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Why native Americans see red

Geronimo, the code name for the bin Laden raid last month has angered some.

world Updated: Jun 11, 2011 22:49 IST
Neely Tucker
Neely Tucker

He died 102 years ago in Oklahoma, a beaten warrior, a prisoner of war, an exile from his homeland, a propped-up sideshow, a gambler and a lukewarm Christian. His family was murdered by Mexicans. The Americans stripped him of most everything else.

And yet, the Apache born near the Gila River in present-day Arizona with the not-very-impressive name of Goyahkla (One Who Yawns) rode into history as the legendary Geronimo.

It was his name that the US military chose as the code for the raid, and perhaps for Osama bin Laden himself, during the operation that killed the al-Qaida leader in Pakistan. That led to the iconic transmission from the raid: ‘Geronimo EKIA.’ Geronimo, Enemy Killed in Action.

In a triumphant moment for the United States, the moniker has left a sour taste among many Native Americans.

“I was celebrating that we had gotten this guy and feeling so much a part of America,” Tom Holm, a former Marine, member of the Creek/Cherokee Nations and a retired professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, said by phone. “And then this ‘Geronimo EKIA’ thing comes up. I just said, ‘Why pick on us?’ Robert E Lee killed more Americans than Geronimo ever did, and Hitler would seem to be evil personified, but the code name for bin Laden is Geronimo?”

“There is little doubt [the] use of a leader like Geronimo to refer to bin Laden is ill-advised,” Keith Harper, a partner at the Washington firm of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and a member of the Cherokee Nation, wrote in an e-mail. Harper represented the plaintiff class of 500,000 individual Indians in the landmark Indian trust funds lawsuit, which last year settled its claims against the US government for $3.4 billion.

“No one would find acceptable calling this arch-terrorist by code name Mandela, Revere or Ben-Gurion” Harper wrote. “An extraordinary Native leader and American hero deserves no less.”

Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, a Native American advocacy group based in Washington, has long fought against the use of Indian imagery in American life (including as the mascot of the Washington Redskins). She sighed when asked about the latest iteration of Geronimo. “It’s how deeply embedded the ‘Indian as enemy’ is in the collective mind of America,” she said. “To this day, when soldiers are going into enemy territory, it’s common for it to be called ‘Indian country.’”

It isn’t clear yet which branch of the military came up with the nickname — the Army, Navy, CIA or any of the anti-terror special forces groups involved in planning the raid — but it apparently wasn’t bin Laden’s nickname for very long.

A database search of news stories shows that, while military leaders sometimes compared bin Laden’s elusiveness to Geronimo’s, there’s no account of calling the al-Qaida leader ‘Geronimo’ until this past weekend.

Military code names and nicknames have a long history, dating to when written or radio transmissions could be easily intercepted, and thus the name for a secret language that only some people involved in a particular operation would understand.

But not all code names/nicknames have been loaded terms, even when the stakes were high. The plan to build the atomic bomb (the Manhattan Project) resulted in two atomic bombs (‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’) being dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US military now has strict formats for official code names/nicknames for designated targets, but the results are sometimes more goofy than intimidating.

In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post

First Published: Jun 11, 2011 22:45 IST