Wednesday, May 04, 2011
“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.