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Indian Country Responds to Geronimo, bin Laden Connection

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Organizations, Nations and American Indians have voiced their thoughts about the recent wanton and ignorant use of the name of an honored defender of Native sovereignty, Geronimo, being used in association with the death of Osama bin Laden. Indian Country Today Media Network has compiled some of these thoughts below.

Harlyn Geronimo, great-grandson of Geronimo, on behalf of himself and other surviving lineal descendants of the Historic Apache Leader Geronimo: This statement was submitted to the official record of the United States Senate Commission on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing on “Stolen Identities: The Impact of Racist Stereotypes on Indigenous People,” that took place on Thursday, May 5, 2011, at 2:15 p.m. in Dirksen-628.

Whether it was intended only to name the military operation to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden or to give Osama Bin Laden himself the code name Geronimo, either was an outrageous insult and mistake. And it is clear from the military records released that the name Geronimo was used at times by military personnel involved for both the military operation and for Osama Bin Laden himself.

Obviously to equate Geronimo with Osama Bin Laden is an unpardonable slander of Native America and its most famous leader in history.

And to call the operation to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden by the name Geronimo is such a subversion of history that it also defames a great human spirit and Native American leader. For Geronimo himself was the focus of precisely such an operation by the U.S. military, an operation that assured Geronimo a lasting place in American and human history.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1967, Volume 10, page 362) has described the real Operation Geronimo in the following words:

During this last campaign, which lasted 18 months, no fewer than 5,000 troops and 500 Indian auxiliaries had been employed in the apprehension of a band of Apaches comprising only 35 men, 8 boys and 101 women, who operated in two countries without bases of supply. Army and civilian losses totaled 95; Mexican losses were heavy, but unknown; Geronimo’s losses were 13 killed, but none from direct U.S. Army action.

Geronimo was not killed and was not captured. After the Chiricahua Band of Apaches were taken from reservations in Arizona Territory and New Mexico to Ft. Marion, Florida, Geronimo and his warriors saw no chance of reuniting with their people except by surrender with the promise that they would be reunited with their tribe.

General Miles promised: “There is plenty of timber, water, and grass in the land to which I will send you. You will live with your tribe and with your family. If you agree to this treaty you shall see your family within five days.” None of the promises were kept.

Nearly half the Chiricahua band, the band of Cochise, died in Florida and later in Alabama within several years before being moved to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Geronimo was held a prisoner of war for the remaining 23 years of his life, though he was a major attraction at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 and was second only to President Elect Theodore Roosevelt in the applause received along the Inaugural Parade route of 1905.

But Geronimo died a prisoner of war at Ft. Sill in February 1909. His bodily remains, if none were removed as has been alleged, are to this day in the Ft. Sill Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery despite his repeated requests to return to the headwaters of the Gila River in the Gila National Forest and within what was the first forest wilderness area designated in the U.S., in western New Mexico.

As the son of a grandson of Geronimo, who as a U.S. soldier fought at Omaha Beach on D Day and across West Europe to the Rhine in World War II, and having myself served two tours of duty in Vietnam during that war, I must respectfully request from the President, our Commander-in-Chief, or his Secretary at the Department of Defense, a full explanation of how this disgraceful use of my great grandfather’s name occurred, a full apology for the grievous insult after all that Native Americans have suffered and the expungement from all the records of the U.S. government this use of the name Geronimo. Leaving only for history the fact this insult to Native Americans occurred in all its pity.

The National Congress of American Indians: In a statement released May 3, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) responded to the death of Osama bin Laden and reports that the American Indian name “Geronimo” was used as the code name for the operation to kill the al-Qaeda leader.

“We join President Obama in reflecting on the sacrifices made by the members of our military to defend our great nation. When terrorists attacked on 9/11, it was an attack on our homeland that deeply affected tribal nations, along with our fellow citizens. Osama bin Laden was a shared enemy. Since 2001, 77 American Indians and Alaskan Natives have died defending our country in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 400 have been wounded,” said Jefferson Keel, President of NCAI, the oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization in the country.

“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,” added Keel, an Army Veteran and the Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.

