. Commander in Chief, think nothing of U.S. military forces applying the code name “Geronimo” to Osama bin Laden during the reported assault against that long-sought enemy of the United States? Apparently, having an African American President in the White House is not enough to overturn the more than 200-year American tradition of treating and thinking of Indians as enemies of the United States.

Question: Did President Barack Obama point out to his military brass that such a disrespectful use of Geronimo’s name was inappropriate? Probably not.

In my book Pagans in the Promised Land (Fulcrum, 2008) I use the theory of the human mind (cognitive theory) to explain the "cognitive unconscious" of the United States. Certain ingrained traditions of thought, both conscious and unconscious, have been used for generations by U.S. government officials. Such thinking has resulted in the development of predominantly anti-Indian U.S. federal Indian laws and policies. The result has been laws and policies that have proven detrimental to Indian nations and peoples.

George Washington, in 1784, used the analogy “the savage as the wolf” to refer to our Indian ancestors as less-than-human “beasts.” As Henry Wheaton said in his Elements of International Law, “The heathen nations of the other quarters of the globe were the lawful spoil and prey of their civilized conquerors.” Thus, one of the normative American metaphors throughout the history of the United States has been "Indians Are Enemies." We’re talking about a U.S. tradition of dehumanization and dominance used against our nations and peoples.

From the perspective of non-Indian colonizers, our indigenous ancestors were enemies to be uprooted from the vast extent of our traditional lands and territories and confined to “reservations” in remote areas, under U.S. control. Thus, off the reservation is a common idiom used by television journalists and commentators to refer to someone being a "renegade," with the connotation being an enemy “who chooses to live outside laws or conventions.” However, it is important to keep in mind that U.S. laws and conventions have been imposed on our nations and peoples. Someone who has gone off the reservation is considered to be an "outlaw,” which in our case is outside the bounds of imposed laws and policies of the United States.

Geronimo's life story is a direct result of the invasion of the Apache territory and attempts to subdue the free and independent Apache. After his family was massacred by Mexicans in 1851, Geronimo became a Chiricahua Apache leader who fit perfectly into the non-Indian metaphorical frame “Indians Are Enemies.” He and a small group of fellow Apaches brilliantly eluded capture by 5,000 United States Army soldiers, 500 Indian scouts, and 3000 Mexican soldiers. The desert terrain was steep and formidable. The temperatures were extreme: intense cold and blistering heat. Geronimo and his band had very little food or water. What those Apaches accomplished is very likely one of the most amazing physical feats of stamina in the history of the human race. He finally surrendered in 1886.

In the reported stories of Osama Bin Laden being killed by U.S. military forces, bin Laden was code-named “Geronimo.” According to a CBS news report, those who came up with that “inappropriate code name” apparently “thought of bin Laden as a 21st-century equivalent” of Geronimo. In other words, the code name was based on an extension of the metaphor “Indians Are Enemies” to “Geronimo was a Terrorist,” thus perpetuating the U.S. tradition of treating Indian nations and peoples as enemies.

