Many people angrily responded to my previous column on this subject by claiming that the U.S. military had merely applied the Apache leader Geronimo’s name to the U.S. military operation to hunt down bin Laden, and had not applied the name to bin Laden. Well, President Obama laid that canard to rest in a May 8 interview with the CBS program 60 Minutes.
60 Minutes: “When was the first indication that you had found the right place, that bin Laden was in there?”
President Obama: “There was a point before folks had left, uh, before we had gotten everybody back on the helicopter and were flying, uh, back to base, where, uh, they said, uh, ‘Geronimo, uh, is, uh, has been killed, and Geronimo was the code name for bin Laden’.”
Now the issue becomes one of interpretation. The analogy takes the story of Geronimo and associates it with the story of Osama bin Laden. They were both hunted and pursued by the military forces of the United States. They both successfully eluded capture for a lengthy period of time.
There are problems with the analogy. Geronimo was never captured; he formally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles, under specific terms of surrender, and was shipped off to St. Augustine, Florida. He was eventually permitted to go to Fort Sill (the U.S. military fort, not the present day town) in the Indian Territory (now called the State of Oklahoma). He finally died there in his nineties, while officially still a U.S. prisoner of war. (In 1918, Prescott Bush and some Yale classmates, who were fellow Skull and Bones members, claimed to have robbed Geronimo’s grave and stolen his skull for ritual purposes.)
According to the late esteemed political scientist Chalmers Johnson, Osama bin Laden was “a former protégé of the United States.” Johnson further explained: “When America was organizing Afghan rebels against the USSR in the 1980’s, [bin Laden] played an important role in driving the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and only turned against the United States in 1991 because he regarded the stationing of American troops in his native Saudi Arabia during and after the Persian Gulf War as a violation of his religious beliefs.” (Source: Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2001, pp. 10-11).
Johnson concludes his comments about bin Laden in Blowback by writing: “Thus, the attacks on our embassies in Africa, if they were indeed his work, are an instance of blowback rather than unprovoked terrorism. Instead of bombing sites in Sudan and Afghanistan in response, the United States might have better have considered reducing or removing our large-scale and provocative military presence in Saudi Arabia.” (Ibid.)
Given that Geronimo was never a protégé of or supported by the United States against some invading power such as the Republic of Mexico, a comparison between the two men on this score is inaccurate. But there also may be an unintended irony in the analogy that emerges by comparing the imperial contexts of the two stories. That context is pinpointed by the concept and hubris of the American Empire, which Chalmers Johnson wrote so brilliantly about in his last three books: The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, 2004; Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, 2007; and Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope, 2010.
American Indians immediately responded to the analogy between Geronimo and bin Laden with outrage and frustration because of the association of Geronimo with “terrorism.” Today he is looked upon as an icon in Indian Country (along with such men as Tecumseh, Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull) who tried to maintain our original indigenous liberty. That is something the self-avowed American Empire, under the mantle of Manifest Destiny, was determined to destroy by whatever means necessary in order to appropriate our lands, territories and resources for its own wealth power, and aggrandizement.
It would seem that the United States government would have wanted to avoid placing Osama bin Laden in the same category as a heroic Indian leader such as Geronimo, who so brilliantly resisted having his originally free and independent nation and people violently deprived of their free way of life by the expansion of the American empire. The t-shirt depicting Geronimo and several other Apache brandishing rifles, along with the caption, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492,” says it all. It points to the more than five hundred years of resistance by indigenous nations and peoples and Indian country to the imperialism and colonialism so clumsily hidden for generations behind high sounding phrases of patriotism.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.