Wednesday, May 04, 2011

"Geronimo EKIA"

“Geronimo is arguably the most recognized Native American name in the world,” the chiefs said, “and this comparison only serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes about our people.” — Leaders of the Onondaga Nation quoted in the Syracuse Post-Standard.

"Geronimo" was apparently the US Special Forces codeword for Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the raid which ended with his assassination. Every American schoolchild knows that Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apache nation was the name of one of the last Native American leaders to engage in armed resistance to white American conquest at the end of the 19th-century. The raid in Pakistan ended with the transmission back to headquarters, "Geronimo EKIA," or Enemy Killed in Action.

Such a fascinating choice of words that says so much not only about what the military was thinking, but about the complicated legacy of America's genocidal past. Zunguzungu blog has amazing quotes about the myth-laden meaning of Geronimo, as well as a collection of links to analysis. (One of the passages quoted on Zunguzungu reminds us that George Bush's ancestors were among those who obscenely stole the real Geronimo's actual head for a fraternity trophy at Yale.) The choice of this word manages to equate the Special Forces with the "Good Guys," at least in the standard American History narrative, as well as tar Osama with an air of doom. The Onondaga leaders are quite right that it perpetuates the demonization of Native Americans in equating their history of resistance to Bin Laden's fundamentalist jihad. And it exposes the real barbarity behind the smug white American depiction of its enemies as barbarian savages.

I'm struck by the fact that the articles all over the web discussing this issue use one of the posed pictures of Geronimo that make him look armed and dangerous, showing him crouching with his rifle. These photos are pure mythology since they were taken after his surrender, when he had become a fairground attraction at a Wild West show. Of course the picture I've snagged for this post is also a posed one, showing him with his nieces some time in the early 1900s. Although these photos do show the human being inside the Geronimo myth, they're also a mirror reflecting back at American culture.

The bottom line is that America has issues.


  1. ish, this probably has nothing to do with your sensitive writing on the issue of "Geronimo" but it did bring back a childhood memory.

    As kids we played in the yard, Cowboys and Indians, with really no racial hatred intended. Both were American heroes to us as kids. Sides were divided up, cowboy hats or feathers donned and off we went to play.

    I can remember thrusting a bow clenched fist in the air and yelling "Geronimo" as we made our charge. Or yelling the same words as we dove off a rock into the water. To us as kids it was just a word of bravery and was never said to be demeaning to a group of people.

    I was curious where we might have come up with this word to yell in the first place and found this in my search:

    I don't write this to say the Native American response is wrong to object to the use of Geronimo as a code name for Bin Laden - I haven't walked in those shoes.

    I only make a comment that perhaps the use of Geronimo didn't bear with it any sinister meaning. Maybe it was as simple an act as a throw back to a childhood memory of bravery. (?)

  2. Oh what a busy day! No time to comment back with you.

    You know Annie, I used to play all those games too...though I rarely wanted to be the cowboys. I wonder if modern day kids do too? It was so much fun...and how much more vivid in the imagination than computer games.

    My point isn't to provoke guilt. There's no use in that. I'm not even saying that whoever chose the codeword did so out of conscious evil intent. My point is to get at what's underneath what we're aware of. And I think for me the biggest challenge is to my own attitude: setting aside the romantic and heroic (and childish) cartoon vision of indians for a deeper understanding of flesh and blood people with just different ancestry than my own. There's something so deep in white people's culture that even things like coming up with military codewords winds up defining "us" and "other." I'm sure there's some human nature there; but also stuff we can benefit from examining and improving.

  3. Thank you ish, as always your comments are thought provoking and appreciated.

    Believe me I am learning through your tutelage, albeit a bit slowly at times.