Monday, May 02, 2011

FAIL: Codename for Osama bin Laden? "Geronimo"

[Note: I am adding links to Native responses at the bottom of this page. If you know of others, please let me know by email or in a comment. See, especially, the statement by the Apache Nation Chairman and the one from descendent Harlyn Geronimo submitted to the U.S. Senate Commission on Indian Affairs.]

MONDAY, MAY 2nd, 2011
FAIL: Codename for Osama bin Laden? "Geronimo"
by Debbie Reese

A few hours ago news media began reporting that the codename for Osama bin Laden was "Geronimo."

Who came up with that name? Did anyone say "hey wait a minute, let's give this some thought before going ahead with that name..."

Or did everyone say "YEAH. GOOD IDEA! Geronimo was a blood thirsty killer, and so is bin Laden, so, that is a PERFECT name for this operation!"

It is easy to understand why people would think it was a good choice. SOME people, that is...  As you might guess, I think it is a poor choice.

My daughter pointed out how insulting it is to Native men and women serving in the Armed Forces. She's right. It is an affront.

We (people who work with children's books) are, whether we acknowledge it or not, partially responsible for an American citizenry that would think using "Geronimo" for this operation a good idea. Instead of pointing out that "bloodthirsty Indians" in children's books are a biased portrayal driven by a particular agenda, too many of us defend those biased portrayals...  Like the Indians in Matchlock Gun:

See? The not-quite-human "savages" chasing the fair and innocent woman/mother? See the tomahawk in her shoulder? America, and people who write children's books, have been casting and framing Indians as "terrorists" for literally hundreds of years. It is wrong, but it goes on, unchecked, because of the work it does. From framing colonizers as justified in taking land, to drawing on that "savage other" to frame current war efforts.

It is wrong. It is wrong. It is wrong.
Update, May 3rd, 2011:  I addressed the equating of Geronimo with terrorism in 2009. The Foreign Policy Research Institute hosts free workshops for history teachers. They did one called "What Students Need to Know about Americas Wars." One speaker drew parallels between Apaches and terrorists.

Update, 12:15 EST, May 3rd, 2011: Reactions from Native people:
"What is It with the U.S. Military and Indians?" --- Indigenous Law Professors
Osama bin Laden: code-named Geronimo" --- Ben Carnes, Choctaw activist and writer

Update, 2:40 EST, May 3rd, 2011:
Bin Laden Code-name "Geronimo is a Bomb in Indian Country." Indian Country Today (Native newspaper)

Update, 7:15 EST, May 3rd, 2011:
Geronimo Again? The Indian Wars Continue Ad Nauseam. Columnist Steven T. Newcomb in Indian Country Today

Update, 7:40 PM EST, May 3rd, 2011:
Codename: 'Geronimo' for Osama Bin Laden Mission Angers Some Native Americans. in "The Note" at ABC News.

Update, 8:00 PM EST, May 3rd, 2011:
IndianCountry TV: Journalist Mark Trahant (Shoshone-Bannock) comments on military uses of Native names (personal and tribal)

Update, 8:28 PM EST, May 3rd, 2011:
Senate official: Wrong to link bin Laden, Geronimo

Update, 8:57 PM EST, May 3rd, 2011:
From the NY Times, Leon Panetta's minute-by-minute account:
Panetta: "We have a visual on Geronimo."

Update: 9:41 PM EST, May 3rd, 2011:
Onondaga Nation leaders blast 'Geronimo' codename for Bin Laden at website for Syracuse Post-Standard.

Update: 1:33 AM EST, May 4th, 2011:
Geronimo? Really? Essay by Scott Andrews, professor, American/American Indian Studies, Cal State Northridge

Update: 7:36 AM EST, May 4th, 2011:
National Congress of American Indians Statement on Use of "Geronimo" as Name for Osama bin Laden Operation

Update: 7:49 AM EST, May 4th, 2011:
American Indians object to 'Geronimo' as codeword for bin Laden raid in Washington Post Lifestyle includes quotes from former Marine Tom Holm (he's Creek/Cherokee) and professor in American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, and from Suzan Shown Harjo, (Hodulgee Muscogee and Cheyenne) president of the Morning Star Institute. (Why did the Post run this in the Lifestyle section?!!)

