Bin Laden, Geronimo and historical memory: the case for accuracy

In what is surely a great moment in bad timing, the killing of Osama bin Laden—and the news that the Navy SEALS had code-named him “Geronimo”—came just days before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee had scheduled a hearing entitled “Stolen Identities: The Impact of Racist Stereotypes on Indigenous People.” As Indian Country Today reported, this provided an opportunity for Harlyn Geronimo—great-grandson of the famous Apache warrior—to register his protest to the nation. Rightly calling the use of his forebear’s name a “subversion of history” and “unpardonable slander of Native America and its most famous leader in history,” he went on to make demands since taken up by other Native American voices:

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 US government this use of the name Geronimo.

He noted that—in vivid contrast to Osama bin Laden!—the real Geronimo was such a popular figure, even among white Americans, that he was invited to march in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 Inaugural Parade, and did so, in traditional Apache regalia, to spectators’ wild applause. He was similarly a major attraction at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Nonetheless, he received no real justice. Promised good lands in exchange for his surrender in 1886, he was instead deported with his band of some 300 from their high desert homeland in the New Mexico Territory to Fort Marion in Florida, and later to a concentration camp (“military reservation”) in Alabama, where perhaps a quarter of the band died of tuberculosis and other diseases. Geronimo was eventually allowed to relocate with his family to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where conditions were better, with access to lands where a little village was established, and where he died in 1909. But he was still treated as an official “prisoner of war,” and never allowed to return to his homeland—even in death. His remains (if none were plundered as has been alleged), are to this day in the Ft. Sill Apache Prisoner of War Cemetery, despite the repeated requests of his descendants that they be returned to ancestral Apache lands in the Gila National Forest.

The exhibition of Geronimo at inauguration pageants and the like was in large part an ugly triumphalist spectacle. But, paradoxically, Geronimo’s popularity in defeat also had to do with his embodiment of the mythos of American freedom—in his proud refusal for 10 years and more to be confined to reservations, his commitment to fight for his liberty rather than be fenced in—and a wistfulness about the closing of the frontier. (Geronimo’s surrender marked the formal end of the Indian wars.) This makes the conflation of his name with that of a man who has been loathed in official propaganda as an enemy of “our freedom” even more perverse.

The day after Harlyn Geronimo’s congressional testimony, his demands were taken up by Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation. From Navajo Times, May 5:

On Wednesday, President Ben Shelly called the use of Geronimo as the codename for Bin Laden “dehumanizing, unethical” and a perpetuation of “international ignorance” toward every Native American living in the U.S.

Shelly called on Obama and the Pentagon to change the code name so that U.S. history books will not continue to portray negative stereotypes of Native people and America’s youth will remember Geronimo as “one of our greatest war heroes.”

He added, “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.”

The famous Code Talkers were Navajo servicemen who used their language as a code indecipherable to the Japanese in the Pacific theater of World War II. The Code Talkers are today honored by the US Navy—which nonetheless saw fit to invoke the hunt for Geronimo in that for bin Laden. Nor was it an isolated incident. More from Navajo Times:

In another incident in March, U.S. Department of Defense compared Seminole ancestors to the terrorist group al-Qaeda in a case in the U.S. Court of Military Commissions Review.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida petitioned the defense department to remove this portion of the case: “Not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but, much like modern-day al Qaeda, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against US targets itself violate the customs and usage of war.”

Seminole tribal counsel Jim Shore said, “To equate the historic struggle of our ancestors in resisting General Andrew Jackson’s unlawful invasion of our homeland to al Qaeda terrorism is a vicious distortion of well-documented history.

“The government’s strained comparison of Native Americans to al Qaeda is disrespectful to our tribe, all American Indians and our American Indian military veterans, as well as those in active military service,” he said.

The Miami Herald informed us on March 23 that one Navy Capt. Edward S. White apparently wrote the brief in the case of Ali al-Bahlul, the only man who remains behind bars of the three who have been convicted by military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay to date, and whose attorneys are now appealing. In defense of the Gitmo tribunal system, Capt. White invoked an 1818 military commission convened by Gen. Andrew Jackson after US forces invaded then-Spanish Florida, where escaped Black slaves from Southern plantations were taking refuge with the Seminoles. Two British men were convicted by the commission of aiding the Seminoles, and sentenced to be flogged. Slave-owner Jackson declared the punishment too soft, and ordered them executed. They were.

It is pretty amazing that in this supposed age of political correctitude, the good guys and bad guys in American history can be neatly reversed like this. It is Jackson’s invasion of Florida that was arguably illegal, and the pushing of the Seminoles into the swamplands by the white settler onslaught after the US formally took over the territory in 1821 would today be considered “ethnic cleansing.”

As for bin Laden, if we are to draw analogies at all (which is a bit of a stretch at best), the “Geronimo = Osama” formula also just about reverses things. Geronimo was an indigenous leader fighting for the defense of his land and people, not a mass-murdering fundamentalist. The mass murderers in the centuries of Indian wars were far more often the US cavalry and settler militias—who justified their bloody deeds in the name of an Abrahamic god and expunging paganism. The most infamous such example was the Reverend Colonel John Chivington, the “Crimson Parson” who oversaw the 1864 massacre of a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, Colorado. The fundamentalist jihadis, with their ideology (and often their foot-soldiers) imported from Saudi Arabia, are similarly committing acts of brutal cleansing against indigenous Somalis, against Yazidis in Iraq, against the Fur in Sudan—against indigenous, land-rooted peoples throughout the greater Middle East.

In a case of the paradoxical unity of opposites, those who would glorify bin Laden as the defender of indigenous peoples against imperialist assault—most obviously Ward Churchill—make precisely the same error. The long incestuous relationship between the jihadis and the CIA (especially during the Cold War) speaks to Islamist fundamentalism’s and Western imperialism’s shared contempt for indigenous peoples, who are perceived (at best) as merely in the way in a great struggle over oil, resources and power.

As much as we are heartened by the protests of Harlyn Geronimo and Ben Shelly, we cannot share their call for striking references to “Operation Geronimo” from the historical record. Sanitizing the record fails to acknowledge the profundity of the problem—and is, in its own way, a part of exactly what they are protesting: a betrayal of historical memory. History books should reflect the actual history: the operation was, in fact, code-named Geronimo. Native Americans are owed an apology for that. But there is no point in hiding what it says about our culture.

See our last post on the politics of Native America.

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  1. some dispute over code name
    The story now seems to be that “Geronimo” was for the letter “G” having reached step “G” in the mission which was capturing or killing OBL. Officially the story now is this was “Operation Neptune Spear” with “Jackpot” as Bin Laden.

    Confusion about codes or damage control?

    1. The problem with revisionism
      This is exactly the problem with calls for revisionism. The waters have already become muddy, and now we may never know the true story. When did the phrase “Operation Neptune Spear” first appear in the media reportage?

      1. I first saw it today
        but I’m not following it.

        You may be interested to know that, while looking for the wikipedia entry on this murky matter I first googled:

        “bin laden geronimo”

        and this article was the first return(!)

        1. Geronimo and fog of obfuscation
          In a quote now immortalized on Wikipedia, on 8 May, President Obama apparently told 60 Minutes, “There was a point before folks had left, before we had gotten everybody back on the helicopter and were flying back to base, where they said Geronimo has been killed, and Geronimo was the code name for bin Laden.” However, Wikipedia does not link to the “60 Minutes” transcript (is there one?), but to an account of it in the May 11 Indian Country Today.