In November 2010, the Pentagon estimated that nearly 24,000 American Indian and Alaska Native active duty personnel serve across the Armed Forces. Hundreds of thousands of tribal members have served in the U.S. military in the last century making vital contributions, such as the American Indian code talkers.

Reports from news outlets in the days following the tactical strike in Pakistan to capture or kill bin Laden have stated that the military’s code name for him was “Geronimo,” referring to the Apache leader revered by many as a hero in the Southwestern United States.

“Our understanding is that bin Laden’s actual code name was ‘Jackpot’ and the operation name was ‘Geronimo’,” said Keel. “To associate a Native warrior with bin Laden is not an accurate reflection of history and it undermines the military service of Native people. It’s critical that military leaders and operational standards honor the service of those who protect our freedom.”

Jefferson Keel, President of NCAI, is a retired U.S. Army officer with more than 20 years active duty service. He served two extended tours of combat duty as an Infantryman in Vietnam, and received numerous awards and decorations for heroism, including two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star with "V" for valor, and the Army Commendation Medal with valor. He is a former Airborne Ranger, infantry platoon sergeant and platoon leader, and served as an instructor in the elite U.S. Army Rangers.

Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs, on Behalf of the Haudenosaunee: This is a sad commentary on the attitude of leaders of the U.S. military forces that continue to personify the original peoples of North America as enemies and savages. The use of the name Geronimo as a code name for Osama Bin Laden is reprehensible. Think of the outcry if they had used any other ethnic group’s hero. Geronimo bravely and heroically defended his homeland and his people, eventually surrendering and living out the rest of his days peacefully, if in captivity, passing away at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1909. To compare him to Osama Bin Laden is illogical and insulting. The name Geronimo is arguably the most recognized Native American name in the world, and this comparison only serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes about our peoples. The U.S. military leadership should have known better.

It all brings to mind the August 13, 2010 statement by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg advising then Governor Paterson to “get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun” to deal with Indian affairs. This kind of thinking indicates little progress in a mature social development of United States leadership.

The military record of American Indians is exemplary. We have more men and women per capita volunteering in U.S. military services than any other ethnic group. It was American Indian code talkers that used their native languages to carry and transmit messages that Japanese and German intelligence could not decode, saving thousands of American lives in World War II. Ironically these brave men and women were using languages that American and Canadian boarding schools were doing their best to stamp out. When can we expect respect for our human dignity and human rights?

Chris Stearns (Navajo), Vice-Chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission:“Who knows what they were thinking. Perhaps the military realized the irony of possibly sending in Apache gunships to take out ‘Geronimo.’ Or perhaps George W. Bush amused himself with the thought that finding bin Laden would be just as difficult as retrieving Geronimo’s remains from the Skull and Bones compound at his alma mater, Yale. At any rate, it shows that America still has a long way to go in order to understand us as people, not just labels easily affixed to malt liquor, mascots, and terrorists.”

The Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) is very grateful and proud that the U.S. government captured one of the biggest terrorists known to man kind, however, in doing so, the U.S. government once again contributed to the stereotyping of Native Americans by utilizing a historical Native icon such as Geronimo, to set the scene for American ridicule by comparing him to the capturing and killing of Osama Bin Laden.

The information distributed to multiple media sources across the nation, on the U.S. government's behalf, has proven to the Native Nations across the board, that the American people in addition to the U.S. government still don't understand that we, the Native People of this land, are not here for constant public humiliation.

In the New York Time's article, "Clues Gradually Led to the Location of Osama Bin Laden", Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, narrated "We have a visual on Geronimo," he said. A few minutes later: "Geronimo EKIA." Enemy Killed In Action. Since this information hit the news stands through out the nation, NAJA has received numerous calls of complaint from our fellow colleagues and tribal members who were upset to find out that again, our Native People are being equated to a terrorist/murderer/enemy number one.

We ask the Federal Government: could there not have been another name used in reference to this attack? Could we not have used another infamous enemy in reference to Bin Laden? Say, perhaps, Custer or Columbus? Throughout American history, our Native people have served in this country's military in the highest numbers per capita of any racial group and yet sadly this is the way they are repaid for their service given to the United States. Both the Comanche and Navajo Nations helped the United States in World War II with their language used as codes.

