Included in the millions of people throughout the United States and around the world who welcomed the demise of Osama Bin Laden were American Indians. Not since Adolf Hitler has there been such a universally despised figure, so replete with immoral sentience. Death was the only fitting end to a man who had dispensed death on a massive and virtually indiscriminate scale. He was a man without a country and his killing reflected the same. His victims included citizens of numerous nations and members of various religions, not the least of whom were Muslims. And when news spread of the exceptional operation that brought him to justice a joyful and yet still mournful release accompanied the announcement. American Indians stood with the good people of the world in this shared experience.
Immediately following the September 11 attacks, nearly ten years ago, American Indian leadership universally condemned the heinous acts of Bin Laden. Mohawk ironworkers, who helped erect the steel beams of the twin towers and also aided in their demolition following their collapse, took it personally. And for generations of American Indians who have proudly served in the U.S. armed services, in numbers disproportionate to their population, the terrorist deserved only one fate. Amid this collective sense of pride and shared history, what a shocking and painful disappointment it was to learn directly, from the President himself on “60 Minutes” last night, that the code name given Osama Bin Laden, one of the most horrible human beings in history, was indeed Geronimo.
Ever since the “Indian Wars” of the 19th century American armed forces have incorporated Indian names, phrases, analogies, and metaphors into its lexicon and culture. Often, the contrast between American Indian usage of these terms and those of the military couldn’t be more stark. Take, for example, the phrase “Indian country.” To American Indians it references their combined homelands and comprises reservation lands and shared urban and rural spaces to which their identities find placement, affirmation, and solace. To the U.S. military it is a term of art referencing hostile war zones whose local inhabitants have not yet been pacified.
In his paper “The ‘Old West’ in the Middle East,” Stephen W. Silliman, associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts, writes that the phrase summons the history of American Indian and U.S. military engagements “in ways that interpret the present in light of the past,” and “that retell (or reinterpret) the past through present political filters.” Such persistent usage he argues should not be dismissed simply as semantics “since metaphors are fundamental to thought and not just incidental to communication of those thoughts.”
Recently, a similarly disjointed analogy was used by Guantánamo war court prosecutors who likened al Qaeda to the Seminole Tribe of Florida in their arguments to uphold the conviction of Osama Bin Laden’s media secretary. Referenced within a 37-page military commissions brief was an 1818 tribunal that convicted two English merchants of aiding the Seminole, who were considered enemies to the U.S. during an era of Indian termination fostered and fed by Andrew Jackson. The Seminole Tribe objected, stating that the prosecutor’s analogy was an effort to “turn back the clock and rewrite history” and that historic Seminole resistance to an army invading their homeland and “engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing and other atrocities” had no relevant comparison to al Qaeda.
And aside from the vast arsenal of helicopters and missiles ironically bearing the names of American Indian peoples and terms (AH-64 Apache, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, ARH-70A Arapaho, and BGM-109 Tomahawk to cite just a few), we come to the subject of considerable infatuation: Geronimo. The military’s latest usage of Geronimo as code name for Osama Bin Laden, however, is particularly offensive in that it fuses histories that are only superficially comparable and perpetuates an erroneous metaphor that is imprecise and horribly misleading. Geronimo was indeed pursued by the U.S. armed forces, but his tragic public story has far different antecedents, beginning with the massacre of his wife and children by Mexican forces, continued through his defense of the Chiricahua Apache homeland, and ending with his long imprisonment in places distantly removed from the southwestern lands that forged his culture and identity, including Fort Pickens, Florida.
So ingrained are these metaphors in the American lexicon and sociology, however, that their usage burrows deeply, seemingly moving beyond stereotype. One can often recognize stereotypes because they are so preposterous. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of identifying outdated terminology and illustration. The word “Redskins” comes to mind. So too does the buffoonish logo for the Cleveland Indians. But what happens when the public and our civic institutions can no longer distinguish and differentiate between the inaccurate and obsolete and the authentic and relevant? This, it would seem, is the conundrum that has dogged American Indians for far too long.
As Commander-In-Chief, President Obama applied informed judgment combined with conviction, courage, and decisiveness in deleting from our world a deranged killer. His deliberate and considerate approach exhibited the same heightened skills he applied as president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review in the early 1990s. Mr. President, I respectfully request now that you lift your mighty pen and, by serving as “Editor-In-Chief” of the armed forces, cross out the terms, concepts, and metaphors that neither measure up to intellectual standard nor convey the proper honor, dignity, and respect deserving of American Indians.
Tim Johnson is associate director for Museum Programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and former executive editor of Indian Country Today.