Osama bin Laden was no ‘Geronimo’

The Native American Task Force of the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) added its voice to the dismay expressed by Native populations at the U.S. armed forces use of the name “Geronimo” as its code word for Osama Bin Laden.

Geronimo was an Apache leader in the 19th century who spent many years fighting the Mexican and U.S. armies in the Southwest until his surrender in 1886.

We refute the notion that our Native leaders, past and current, be paralleled in any way with persons who unashamedly destroy life.

“While we decry terrorism in any form, we refute the notion that our Native leaders, past and current, be paralleled in any way with persons who unashamedly destroy life,” said the Rev. Chebon Kernell, a Seminole who co-chairs GBCS’s Native American Task Force.

Kernell pointed out that the task force adds its voices to those of the leaders of tribes including the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, the Onondaga Nation in New York, and Native organizational leaders, such Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Articulating disappointment

“We are all articulating the disappointment, concern and frustration with the use of the name of this iconic Native American hero,” Kernell emphasized. He said the hope is that persons throughout the church, country and world will continue to work to erase stereotypical misunderstandings that create false images of people and communities.

It is our further hope that the appropriate government entities respond with compassion and remorse.

“It is our further hope that the appropriate government entities respond with compassion and remorse to those descendents of the family of Geronimo, the tribal nation that he defended, and to those throughout Native America who have been inspired by his love of his people and indigenous way of life,” Kernell said.

The leader of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe is seeking a formal apology from President Barack Obama for the government's use of the code name "Geronimo." Tribal Chair Jeff Houser asked for the apology in a letter sent to the president this week.

Houser wrote that the tribal members’ joy of learning about bin Laden's death was tempered when they learned that the name of one of the Oklahoma tribe's legendary warriors was used as a code name for the terrorist. Houser said equating Geronimo or any other Native American figure with a "mass murderer and cowardly terrorist" is painful and offensive.

Most recognized Native American name

Leaders of the Onondaga Nation called it reprehensible that “Geronimo” was used to identify bin Laden during the commando assault that killed him.

Think of the outcry if they had used any other ethnic group’s hero.

“Think of the outcry if they had used any other ethnic group’s hero,” the Onondaga Council of Chiefs said. “Geronimo bravely and heroically defended his homeland and his people, eventually surrendering and living out the rest of his days peacefully, if in captivity.”

Geronimo is arguably the most recognized Native American name in the world,” according to the Onondaga chiefs. “This comparison only serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes about our people,” they said.

Loretta Tuell, a member of the Nez Perce tribe, is staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. She told The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. that she had a similar reaction.

“These inappropriate uses of Native American icons and cultures are prevalent throughout our society, and the impacts to Native and non-Native children are devastating,” Tuell said.

Kernell said the Native American Task Force members “implore that all persons seek peace, justice and wholeness for all members of God’s creation and not continue to employ stereotypes and demonizing images of persons simply because of differences.”

The Rev. Cynthia Abrams, a Seneca tribe member who directs GBCS’s Alcohol, Other Addictions & Health Care work area, said discounting or ignoring how Native people feel about stereotypes adversely affects another generation of American Indian children. “Tragic statistics among American Indians indicate that suicide is the second leading cause of death among our adolescents and young adults ages 10 to 34,” she pointed out. “Suicide among our 15- to 24-year olds is twice as high as the national average for that age group.”


Editor's note: Members of the Native American Task Force of the General Board of Church & Society recently wrote a series of articles this spring addressing American Indian issues:

  • Native American mascots must go,” (Faith in Action, April 6).
  • A deafening silence” (Faith in Action, April 14)
  • Educating about Native Americans,” (Faith in Action, April 21)
  • Why it matters, (Faith in Action, April 29)
  • Other resources related to this article:

  • Onondaga Nation Statement on Use of Geronimo
  • Apache Letter to the President About Geronimo
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    Letter to the Editor