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Bin Laden Ain’t No Geronimo

The celebration over Osama bin Laden’s killing by Navy SEALS on May 1 was perhaps briefer for American Indians than for any other group in America—even Republicans. As in countless other times in history, American Indians soon found themselves fighting a familiar battle—educating the ignorant—after learning that a hero to many of them, 19th century Apache tribesman Geronimo, had been associated with the terrorist enemy in Pakistan by some of the highest-ranking members of the American military and political system. Consequently, bin Laden’s death turned out to be more an occasion for reflection rather than celebration for this group uniquely touched by America’s history and conflicted by what it means to be an American.

Despite all the talk about how 9/11 changed us, not much was different for Native Americans on September 10, 2001 than in the years that followed. Back on that September 10, Congress and the White House often had difficulty understanding the unique circumstances of American Indians, and politicians regularly failed to live up to trust obligations called for in treaties and in the Constitution. On that September 10, a majority of Americans had more misperceptions of Native peoples than of any other, and were willing to stereotype Indians cruelly and casually. And on that September 10 a decade ago, Indians felt conflicted about their place in American society—they wanted the mainstream to understand them as strong contributors to the culture, yet they never wanted to lose their uniqueness, what set them apart from it.

In the years that followed the devastation of 9/11, all of those issues facing Indians festered, but some were exacerbated in new and unique ways. Problems with getting suitable funding in the American political system is perhaps the easiest to highlight, since the money pot for Indian-focused programs has always been small compared to the vast variety of American priorities.

“One of the most tangible ways 9/11 affected us was with regard to the massive shift in U.S. resources toward terrorism,” says Heather Dawn Thompson, a Cheyenne River Sioux lawyer based in Washington, D.C. As an example, she notes that the federal government still has primary law-enforcement jurisdiction in Indian country (to the chagrin of Natives who want more tribal control), yet after 9/11 the FBI substantially changed its focus and resources from domestic law enforcement to international intelligence and terrorism.

“They have annual priorities, and I think crime in Indian country, has been bumped to like eighth or ninth [on their list],” Thompson says. At the same time, there has been a substantial shift in federal funding away from domestic programs to the Department of Defense, which, in turn, has likely taken money away from Indian programs; and there has been a shift toward cracking down on American travel that set back progress on acceptance of tribal government identification for international travel.

Beyond the politics of federal funding, ethnocentrism and its effects on Natives received plenty of attention post-9/11. For Indians living in a dominant society that pays little attention to them because it has little in common with their ideologies, ethnocentrism has long been a force to deal with. But in some cases over the past 10 years, the problem grew a whole lot worse. In Arizona, some politicians justified a crackdown on illegal immigration by arguing that it is tied to terrorism. In that state, Indians have not only reported being treated as if they are illegal immigrants, they have also faced attempts to limit funding for programs that teach Native ethnic studies for fear that such programs are somehow harmful to the greater American society. “Arizona’s ethnic studies ban whitewashes history,” wrote David Love on in May 2010, noting that Tom Horne, the head of the Arizona public schools and then-Republican candidate for state attorney general, had labeled ethnic studies as “ethnic chauvinism” and “high treason.” Horne went on to win his election, and Native advocates must now fight even harder to make sure Indian voices and perspectives are included in the version of American history taught in Arizona schools.

Hand in hand with pervasive ethnocentrism are post-9/11 stereotypes by which some Americans associate Indians with terrorists. Even in an era when most educated Americans understand that stereotyping is wrong, the problem has not gone away for Indians. That negative stereotypes of Indians are alive (and as misguided as ever) could never have been clearer than when the initial reports of bin Laden’s demise rolled out, and we learned that the military’s code name for the operation that killed him was “Geronimo.” When bin Laden was shot, a military transmission from operatives on the ground in Pakistan went out saying, “Geronimo-EKIA”—“Geronimo, Enemy Killed in Action”—which many reporters in the American press interpreted to mean that both the operation and its target were called Geronimo.

To most Indians, it was an offense of the highest order. In their minds, Geronimo, the leader of the Chiricahua Apache, who lived from 1829 until 1909, was not a terrorist like bin Laden. In resisting American advances into Apache territory in the 1800s, he was protecting his Indian relatives and community against the true terrorists—colonists and pioneers who were stealing land, water and other resources that rightfully belonged to Indians. The consensus among contemporary Indians after bin Laden’s death was that, yes, Geronimo defied the U.S. government by eluding capture, but he was doing so because they were terrorizing him and his people, not because he was a terrorist. That the American military still doesn’t see that distinction was disappointing to many. Indians quickly united to tell America what they thought about the military’s hurtful and harmful error. Statements from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), tribes, and individual Indian leaders were released.