Update: 8:15 AM EST, May 4th, 2011:
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to address use of 'Geronimo' as codename at hearing. Indianz.Com (a Native news source)

Update: 3:11 PM EST, May 4th, 2011:
Native American Journalist Association Statement on Geronimo published at Indian Country Today
Osama Bin Laden is No Geronimo by Debbie Reese, published at the Wall Street Journal

Update: 3:40 PM EST, Mar 4th, 2011:
Indian Country Responds to Geronimo, bin Laden Connection Statements Excerpts and statements from Native organizations and Tribal leaders

Update: 5:07 PM EST, May 4th, 2011:
Statement by Jeff Houser, Chairman of the Apache Nation 

Update: 6:45 PM EST, May 4th, 2011:
Video: Interview includes James Riding In, Pawnee, Professor in American Indian Studies, Arizona State University

Update, 9:24 AM EST, May 5th, 2011:
Code name: Geronimo? by Ernestine Chasing Hawk in Native American Times includes responses from Native veterans Tim Giago and Lloyd Goings

Update: 9:36 AM EST, May 5th, 2011:
Geronimo's family reacts to codename Geronimo KOAT News, Albuquerque (video does not include Geronimo's family response)

Update: 10:47 AM EST, May 5th, 2011:
pdf of Letter from Arizona State Representative Albert Hale to President Obama, posted at Turtle Talk

Update: 10:11 AM EST, May 6th, 2011:
Statement from the National Museum of the American Indian 

Update: 12:10 PM EST, May 6th, 2011:
Winona LaDuke, on Democracy Now.

Update: 12:22 PM EST, May 6th, 2011:
Statement from Harlyn Geronimo, on behalf of himself and other surviving lineal descendents of Geronimo, available at Indian Country Today

Update, 12:27 PM EST, May 6th, 2011:
Interview with Jeff Houser, Chair of Fort Sill Apache Tribe, published in Indian Country Today

Update, 12:40 PM EST, May 6th, 2011:
Excerpts from statement made by Chair of the Navajo Nation, published in Navajo Times

Update, 4:53 PM, CST, May 10, 2011:
NPR Interview with Tim Johnson of the National Museum of the American Indian


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. It is very true.

Salix said...

My understanding is that 'Geronimo' was the code name for the operation, not bin Laden himself. Which makes it part of a related but different history of misappropriation and stereotyping, yes.

(Warning: the site I linked uses the phrase 'Indian war whoop', but I linked to it anyway b/c I think the last paragraph makes a point that does not usually accompany this story)

Anonymous said...

...Or the name was chosen because Goyaathe got his moniker by personally storming against massed rifle defences armed only with a knife and still won! A pretty good name choice if that was the intent.

And American SFs are not known for caring about whether their actions offend someone, however they are known for their cultural awareness so unless the name was picked by a REMF it's more likely that the name was picked from brainstorming along the lines of, "Who was American and and was a total Badass militarily?"

Andy Salcius said...

I've read a comment at the NYT that bin Laden's operational code name was "JACKPOT". I think Anonymous is right. They picked the name because these guys don't get to that level as dumb hero types. These "seals" are students of military history and know exactly who Geronimo was/is.
This is a great teaching moment and I hope you send a letter to the big papers or even the white house with your thoughts.

Debbie Reese said...

Salix and Uriah: Leon Panetta is quoted as saying "We have a visual on Geronimo."

Anonymous, I don't think Geronimo said he was American. Same with Sitting Bull, by the way. What is "REMF"?

Native people (scholars, professors, writers, etc)on Facebook and Twitter are posting objections to the use of Geronimo.

Anonymous said...

New description of Geronimo from NYT article

“But finally,” Mr. Panetta said, “Admiral McCraven came back and said that he had picked up the word ‘Geronimo,’ which was the code word that represented that they got Bin Laden.”

Anonymous said...

I think the facts, as we know them thus far, is that we DON'T KNOW why they chose that codename and to assume otherwise is to place our own bias on a situation we are not an active participant in. Discussing it on Facebook and Twitter, while a valid forum for open discourse, does not in any way lend credence to someone's opinion.

Debbie Reese said...

Anonymous at 9:35 AM,

It doesn't matter why they chose it. I'm not interested in their intent. I am interested in the consequence of that choice on Native children.

Are you saying that Native views on Facebook or Twitter don't matter? Or that Native views don't matter?

Your statement that, because we weren't involved in the decision to use the name, we can't comment doesn't make sense. It suggests nobody can say anything about anything that they weren't involved in creating. Do you mean that any and all reviews, literary criticism, etc. are invalid?

Scott Andrews said...

REMF is from the Vietnam War era: Rear Echelon Mother F***er. It is generally a derogatory term for someone whose job is behind the lines, in support, and not on the front lines.

If the mission were named "Geronimo," then why does the SEAL team reportedly say "Geronimo ID'ed" at one point. The mission wasn't identified; the target was. And if Osama bin Laden were "Geronimo," why would the U.S. military be concerned with giving him an American name, regardless of that namesake being a "badass militarily"?

And the only American Indians I know of who make frontal attacks on well-armed positions are in Hollywood films -- and they generally up dead.

Anonymous said...

Your response to me exemplifies what I said...I in no way said that Native views or ANY views, don't matter, regardless of the venue used to express them. What I said is that they can not be held as facts, when they are opinions.

Of course you have the ability and right as an American to comment on decisions you disagree with or question, but to assume you know all the facts and details without full research or involvement is arrogant, no matter what your opinion.

