When Navy SEALs used legendary Apache warrior Geronimo's name as code in conjunction with killing Osama bin Laden, many Native Americans interpreted a different type of code: At best, ignorance of their history. At worst, insult.
“It's inappropriate that they equated Geronimo with bin Laden,” said Edouardo Zendejas, Native American Studies director at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I'm disappointed to an extent, but not surprised.”
Said Shirley Sneve, executive director of Native American Public Telecommunications: “It shows a lack of respect ... if they equate Geronimo to bin Laden as an enemy.”
Several organizations complained to the president and Congress after reports that the SEALs sent this message upon bin Laden's death: “Geronimo EKIA.” The letters stand for “Enemy Killed in Action.”
How Geronimo's name came to be used or what meaning was intended has not been revealed. Initial reports said Geronimo referred to bin Laden. But Obama administration officials have since said Geronimo was the name of the operation, and “Jackpot” was bin Laden's code name.
The White House referred questions to the U.S. Defense Department, which said no disrespect was meant. Code names typically are chosen at random so those on a mission can communicate without divulging information to adversaries.
Some speculate that the name referred to the history of Geronimo, who lived from 1829 to 1909. He fiercely fought to defend Apache land from American and Mexican forces, and eluded efforts by thousands of troops to capture him over many years.
Geronimo never was captured. He surrendered to a U.S. general who promised to reunite him with his people.
The U.S. military has long used Native American names, such as helicopters named Apache and Black Hawk. In World War II, American paratroopers reportedly yelled “Geronimo” when jumping out of planes.
Whatever the reason, linking Geronimo and bin Laden “was an outrageous insult and mistake,” Vietnam veteran Harlyn Geronimo, a great-grandson of the warrior and spiritual leader, wrote to President Barack Obama.
Jeff Houser, chairman of Geronimo's Fort Sill Apache Tribe, said in his letter to Obama that the decision to use the name was based not in maliciousness, but a continuing disconnect.
“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.”
In Omaha, Zendejas said many slights are ignored by Native Americans, but this one sparked criticism from various nations, veterans groups and regions.
“When you look at what (bin Laden) did, it really ranks up there with the worst,” he said. “It really touched a raw nerve, especially given that native people serve (in the U.S. military) at a much higher rate than other people do.”
Vietnam veteran Owen Webster, 61, a member of the Omaha Tribe, described mixed emotions Friday while taking a break from mowing a powwow arena in Carter Lake.
“Geronimo took care of his people; he fought for his country just like all the other warriors who fought for the United States did,” said Webster, vice president of the Warrior Society, an Omaha-based organization of Native American veterans.
Using Geronimo's name with bin Laden's was derogatory, Webster said. “But whatever derogatory thing they said about him, it's good, because his name's being used now,” he said.
Webster's companion, Rosalyn Papakee, 54, said she had no problem with the code name.
“I don't care what name they used,” said Papakee, a Sac and Fox/Meskwaki member. “I'm just glad they caught that guy.”
Taylor Keen, who teaches business at Creighton University and heads its Native American Center, said he isn't caught up in the controversy. Instead, Keen, of Omaha and Cherokee descent, sees this as “a wonderful opportunity to learn about a fascinating person in American history.”
Meanwhile, a 17-year-old Omaha South High School junior who shares Geronimo's name said he was not offended.
“It's a very powerful name, associated with a lot of successes,” Geronimo Alejandro Ramirez said.
Ramirez said that he is of Potowatami descent and that his mother named him.
“She wanted me to have a powerful name,” he said.
This report includes material from World-Herald press services.