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 U.S. military chose as the code for the raid, and perhaps for Osama bin Laden himself, during the operation that killed the al-Qaeda 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, a member of the Creek/Cherokee Nations and a retired professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, said by phone Tuesday. “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?”
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 is no news account of calling the al-Qaeda leader “Geronimo” until this past weekend.
But the Apache leader’s name has often been used in the name for projects in Afghanistan, such as the Marine Forward Operating Base Geronimo in the Helmand province, reports show.
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 and 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 Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the bombs was nicknamed “Enola Gay,” after Enola Gay Tibbets, mother of the pilot, Paul Tibbets.
The U.S. military now has strict formats for official code names and nicknames for designated targets, but the results are sometimes more goofy than intimidating.
“Operation Red Dawn,” for example, the campaign that led to the capture of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, gave all the appearances of being inspired by a campy 1984 film in which teenagers fight to save the United States from a Soviet invasion.
The 19th-century U.S. Army campaign to apprehend Geronimo and stop his raids on settlers did become famous, particularly in military circles, because he eluded capture for more than a decade. By the time of his surrender in Arizona in 1886, more than 5,000 troops had participated in the hunt to track him down.
After years of degradation, included being trotted out by whites as an example of the Wild West, he died in Oklahoma in 1909. He was buried in a prisoner-of-war camp.
“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 D.C. firm of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and a member of the Cherokee Nation, wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. 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 U.S. government for $3.4 billion. He was also the principal adviser and chair of the Native American Domestic Policy Committee for the Obama campaign.
“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.”