I realize that you are not interested in "intent", but I believe that intent is as much a part of a discussion as other factors. If I know something about your intent, I may disagree with you, but I don't automatically attribute negative motives to you and we can have a discourse without either of us being defensive. I look forward to the day when we assume the best about each other, before we assume the worst.

Susan Ujka Larson said...

What is it with President Obama? This is his second affront to Native peoples. His book Of Thee I Sing pictures Sitting Bull as a landscape with buggers coming out of his nose, and identifies him as an "American" and Sioux. He was Lakota. Obama should have his book revised and republished. Then he should take a class in Native history and cultural correctness.

Jacqueline said...

Combined with the wikileaks docs showing that the US has Native American groups on their "terror" lists, the insult of this incident is unmistakeable.

Dennis Yellowhorse said...

Thank you! I agree that using ‘Geronimo’ as a code word for an international terrorist is a national disgrace. What would t mainstream America think if the code name was John Wayne.

Anonymous said...

Dear Debbie

The Weakest of the weak do not have a the voice, and individual's like are the shining star's for all those Indian's who are living in a dark. Please keep up the good work, and keep blogging so that people have the content to read the other side of the story. My thoughts and prayers with you.

Anonymous said...

There are two articles relating to the Code name for Osama bin Laden - Geronimo from the I've provided the links here.
1. Geronimo was No Osama

2. American Indians Outraged...

Unknown said...

How white of the US. When Wikileaks released the video showing the Americans killing Iraqis from a helicopter, one can hear "Crazy Horse" during the radio transmissions between the copter and headquarters as the Iraqi civilians were being killed. I am not sure, but it was probably a Blackhawk copter, too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this compilation.

As descendant of Cherokee and mixed Anglo-Cherkokees (blond, blue-eyed, so their heritage was hidden; thus they weren't rounded up at gunpoint) who hid Cherokee on their farms in eastern Tennessee during the forced removal and march to Oklahoma, I can't help but think that the use of this imagery of "savagery" is to obscure the real motivation: territory-grabbing and resource seizures.

I don't have a cite, but historians have written about the wars in Central Asia as the latest continuation of the "Indian Wars."

Your site is powerful, btw. I am glad to find it; although sad that I found it in this way (via Savage Minds anthropology site - where I found the post and comments abstracted and not hitting the personal, human contexts that I find here. I will return.

jan godown annino said...

Although I was relieved to know he wouldn't injure people any longer, my feeling of relief became dread when I read in The New York Times of the inappropriate & regrettable selection of the code name. I appreciate knowing now that it was selection for the operation & not bin Laden (Jackpot was his?). But that doesn't take away from what should be the shame of linking such an individual to an important figure in our nation's history.

I hope this hurtful name selection will lead to workshops & sensitivity training within the leadership of the SEALS, whose preparedness, bravery, & training is otherwise so over the top, thorough.

Debbie Reese said...


On 60 minutes, President Obama said that Geronimo was the name for bin Laden.

I, too, saw "Jackpot" appearing in some media reports, but it was pretty clear to me from the start that the name was for bin Laden.

Daynise said...

Debbie- I fully agree with your position on this. The use of "Geronimo" in relation to this mission is reprehensible and insulting to Native people in general but also to the Native servicemen who risk their lives only to receive this kind of slap in the face. What's worse is that instead of apologizing, people come out of the wood work to tell you it isn't ok for you to feel offended at all. I am so disgusted by all of this. I appreciate your post.

Anonymous said...

Back at the White House Situation Room, word was relayed that bin Laden had been found, signaled by the code word "Geronimo." That was not bin Laden's code name, but rather a representation of the letter "G." Each step of the mission was labeled alphabetically, and "Geronimo" meant that the raiders had reached step "G," the killing or capture of bin Laden, two officials said.

From AP article by Kimberly Dozier posted on Yahoo May 17, 2011


Debbie Reese said...


On his 60 Minutes interview, President Obama stated quite clearly that Geronimo was the name for Bin Laden:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: 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 binLaden. And now obviously at that point these guys were operating in the dark
with all kinds of stuff going on so everybody was cautious. But at that
point cautiously optimistic.

Read more:

The interview was taped on Wednesday, before statements from Geronimo's family and tribe, or statements from National Congress of American Indians, the National Museum of the American Indian, etc. were issued.

I think this is definitive evidence that those of us who heard/read
"Geronimo, E KIA' were correct in our understandings that bin Laden's code name was Geronimo.

Debbie Reese said...

Even so, Anonymous, it doesn't matter why the name was used. The concern is that it was used at all.

Even if it was used to "honor" him, a meaningful honor would be to do what his family has been asking for years: let his family take his remains back to the homeland he fought for. Right now, his remains are on the army base where he was held as a prisoner of war until his death.