Geronimo: Bin Laden's problematic code name

What's in a name? Shakespeare had a point when he had Juliet telling Romeo that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But don't tell that to the many Native Americans furious at the Pentagon for code-naming Osama bid Laden "Geronimo" in the raid that found and killed him.

Members of that community have taken to pen, Internet and radio denouncing the usage, highlighted last Sunday by President Barack Obama on the CBS News show "60 Minutes." In a long description of the raid into bin Laden's hideaway compound in Pakistan, the president told of how one of the Navy SEALs reported by secure radio from the site the phrase "Geronimo E-KIA," meaning "enemy killed in action."

In the daily online magazine Religion Dispatches, an Emory University-sponsored site devoted to "analysis and understanding of religious forces in the world today," Joseph Geronimo, a great-grandson of the famous Apache chief, is quoted as calling the reference "a slap in the face" to three generations of Geronimo descendants who served in the U.S. military.

The author of that article is Johnny P. Flynn, a Potawatomi Indian who is in the Religious Studies Department of the Indiana University-Purdue University campus in Indianapolis. Professor Flynn describes Geronimo as "the Apache spiritual leader" whose real name was Goyalthlay, renamed by Mexicans he fought who had killed his mother, wife and three children.

Jeff Houser, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache tribe, with whom Geronimo lived after 23 years as a prisoner of America's Indian wars, defended him in a letter to President Obama as "perhaps one of the greatest symbols of Native American resistance in the history of the United States."

Mr. Houser wrote that "Geronimo was a renowned Chiricahua Apache leader who personally fought to defend his people, territory and way of life. Unlike Osama bin Laden, Geronimo faced his enemy in numerous battles and engagements. ... 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."

Mr. Flynn's article also quotes a Choctaw Indian, Ben Carnes, who wrote that American Army General George Custer or Christopher Columbus would have been a more appropriate code-name for bin Laden. Use of Geronimo's name, Mr. Carnes wrote, was an example of how "we've been reduced to caricatures as mascots and entertainment in sports and media."

Indeed, in Mr. Obama's current city of residence, a controversy has simmered for years over the refusal of the management of the Washington Redskins football team to change its name, as demanded by Native American and other civic groups in the nation's capital. Also, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee recently held hearings on the use of racial stereotypes, including "Geronimo" as a code name.

Tim Johnson, a member of the Mohawk tribe who is an associate director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington and former editor of Indian Country Today, the community's leading newspaper, told National Public Radio that the linking of Geronimo with bin Laden was "out of context with history ... sort of pairing up, if you will, this really heinous killer, mass murderer, with Geronimo, whose experience was far different. And the antecedents of those experiences were far different, and so [hearing the comparison] was a great moment of disappointment, actually, in a time of shared experience" of welcome news.

Harlyn Geronimo, another great-grandson of Geronimo, told the Senate committee he wanted a full explanation from the president or his secretary of defense "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."

Mr. Johnson said what he wanted from Mr. Obama was for him to "actually take a look at how they're using symbolism and analogies and metaphors of American Indians in the lexicon of the U.S. military, and in other government and civic agencies as well."

At the least, Mr. Obama's repetition of the name in providing an accurate account of the historic raid warranted a disclaimer of the comparison from a president whose sensitivities to racial and religious issues have been demonstrated on other occasions.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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