Thursday, May 5, 2011

Aftermath of bin Laden Raid: Retire Geronimo from the Military Manual

Even as Native Americans across the country share similar feelings with other Americans over news of the demise of Osama bin Laden, they disapprove the assignment of the code name Geronimo to the military operation responsible for taking him down. It’s understandable that people who serve their country, in both military and civilian capacities, to a greater extent than any other ethnic group feel disappointment and anger at this lapse of cultural sensitivity to their feelings.

At least since World War II, the name of Geronimo has been commonly used in U.S. military action. In those days of careless racism, we heard the slogan in numerous war movies. As children in the early postwar years, we often played parachutist, yelling “Geronimo!” as we leapt off anything higher than the ground we landed on, from a chair to a tree limb. No one gave a second thought to the habit.

Of course, that was before most people in the country heard anything about the Windtalkers, the mostly Navajo soldiers who used their unique language to invent a code that couldn’t be broken by the Japanese during World War II. It was also before the days of the Second Stand at Wounded Knee in 1973, where a group of American Indian Movement members occupied the site of the last major massacre of Indians by American soldiers in 1890.

It was a time when Native American children were still sent to boarding schools where all elements of their culture were stifled. Entire families were still being forcefully moved off reservations that had been their home for decades into cities where they were encouraged to assimilate. The official government goal of the time was to destroy the last vestiges of the cultural and tribal connections that had been their strength against historic Eurocentric occupation of their traditional lands.

Now we read that as soon as the special forces had “eliminated their target,” in military speak, they sent the following coded message: Geronimo EKIA. In plain English, this means “enemy [specifically, bin Laden] killed in action.”

One wonders what code names might have been assigned to other members of al Qaeda during the operation. Sitting Bull? Osceola? In different eras of the 19th century, all were considered deadly enemies of the U.S. Army. All of them died while in U.S. custody, or in the case of Sitting Bull, under official military control.

To the native population, however, these men and others were considered great spiritual and military leaders. They were able to lead their people successfully through great difficulties, both in conflict and in peace. And in the current culture of heightened ethnic awareness, the roles and motives of these and other Indian leaders are gaining the respect of people on all sides of history.

On the positive side, a Senate Indian Affairs committee has scheduled a hearing on racial stereotyping of Native Americans for Thursday, May 5. The agenda includes discussion of the use of this type of racist language, especially in relation to official government activities. This development Is long past due. In fact, I can’t imagine what sort of arguments can be made on the side of maintaining the status quo.

I’ll be waiting to hear an announcement coming out of that committee that the name of any past or present Native American leader will be stricken immediately from the military manual and any other official government document or exercise manual. No other conclusion will be acceptable.

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