“Geronimo EKIA”

On May 1, Americans discovered that the United States military had killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during a raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. As I watched CNN with my roommates, the television commentators announced that the military code name for the operation to capture bin Laden was “Geronimo.” When I heard the name, I immediately knew that there would be a backlash against associating the killing of one of the United State’s greatest terrorist threats with the name of a Native American hero.  Sure enough, on May 5, national news magazines began reporting the anger of many Native Americans over the military’s use of Geronimo’s name.

You can already buy a T-Shirt with the phrase "Geronimo EKIA (Enemy Killed in Action)" on it. Photo from redbubble.com, May 2011.

Native American groups, particularly the Apache, were deeply insulted by the military’s use of Geronimo’s name to refer to bin Laden’s capture. Geronimo was an Apache leader who fought against American and Mexican expansion into his tribal lands. He eluded capture by United States forces for twenty-eight years (1858 – 1886), finally negotiating a surrender with a cavalry unit sent to return him to the United States dead or alive. Today, Geronimo has a complicated legacy. He embarrassed the United States army for decades and led raids that resulted in the deaths of many Americans and Mexicans, yet Native American groups look to him as a brave leader who fought against decades of American exploitation of Apaches and other tribes. Indeed, today the United States military occasionally uses the word “Geronimo” as shorthand for bravery during risky maneuvers and operations [1].

The military claims that the code name for the operation was chosen at random. Does anyone really believe that excuse? I certainly do not. In an article published on May 3, BBC News tracked military and media comparisons of Geronimo and Osama bin Laden back to 2001 [2]. The name Geronimo has a symbolic meaning for the United States military and the historical parallels point to them purposely choosing it for the operation. Perhaps the military believed that the code name would never be publicly revealed and that they would never have to account for it. Now that it has been revealed, should the President apologize to Native Americans, as several groups have called on him to do?

Ultimately, the President must answer that question himself. I am more interested in the fact that the military denies purposely choosing Geronimo as the operation’s code name. By refusing to acknowledge that its actions have offended some Native Americans, the United States government only worsens the insult. In class this week, we discussed the many issues that hinder the Native American community in the United States. One large problem is the refusal of many Americans to acknowledge the historical destruction of Native American people, traditions, and livelihoods and the depressed reality of many modern Native Americans. The military’s unwillingness to admit that it did anything wrong mirrors this shortsightedness. The military would be better served by admitting the reasons why it chose Geronimo as a code name and engaging in a discussion with the Native American community over Geronimo’s complicated legacy and the implications of invoking his name.

[1] Kathryn Westcott. Osama bin Laden: Why Geronimo? BBC News, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13265069, May 3, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

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