“This is not a matter of being sensitive; it’s a matter of respect. It’s time the United States respect the original people of this land and the Native people who step up to defend our freedoms,” according to NAJA’s statement. “It is unacceptable for the United States to equate Geronimo with Osama bin Laden. Geronimo stood up for his people, their traditions, and the land they lived upon. Geronimo was no terrorist. He was a member of North America’s homeland security, and Native North Americans will never forget that.” The organization, like many other Native groups and individuals, went on to ask the federal government to apologize.

Some pro-Indian American legislators, including Chickasaw Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma; and Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, joined in saying the use of “Geronimo” as a code name was wrong. Cole, the only Native American currently serving in Congress, told the Tulsa World newspaper that he didn’t think the use of the word was appropriate, although he added that he didn’t believe any offense was meant by it. Sen. Udall, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said at a hearing focused on Native stereotypes and derogatory language on May 5 that he thought the reference to an Indian hero was, “highly inappropriate and culturally insensitive.” (“An undeserved compliment to bin Laden,” was how Kevin Gover, the Pawnee director of the National Museum of the American Indian, drolly put it.)

The Seminole Tribe went further, noting that the Geronimo reference was now part of a disconcerting trend. They pointed out that the Department of Defense compared their Indian nation to Al Qaeda terrorists in a recent legal brief filed in its defense of using military commissions to try a person accused of aiding the enemy.

Amid the outcry, subsequent press reports indicated that bin Laden’s official code name was “Jackpot” and the official code name for the overall mission to kill him was “Operation Neptune’s Spear,” also known as the “Abbottabad Operation,” but those reports seemed to many Indians like an effort to cover up the original insult. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the White House told Indian Country Today Media Network and other news outlets that it would not comment on the code names, and suggested that the Department of Defense be contacted instead. When contacted, Defense’s official explanation was that it does not give out information on code names.

Yet another wrinkle occurred when CNN on May 5 quoted a senior Obama administration official saying that Geronimo “was code for the act of capturing or killing bin Laden, not for the man himself,” as if Indians should be honored that the name was used to capture a villain. All these attempts at obfuscation were rendered moot when President Obama confirmed in a 60 Minutes interview that the code name for bin Laden was Geronimo.

Perhaps the most enduring impact of 9/11 for Natives is that the attack and its aftermath forced them to consider their own “American-ness” through the lens of a much more contemporary event than the horrific actions of the U.S. government against Indians presented in history books. It’s not an easy thing to do, as was noted by American Indian filmmaker Chris Eyre in a recent Facebook posting involving the Geronimo/bin Laden fiasco: “To Natives, Geronimo is a hero because he fought America. To Natives, bin Laden was evil because he fought America. I guess all the Natives romanticizing Geronimo’s ‘anti-hero’ persona just don’t want outsiders doing it.… [Try to] explain that to a kid.” Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee advocate for Indian rights, summarized the complexities another way at the May 5 Senate hearing: “Our history is very complicated, but this is our country. This is our country in a way that it cannot be to any other peoples who now share it with us.”

Controversial opinions on 9/11 can be troublesome in America today, as evidenced by the scandal involving Native studies scholar Ward Churchill. In 2005, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly fulminated about an essay Churchill had penned in September 2001, in which he argued that American foreign policies helped provoke the attacks of 9/11. Many in Indian country, given their unique history of dealing with the U.S. government, had asked similar questions, but in the mainstream media, Churchill was lashed by commentators for being anti-American. His employer, the University of Colorado at Boulder, ordered an inquiry into his research, and then fired him, in July 2007. Some claimed he was fired for his views not his scholarship, and a jury ultimately found that he was wrongly fired. (It didn’t help that Churchill’s credibility in Indian country was later damaged when several tribes he claimed to be affiliated with disputed those ties.) A judge later vacated the ruling and determined that the university did not have to rehire him. Despite his travails, Churchill did not become a hero in Native circles. In fact, many thought his views hurt American Indians.

In contrast to Churchill, many Indians have found it beneficial to point out the attributes and values they share with America and the good work they have done in helping protect it. This explains why people like Thom Wallace, the communications director for NCAI, told CNN in a recent interview that news organizations should focus on the approximately 24,000 American Indian active members of the military. He noted, too, that a disproportionately high number of Native Americans serve in the U.S. military, and pointed out that 61 American Indians and Alaska Natives have been killed serving in the Armed Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and 445 have been injured. Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI and a veteran, hammered the point in that CNN report: “Let’s be very clear about what is important here: The successful removal of Osama bin Laden as a threat to the United States honors the sacrifice these Native warriors made for the United States and their people.”

If Keel had wanted to make his point even more forcefully, he could have pointed out that Osama bin Laden was much less a threat to Indian country than almost any other factor thrown at them by the U.S. government, past or present. But it is dangerous to be that blunt. Especially in post-9/11 America.