George Red Elk, Comanche Indian Veterans Association Commander said he was, "very upset that the code name was chosen for the operation of killing Osama Bin Laden. The Comanche Nation, as well as all Native American Nations, have served this country honorably and many have paid the ultimate sacrifice to ensure we can still have the freedoms that are in our U.S. Constitution."

Since 2001, 61 American Indians and Alaskan Natives have died defending our country in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 400 have been wounded. Native Nations also lost Lori Piestewa, the Hopi woman, believed to be the first Native American woman ever to die in combat while serving in the U.S. military. All our Native service men and women have served honorably and continue to serve. 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. 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. We ask the federal government to apologize for the use of Geronimo's name with this operation as many of our Native Nations have been offended.

Ben Shelly, Navajo Nation president: As the leader of the largest Indian nation in America, I am appalled and disappointed that United States Military leaders would dishonor the legacy of war leader—Geronimo and the Apache tribes. As well as, all Native American service men and women and our own Navajo Nation Code Talkers, who have fought hard for the freedom of all Americans.

Throughout history, more Native Americans per capita have served our country with valor and dedication. It is not only disrespectful to Geronimo and the Navajo Nation Code Talkers, but to the 11 Navajo warriors who have recently lost their lives fighting against terrorism since 9/11. Still today, alongside other Indian Nations of the United States, we send our sons and daughters into conflict to fight for liberty, freedom, and justice.

To assign the operation code name ‘Geronimo’ to America’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, is dehumanizing, unethical and perpetrates international ignorance toward every Native American living in the United States today.

The Navajo Nation respects the Apache tribes, as having some of the fiercest warriors and the finest light calvary the world has ever known.

Today, I ask President Obama and the Pentagon to change the operation code name ‘Geronimo’ from this day forward. So that U.S. history books will not continue to portray negative stereotypes of Native Americans and that America’s youth will remember Geronimo as one of our greatest war heroes

Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida letter to President Obama: I am almost without words and I struggle to write how I feel after hearing reports that America’s number one enemy, Usama Bin Laden, was given the codename of fearless Apache leader, Geronimo. Once again, our nation’s native people were categorized as terrorists. The time has never been more appropriate and necessary for you to issue an apology to Native America.

It has been more than a month since my March 24th letter, requesting an apology to our nation’s Tribes because of the brief filed by prosecutors in the Guantanamo military action against convicted Al Qaeda, Al Buhlal. Within that brief the Seminole Tribe’s defense against a genocidal assault was compared to today’s terrorists. Although, the Department of Defense issued a written apology clarifying the use of the Seminole reference, it is yet a small step toward a shift in healing the tragic history that you promised to remedy during your 2008 campaign. My representative, Tina Osceola, is in communication with your Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement, Charlie Galbraith.

As the leader of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, I am requesting a meeting with you at the White House to discuss how we can work together to strengthen our mutual resolve to improve the image of Indian country beyond negative stereotypes. In 2008, I listened to your promises to our people and was assured that you would be an advocate for Indian country. As leaders of our nations, you and I have the opportunity to be the faces of change that all Americans can believe in and the example of true government-to-government relations. You and I are the hope for a better tomorrow.

Jeff Houser, chairman Fort Sill Apache, letter to President Obama: I am writing on behalf of and in my capacity as the Chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe. On Sunday, our Tribe like most of the country was ecstatic about your announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a military operation in Pakistan. The performance of our military and intelligence agencies in locating and taking action against Osama bin Laden made us all of proud to be Americans.

However, late yesterday as details of the operation came to light, our Tribe and many other Native Americans learned of a disturbing fact that tempered our positive feelings about this great accomplishment. Through various media reports our Tribe found out that the code name used for Osama bin Laden on this operation was Geronimo. As you may or may not know, Geronimo was a member of our Tribe. He is buried in the Fort Sill Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery on the Fort Sill Army Base in Lawton, Oklahoma where he died after almost 23 years of captivity.