Geronimo was fighting against the invasion of his country and the oppression of his people. He did not invade the United States. Rather, Spain, Mexico, and then the United States invaded the Apache Territory and the territories of hundreds of other Indigenous nations. Horrific atrocities were committed against the Apache, and men such as Geronimo, whose family was massacred by Mexicans, did not hesitate to retaliate. Geronimo died a “prisoner of war” in 1909.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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twjewels's picture
Ho boy. Where do I start with this one? Look, I was born in the U.S., on U.S. Soil. By any dictionary defintion, not whatever fevered idea goes through your mind, that makes me a native American. So get off the 'non-native' kick. you'll only embarress yourself. Secondly, throughout history, the advancement of societies of various stripes usually came at the expense of others less technologically progressed or culturally unable to adapt. The Native Americans were rolled over by the Spanish, The French, The British, and Americans beacuse they were perceived to be in the way of expansion. This, at the end of the day, is the way things have worked by in large until relatively recently. There is no grand design behind this. It just is. Does that make it right? No. But has it happened about everywhere on earth when two cultures bump into one another? Yes, with few exceptions. Does it still go on? Yes. You just happen to be on the End that got hammered. As have my people, who've been kicked out of every country because we're Jews. We don't like it, but we suck it up and move on, and integrate into the culture while retaining our own. About time you did too, and quit kvetching about how unfair it all is. We've got a much longer history about knowing how much life sucks.
wiscdecathlon's picture
While I sadly acknowledge our country's systematic murder of it's original citizens, I don't think Obama or anyone else meant any disrespect, or oversight in the year 2011. "Geronimo" meant "mission success". In other words, "Mission success!" EKIA! "Mission success!" "Mission success!". Pretty good association for a heroic warrior. Should the Blackhawk tribe be offended by the use of it's name for the helicopters? If yes, I guess I can see the argument; if not, then I think you are misinterpreting the evidence.
gn1927's picture
The entire premise of this article: that President Obama nicknamed bin Laden "Geronimo" is a complete falsehood. It is 100% untrue, yet you state it anyway. The military named the *mission* Geronimo in an obvious nod to bravery and risk-taking. How does it feel to have smeared the first black POTUS for something which he never did, and spread a complete falsehood? Words matter, and your words have attacked someone unfairly based on an assumption which is simply a lie. This is a very divisive and dismaying story. I am gratified that so many people took the time to find the correct facts.
quedi's picture
To twjewels: Your opinions are wrong on so many levels that its hard for me to know where to start. Your notion that Indians were "rolled over" by the Spanish, the French, and the British are historically incorrect. I suggest you take some history classes. As far as our being unable to adapt because of being "less technologically progressed," let me just say this. White society's possession and use of technology hasn't been made the world any greater of a place to live, and has IN FACT been a leading cause of much ecological and human suffering. Its about time you quit defending the mythical, glorious past. Its a past that was undeniably morally and ethically wrong. As a member of a marginalized group, your time would be better spent allying with others who share these experiences in order to make a better world. I for one have had it with the old "my people were more demoralized and put upon than yours" song and dance. Talk about non-progressive!
candyo's picture
I'm sure Obama would feel a little insulted if they had used a code name like "Martin Luther King" for Osama Bin Laden. Especially, since the Skull and Bones secret society claim to have "Geronimo's Skull" at the College Law School that George W. Bush and George H. Bush attended.
denverlowcap's picture
As I commented on Ms. King's op/ed piece, why is this a surprise to any Native person is beyond me... the US gov couches most of their war mongering in the ideology and terms developed when fighting against our people, here in this country. Look back to the photo ops from bush and you will see 7th calvary handkerchiefs strategically placed on the soldiers, symbolism equating to the oppression of our people. Quit thinking of the US gov as an ally or a friend, it is neither. those who believe that the gov is our friend are only fooling themselves and doing a great injustice to our Nations as a result. Take the blinders off already....
thechief's picture
As a Pima I could imagine that my ancestors would view Geronimo and Apaches in general as a group of thugs. They were responsible for rape, kidnapping, stealing, and murder. I think it's easy to romanticize Geronimo but you must also realize he killed members of other tribes. I don't know how he compares to Osama but I could imagine the fear that the raids that Apaches would have on our villages would terrify a community.
carlisleantonio's picture
I think that we have to remember that the name Geronimo is not an Indian name. The man history came to know as Geronimo was named ' Goyahkla' This name means a lot more to me than St. Jerome. Perhaps the spirit of Goyahkla has come back to address these issues and to accord him the decency of righting the real wrongs - i.e a name that he did not want nor was he born with. This is about identity not from a dominant cultural point of view, but from an indigenous one. Our purpose in a name therefore should be about addressing the indigenous story behind this and not following the blind leading the blind, by jumping into the flames of a propaganda machine whose roots lie in a mindset that predates American history and resides within a European thought process, whose origins even pre-date the Romans and that's going back a bit. By remembering our names we were given to us by our own people, only then will we truly be able to understand our identity.
lanadawarjack's picture
Ethnocentric terminology and symbolism dehumanizing American Indian people are not new dimensions for America's social institutions, media, military command and US President. It's not surprising but this needs to stop. I don't support any terrorist acts justified or not because it doesn't make us as "Americans" any better than the next terrorist. How are we ever going to heal from the historic genocidal trauma we are impacted by as Native American Indians? How are we ever going to stop the injustice and discrimination we are faced with daily when the nation's US President uses the same terminology to dehumanize our people as a race. We had to deal with the genocidal invasion and aftermath of forcibly being placed on reservations and now the colonization impact of poverty deeply affected by the social ills of society through alcohol and drugs. If we resist getting brainwashed into western ideology via capitalist democracy and not like any of this, we get labeled as trouble makers and radicals.We have no voice or vote on any legislation that legitimizes modern day land steals and taking of more precious natural resources. I understand most people will not voice their opinion regarding this issue because of the propaganda filtered in the communities to maintain our silence. Then we have the "Stockholm Syndrome" of joining and supporting our captors. We must overcome our hatred and terrorist acts and strive for Peace. Obama and his military has made it crystal clear where we as Native people stand today and it is very disheartening that in this present day, we cant learn to live and work together world wide. I pray for my enemies which is engrained within our Native culture. We must continue to strive for Peace.
jfjfxray's picture
newcomb you are a freaking idiot and so are the people that agree with you. the US did not use that codename to disrespect indians. so i take it that indians are upset about having some the most powerful weapons we have named after them also..(Apache,Blackhawk,Comanche,Chinook,Kiowa Warrior) idiots