Karl Jacoby: Operation Geronimo dishonors the Indian leader

Roundup: Historians' Take

Karl Jacoby is a professor of history at Brown University and the author of "Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History."

"Geronimo—ekia." With this coded message, sent on May 1, a U.S. Navy SEALs commando squad signaled the death of Osama bin Laden, the "enemy killed in action." The mission was pulled off without a hitch, but in the week since then, debate has raged in some circles about the code name.

The administration hasn't explained why the operation targeting Bin Laden used the name of one of the nation's best-known Native Americans, saying the selection process of names for such missions is confidential. But the use of Geronimo's name speaks to the powerful, if unexamined, hold that the nation's "Indian wars" continue to have on our popular consciousness.

Geronimo, whose real name was Guyaalé, "the Yawner," was

a member of the Chiricahua Apache, a group that ranged across New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico from the 1820s to the 1880s. His relations with the U.S. were not always hostile. Indeed, as he later reported in his autobiography, his first encounter with government representatives — a small team marking the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1850s — was cordial. "[W]e made a treaty with them by shaking hands and promising to be brothers," recalled Geronimo. "Then we made our camp near their camp, and they came to trade with us.

But after a misunderstanding led to the U.S. Army's attempt to arrest the Chiricahua leader Cochise in 1861, relations between the Chiricahua Apaches and the government deteriorated. On four separate occasions, Geronimo fled the reservations on which the U.S. government had tried to confine him. The Apache leader and the men, women and children accompanying him successfully eluded the Army for long periods, supporting themselves with raids on settlements in Arizona and across the border in Mexico. Geronimo's final surrender in 1886 is generally seen as the end of the "Indian wars," giving Geronimo the distinction of being the last Indian to hold out against the U.S. militarily.

Present-day Native American leaders have rightly objected to the implied comparison between Geronimo and Bin Laden. ...

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