90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Thursday, May 5, 2011

‘Geronimo’ Codename In Bin Laden Raid Offends Native American Groups

The famed Indian warrior Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache, poses with a rifle in this 1887 photo. (AP/National Archives)

The famed Indian warrior Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache, poses with a rifle in this 1887 photo. (AP/National Archives)

Native American groups are furious that the term, “Geronimo,” was used during the raid against Osama bin Laden. There are conflicting reports, but “Geronimo” was used either as a code word for bin Laden or as the name of the mission. Either way, some Native Americans say linking the legendary Apache warrior with the world’s most vilified terrorist is disrespectful.


Geronimo: The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee didn’t know when it scheduled a hearing on racial stereotypes that members would have such an emotionally charged name to discuss. But the use of the Apache leader’s moniker as a code name for Osama bin Laden has appalled many Native Americans and drawn calls for an apology.

The legendary warrior was known for his ability to walk without leaving footprints, allowing him to evade thousands of Mexican and U.S. soldiers, much like bin Laden evaded capture for the past decade.
But for Native Americans, there’s an important difference: Geronimo was a hero – not a terrorist.
Statements of disapproval from tribal leaders, a call for President Barack Obama to apologize, and scores of angry comments on social network sites have surged since the issue came to light after bin Laden was killed.
Thursday’s hearing was scheduled long before details about the Geronimo code name became public. However, the committee will address the matter, said Loretta Tuell, staff director and chief counsel for the committee.

Many Native Americans say that while they are angered, they are not surprised. They say the code name is yet another insult in a long, tumultuous history with the federal government.

“The government does what it wants when it wants. The name calling is going to stay around forever. But when you think about it, this is an insult,” said Leon Curley, a Navajo and Marine veteran from Gallup, N.M.
Jeff Houser, chairman of Geronimo’s Fort Sill Apache Tribe, noted in a letter to Obama that the decision behind the code name stemmed from an ongoing cultural disconnect, not malice. But the damage is the same.
“We are quite certain that the use of the name Geronimo as a code for Osama bin Laden was based on misunderstood and misconceived historical perspectives of Geronimo and his armed struggle against the United States and Mexican governments,” Houser wrote.

“However, to equate Geronimo or any other Native American figure with Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer and cowardly terrorist, is painful and offensive to our Tribe and to all Native Americans.”

The White House referred questions on the matter to the U.S. Defense Department, which said no disrespect was meant to Native Americans.

The department wouldn’t elaborate on the use of Geronimo’s name but said code names typically are chosen randomly and allow those working on a mission to communicate without divulging information to adversaries.
The Apaches are not alone when it comes to battling the impact of stereotypes.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is still waiting to for an apology from Obama over a court brief filed earlier this year that compared the tribe’s ancestors to al-Qaida. The Defense Department clarified the use of the Seminole reference, but it wasn’t enough for the tribe, Chairman Mitchell Cypress said in a letter to the president Wednesday.

“Once again, our nation’s native people were categorized as terrorists,” he wrote, referring to the Geronimo code name. “The time has never been more appropriate and necessary for you to issue an apology to Native America.”

The U.S. military has a long tradition of naming weapons and helicopters after American Indians and has a history with the word Geronimo – American paratroopers in World War II started using it as a war cry.
The reason behind the name’s use in the bin Laden raid has been the subject of much speculation.

Some think it’s because the al-Qaida leader, like Geronimo, was able to elude capture for so many years. Others say it’s because the government considered both men terrorists, and some have suggested the guerrilla-style raid on bin Laden’s compound was reflective of the Apache’s fighting techniques.

Louis Maynahonah, a Navy veteran and chairman of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, said he doesn’t believe the code name was meant to be derogatory. He pointed to the name’s use as a paratrooper war cry and to the fleets of military aircraft named after Indian tribes, including the Apache helicopter.

“It’s symbolic to me of the Army at the time trying to capture Geronimo,” he said of the code name. “They had a heck of time because he used to slip back across the Mexican border. This bin Laden has been slipping from us for 10 years.”

Whatever the reason behind it, many in Indian Country say the code name was simply a bad choice that opened old wounds.

“The name Geronimo is arguably the most recognized Native American name in the world, and this comparison only serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes about our peoples,” the Onondaga Nation Council of Chiefs said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“The U.S. military leadership should have known better,” said the council, from the Onondaga Nation near Syracuse, N.Y.

Morning Star Gali, a member of the Pit River Tribe in California, agreed. Part of Gali’s family is descended from Geronimo’s tribe, and she has made it a point to share that history with her three young children.
“We definitely try to instill who our heroes were and who Geronimo was and what he represented to our people and the sacrifices and struggles that they made for us to be here today,” said Gali, a community liaison coordinator with the International Indian Treaty Council.