We are quite certain that the use of the name Geronimo as a code for Osama bin Laden was based on misunderstood and misconceived historical perspectives of Geronimo and his armed struggle against the United States and Mexican governments. However to equate Geronimo or any other Native American figure with Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer and cowardly terrorist, is painful and offensive to our Tribe and to all native Americans.

Geronimo was a renowned Chiricahua Apache leader who personally fought to defend his people, territory and way of life. Unlike the coward Osama bin Laden, Geronimo faced his enemy in numerous battles and engagements. He is perhaps one of the greatest symbols of Native American resistance in the history of the United States.

What this action has done is forever link the name and memory of Geronimo to one of the most despicable enemies this Country has ever had. This fact is even more appalling when examined in light of the United States House of Representatives February 2009 Resolution that honored Geronimo for “his extraordinary bravery, and his commitment to the defense of his homeland, his people, and Apache ways of life.” Now a little over two years later your Administration has further immortalized his existence by linking him to the most hated person in recent American history.

Our Tribe and most Native Americans would hope that you would issue a formal apology to the Geronimo family members, the Fort Sill Apache Tribe and to all Native Americans for this action. Right now Native American children all over this Country are facing the reality of having one of their most revered figures being connected to a terrorist and murderer of thousands of innocent Americans. Think about how they feel at this point.

We all remember that you were elected on a message of compassion and change. This action by your Administration showed neither compassion toward Native Americans nor a change in the perception of us or an understanding of our struggle. Please do not allow this injustice against one of our greatest figures to stand. Only you Mr. President can take steps to right this wrong.

Oneida Indian Nation to Obama Administration: The Oneida Nation called upon the Obama Administration today to renounce the inappropriate use of the name of Geronimo as a code name for Osama bin Laden in the recent military operation that killed the terrorist in Pakistan.

Oneida Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said, “The Oneida Indian Nation joins all Americans in celebrating the bravery that led to finally bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. All of us continue to mourn for the lives lost on 9-11, and we remember with pride the way our country came together to support one another following that awful day. In the spirit of bringing about that type of unity once again, we must address the use of an American Indian icon’s name, Geronimo, as the code name for Osama bin Laden. It is critically important that an historical figure like Geronimo, who for generations has served as an inspiration and hero to millions of American Indians and non-Indians alike, not be associated for all of history with one of the world’s most heinous villains. It is also important to recognize that American Indians have fought and died in in every American conflict since the Revolutionary War, including the war in Afghanistan. It is an insult to their service and memory that an icon of their culture be used this way.

Finally, one of the lessons we learned from Osama bin Laden is that symbolism matters. The president must act quickly to prevent the name Geronimo from being used as a rallying cry and symbol by those who might pick up his cause and bring harm to America. We believe that it was not the intention of this Administration to offend an entire culture, and are therefore confident President Obama will act to address this terrible decision before it’s too late.”

Comments from Indian Country Today Media Network readers

Crystal Uka: Oh, COME ON!!!! First of all, they didn’t use Geronimo as the code word for Bin Laden, they used it as a code word for the entire operation!!! What would you have preferred they use, Operation We-found-Bin-Laden-in-a-mansion-just-outside-Abbottabad?!?!?!”?Can this country ever do ANYTHING without SOMEONE getting angry about it???The radical Muslims are angry because they gave him a burial at sea, now the Native Americans are angry because we used the wrong word.?Doesn’t ANYONE other than ME see the insanity here???

Honestly, they could have used the name of my beloved grandmother if they wanted to. This will go down as the operation of the decade. Why not be PROUD that they chose the name of, in your own words, a “fierce warrior.” Because that’s what our Navy SEALs represented here. Fierce Warriors!?Why don’t you try being proud Americans instead of complaining about what really amounts to NOTHING!?Yes, you are NATIVE Americans… but you’re certainly not acting like Americans.?Your final words really sum it all up: “They stand shoulder to shoulder with American citizens of all races. It’s time for the rest of America to stand with them.”

I think it’s time for YOU all to stand with the rest of America. Be proud of what your country accomplished instead of whining about their choice of a code name.

