The day after the news spread that the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, or bin Laden himself, was code-named Geronimo, Fort Sill Apache Tribe Chairman Jeff Houser asked President Obama to issue a formal apology for associating one of the most enduring and heroic figures in Indian country with the name of the man who epitomized global terrorism.
“We are grateful that the United States was successful in its mission against bin Laden, but associating Geronimo's name with an international terrorist only perpetuates old stereotypes about Apaches,” Houser wrote. The Fort Sill Apache Tribe is the successor to Geronimo’s Chiricahua Apache Tribe. “In the 1800's Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache people were portrayed as savages. This portrayal was used as justification for the forced removal from their homelands and their subsequent imprisonment. Linking Geronimo’s name to an infamous terrorist only reinforces this false and defamatory stereotype.” The letter, which was faxed to the White House on May 3, 2011, emphasizes the Apache leader’s status as a Native American icon, recalls the United States House of Representatives February 2009 Resolution honoring him, and makes a personal appeal to the President to “right this wrong.”
The Fort Sill Apache Tribe is successor in interest to the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache people that lived in Southern New Mexico and Arizona until 1886, when they were forcibly removed and held as Prisoners of War of the United States for 28 years. The Tribe’s members are descendants of those people who upon their release in 1914 remained in Oklahoma and maintained their status as independent Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches until the tribe was restored years later as the Fort Sill Apache Tribe. The tribe has long expressed its desire to return to its homelands.
Indian Country Today Media Network was able to ask Houser a few questions about the use of Geronimo in association with bin Laden and the impact it has on Indian country as a whole.
How did you find out about the use of Geronimo’s name it and what was your response?
Yesterday (Tuesday) I was looking at the local paper and the headline said, ‘Relentless How U.S. Brought Justice to Bin Laden’s Doorestep.’ And there was a little quote that says the Seals killed bin laden with a bullet to the head using the code that Geronimo had been killed in action. I thought, “Geronimo”? I was puzzled. Geronimo as an icon is used quite a bit so I wouldn’t say I was upset, but as the day wore on and tribal leaders around the country were making their displeasure known I felt as the leader of the tribe (that was Geronimo’s tribe) that we needed to make a statement of some sort.
What do you make of this casual use of the name of one of the most iconic figures of American Indian life and your tribe’s ancestor?
I don’t know what to make of it. I think it was something done without a whole lot of thought as to how it would be represented to most of the Indian community. So often we’re not really thought of, we’re not really considered, so I think it was just another example of that. But this is the second time this year that the federal government has referenced Native people as similar to al Qaeda. There was a filing in federal court that compared the Seminoles to al Qaeda. I don’t know if you can say there’s a pattern from two things, but it’s kind of a lot like a pattern.
Do you think it’s just ignorance, that they don’t know about history or forgot about it, or don’t want to know?
I think it’s a lack of understanding of how Natives feel about these things. It’s not being aware of the impact of things like this on people.
Do you expect President Obama to apologize?
That would be ideal. If the president were to issue an acknowledgment that speaks to the inappropriateness of the use of the name or an apology it would be a great response.
And what happens if he doesn’t? How would you feel about that?
Then he misses an opportunity to really show Native people that he understands our struggles. So often tribes struggle and so this would just be another in the long line of problems we’ve faced and any number of things that have arisen over and over again. So if nothing comes of it, I wouldn’t really be surprised and I wouldn’t really be upset, but I’d be disappointed.
What is your response to the amazing response from Indian country, which is pretty much speaking with one voice over this?
I’m really happy about it. I’m really surprised. I saw the news yesterday and I was taken aback by it, but I thought, oh well, it’s just another one of those things and then there was so much response, I thought, wow, people really care about this and it is nice to see Indian country speaking with one voice.
Have you noticed there have been so many instances of prominent people and others making these kinds of casual if not insulting and racist remarks recently?
Yes, I’ve been aware of it and it’s troubling.
It seems like it’s been building up and I wonder if this unified response from Indian country is because these kinds of comments have reached the point where people are just really tired of hearing all this stuff all the time and they’re not going to take it anymore?
I think that would be great because so often we let it pass. So if this is the opportunity for a unified response from Indian country that enough is enough, then that’s a benefit. I’m very thankful for the response throughout Indian county and hope that at the very least this does provide an opportunity for tribal leaders to speak with a unified voice. For us (Geronimo’s tribe, the Chiricahua Apaches), having been imprisoned and referred to as enemies and savage and violent people and walked away from for nearly 30 years to have this association return is painful and I hope the collective response of Natives around the country and around the world will show that it’s not the appropriate thing to do. Our tribe was a prisoner of war with Geronimo. Unlike bin Laden, Geronimo didn’t resist; he willingly surrendered, relying on the promise of the American to return to his homeland in two years, and we’re still waiting for that promise to be fulfilled.
Note: Last August a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by descendants of Apache warrior Geronimo that said his remains were stolen in 1918 by members of Skull and Bones, a student secret society at Yale University. The lawsuit was filed in 2009 in Washington, D.C., by 20 descendants who wanted to rebury Geronimo near his New Mexico birthplace. It contended that Skull and Bones members took remains from a burial plot at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Geronimo died in 1909 while being held by the U.S. Army as a prisoner of war at Fort Sill.