Gali hopes the Senate committee presses for remedies, including an apology from the government.
“There are a number of steps that can be taken,” she said. “Racism is very ingrained, and there’s a long way to go to be able to make it right.”

Geronimo is a legend among Apaches and other tribes for the fierce fighting he brought on during the 19th century as he tried to protect his land, his people and their way of life from encroachment by U.S. and Mexican armies.

After the families of Geronimo and other warriors were captured and sent to Florida, he and 35 warriors surrendered to Gen. Nelson A. Miles near the Arizona-New Mexico border in 1886. Geronimo eventually was sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where he died of pneumonia in 1909.

Other stories from Thursday's show
Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Beverly Mire

    When I read about it, I cringed and thought “How stupid!” With all of the collective brilliance that it took to pull this off, how could at least one person not know that using Geronimo’s name is supremely offensive, and not only to Native Americans. Beverly Mire

  • PS Frog

    People are offended very easily these days. They seem to search for reasons to be offended. Obviously the Obama administration didn’t mean to offend. It reminds me of the person that was offended a while back by the way Robin pronounced “Tijuana” He wrote..”Your mispronunciation is demeaning”. Sheesh.

    • BHA in Vermont

      Mispronouncing Tijuana is ignorance. Ignorance of Geronimo’s place in American history is unlikely. They may not have MEANT to offend and perhaps were equating bin Laden’s ability to elude capture to that of Geronimo but I don’t think American history will ever look at bin Laden as anything but a blood thirsty murderer.

      • PS Frog

        Maybe they named the brave mission to get bin Laden “Geronimo”? It’s generally the mission that is given the name…”Desert Storm”…not the target. I’m willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt.

        • BHA in Vermont

          Geronimo E-KIA: Geronimo Enemy-Killed In Action. There is no question that the code name was NOT for the mission but the target.

    • Anonymous

      I’m sure nobody would have been offended if the Obama admin called him “Ronald Reagan” amirite?

  • BHA in Vermont

    I am not native American but I was offended when I heard the code name for bin Laden was Geronimo. How could whoever came up with this name NOT think what it would mean to a great many people. That person owes the entire native American community and especially the Apache nation a HUGE and PUBLIC apology

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1455172502 Dan Lake

      Geronimo was the codename to indicate the success of the Seal Team’s Mission. Bin Ladin’s Codename was “Jackpot”. Geronimo was a legendary Apache warrior and Seal Team Six is a a legendary team of warriors. I think this shows great respect and honor to Geronimo as a sign of a missions successfully accomplished.

  • Guest

    Relax people … stop looking for a reason to be upset.

  • ThresherK

    American TV scripts have people parachuting out of planes and saying (literally) “Archaic racially insensitive slur!!!!” instead of Geronimo, pointing out how out of date this is.

    And, just a show of hands: How many “Get Over Its” are white men?

  • Jenningz810

    He killed an astounding number of Americans. He did not attack American military units. He attacked families living in their homes. He killed men, women, boys and girls. He made Americans afraid to live normal lives. He led a band of trained warriors on many pillaging and plundering forays. The American government placed a dead or alive bounty on his head. The US military tracked this enemy relentlessly. He hid on the back side of the desert and in caves for several years. He ran but could not hide. We finally got him. Yes, that Apache terrorist named Geronimo was finally brought to justice.

    By any definition of a terrorist, that is what Geronimo was. Maybe his grandson needs to rethink his request.

  • Craigusmarine

    to jennings 810, Get your facts right!!! The Greatest foot soldier fought both Mexican and us. forces. He fought them because both gov’t wanted
    to expand on Apache land, breaking treaties with him. murdering, lying, stealing,. So get your F#ck#ng facts right!! I recomend picking up a couple
    of books on Geronimo and reading them, horses-#ss
    signed us marine

  • craig

    I think Ms. Jenningz810 needs to read a few books on Geronimo, the
    real enemy was the US. Gov’t and the Mexican Gov’t. He fought the
    real invaders off for 42 yrs. West Point Military and Annapolis Naval Academy teach young cadets and midshipmen about great military leaders.

  • S D Spafford

    I thought the code name fitting as both men eluded overwhelming forces for long periods. The choice was a tribute, not a link to terrorism. (Yes, I’m a gringo.)

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

August 29 Comment

World Championship Tug-Of-War Is ‘A Thing Of Beauty’

This weekend's competition in Wisconsin is a bit more intense than it was in your grade school gym class.

August 29 Comment

Repelling Mosquitoes With A Natural Sticky Patch

The Kite Patch releases odors that block the bug's carbon dioxide receptors, sending them in another direction.

August 28 Comment

Catching Up With The Polyphonic Spree

The choral rock band out of Dallas, Texas, has been thrilling audiences with its live performances for over a decade.

August 28 5 Comments

‘Enormous’ Growth Of Ocean Garbage Patch

The oceanographer who discovered the floating island of trash in 1997 says he's shocked by how much it's grown.