Come on, America. Can we not stand together on ANYTHING??? Isn’t it sad that the only time Americans truly come together is when we are attacked????

Enough is enough! We are ALL Americans. Native or otherwise.

Stop whining!

Tedbike3000:Love it…It is a supreme tribute that Geronimo did something so epic as to p#%@ off the U.S. gov’t so much that his name would live through history enough to be a symbol of resistance. Who else has done something so awesome that he has given his name to an act? “you can kill me, but you’ll not forget me”

wirth:I`m a 57 year old white boy. With all due respect to all Native American People I must say this was a major screw up by the/our government. I must say that i don`t believe the intention was to show disrespect or defamation. By contrast i might suggest that the choice of a code name was to honor the courage and bravery it took for the members of the Seal Team to accomplish their mission. Like it or not, the story and character of Geronimo has become part of American folk history and lore, (his photo adorns my wall). As a child whose name did i call to help summon the courage i needed for difficult tasks? GERONIMO! A hero to all Americas! Geronimo, to me, represents the spirit of the mission (can you imagin). And the sailor`s slip in the end was not intended as a comparison. It was code and only that. If my apology ment anything you have it. And i only offer that I as a white American feel great sarrow for the mis-hap. I also wonder if perhaps on the secrative Seal Team there was a proud Native American. Peace!

From our Facebook page

Terri Rattler: “Why couldn’t they have used ‘Custer,’ as the code name? The White people should be labeled as their own terrorist in their own land that they stole from our ancestors.”

Wakiem Parker: “What, those clowns in Washington had no idea that we would get upset with this? THIS IS BULL!!! My children have always held GERONIMO in HIGH regards… as a leader of warriors….”

William Blake Follis: “It’s not a very good thing at all that the code-name was used, but as Indians, we have bigger things to be pissed about and voice our concerns on. We need to focus on holding the U.S. Government accountable for their trust responsibilities….”

Carlotta Lane: “When I heard on CNN news that the code name the US used was Geronimo...I was VERY offended. Why on earth they equated Geronimo with bin Laden...I don't understand. They are worlds apart in my view on these two men. Geronimo was defending his family and people from a takeover from foreigners...trying to preserve the native life. Bin Laden was an attacker of peoples who did not believe like him and he seemed to think he was better than the human race. It is offensive to compare bin Laden to Geronimo and a slam to all NDN's. Shame on you, US!”

LaNada War Jack: Ethnocentric terminology and symbolic dehumanization used against our people through the social institutions and media are the next stages of colonization following the genocidal invasion and taking of our country. The military in command including the President continues to perpetuate the injustice and discrimination against Native people by using words such as "Operation Geronimo" and "Geronimo is Dead". This military terminology has been used since the War Department changed into the Department of Interior. When are they going to stop and change? America has mass amnesia and ignorant of the true history of this country.

Luisa TwoTwo: they could've used Martin Luther King is shot!, JFK! is down!, or Cesar Chavez is no longer growing!, why pick on the American Indian, and why pick (on) Geronimo? How about the Pilgrims are sunk? Or in John waynes words, "Pilgrim is plucked". they have no business using Geronimo as a term for taking down an islamic terrorist. Kiss my american indian butt!

Jewwee Lee: Sorry everybody.... The Mission was called Geronimo. Not Bin Laden. Secondly, how about u worry about the Natives that u have in the military more. There are so many of us, yes, I am full blooded Yakama and my wife is full blooded Navajo, that aren't even recognized by "INDIAN COUNTRY".... referring to natives KIA recently. If u really want to stand for anything, stand for that. No one is complaining about the attack helicopters known as Apaches or Kiowas which have saved our asses on numerous occasions. Thank you. U guys remind me of all the African Americans whom still to this day use slavery to try and get their way. Way to go. MOVE ON. We are the Future, right?

Kate Ditewig-Morris: Thank you for the education on this ... I never knew this about Geronimo. More evidence we've done an appalling job as a nation educating our people on American Indian history.

Kimberly Campbell: As intelligent as they are supposed to be their code names are very ignorant. How are Natives the enemy, when we welcomed them opened armed and in return we got bullets, treatys, & small pox.