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  • “Geronimo!” The Ideologies of Colonial and Indigenous Masculinities in Historical and Contemporary Representations about Apache Men
  • Kevin R. Kemper (bio)


Too few Americans cared that the U.S. military used the name of Geronimo (Bedonkohe Apache) as code for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden when he was killed in May 2011.1 They simply were glad almost a decade after the horrendous attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, that Osama bin Laden was dead. “Justice has been done,” President Obama told the nation and world.2

Amid exuberance over the kill, Rhonda LeValdo (Acoma Pueblo), then president of the Native American Journalists Association, courageously took public exception to the phrase “Operation Geronimo,” insisting that the misrepresentations of American Indians be recognized and stopped.3 The implication of naming the mission “Operation Geronimo” seemed to be that Osama bin Laden had been like Geronimo, in that he had hidden in the mountains and was the enemy of the United States. This conflation of people and issues has raised concerns. Michael Yellow Bird (Arikara [Sahnish] and Hidatsa) claims the New York Post had attempted to equate Geronimo and other indigenous peoples with terrorists.4 Pauline Wakeham suggests that indigenous resistance in Canada and New Zealand can be examined in the context of national security during the War on Terror.5 John A. Wickham warns of what he sees as a “new Manifest Destiny” after September 11, which could have a deleterious effect on federal Indian policy.6 [End Page 39]

As this essay demonstrates, those kinds of parallels between indigenous peoples and the War on Terror might be understandable, given worldwide resistances against colonialism, but are not accurate. They hint at sweeping generalizations and lingering racism. Movements and people resist for different reasons in different contexts. In this context, the identification with Geronimo might have been a way of connecting the U.S. troops with a strong warrior, instead of treating bin Laden just like Geronimo, or vice versa. It just seems strange to equate an American hero like Geronimo with an enemy of the United States like bin Laden. “It would seem that the U.S. 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,” wrote Steven Newcomb.7

The problem speaks to a larger and pernicious issue. Indigenous writers like Robert Williams Jr. (Lumbee) have criticized a general “language of savagery” in American rhetoric, which perpetuates antiquated and ill-informed stereotypes of indigenous peoples.8 This rhetoric portrays indigenous peoples as savages (or perhaps noble savages) or enemies.9 As Leo Killsback (Northern Cheyenne) reminds us, we do not want to “incarcerate” indigenous heroes like Geronimo “in a prison of noble savagism.”10

Apache leaders articulated their concerns, even writing letters to President Obama. “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 U.S. and Mexican governments,” wrote Jeff Houser, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe. “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.”11 Terry Rambler, the chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, also called for Obama to apologize.12 None appears to be forthcoming.

The “Indian wars” long have been ended, and considering how many indigenous people have served in the military of the United States of America with honor, the acts of painting indigenous peoples as the current enemy of the United States is inaccurate and insulting. Indigenous peoples have fought Euro-American invaders, but then have fought for those same governments against mutual enemies.13 As Tim Johnson (Mohawk) of the National Museum of the American Indian said, “Like millions of people in this country and around the world, American Indians greeted news of the successful tactical strike...


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pp. 39-62
Launched on MUSE
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