ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — The leader of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe is asking President Barack Obama for a formal apology for the government’s use of the code name “Geronimo” for Osama bin Laden.
Tribal Chairman Jeff Houser sent a letter to the president Tuesday, saying that equating the legendary Apache warrior to a “mass murderer and cowardly terrorist” was painful and offensive to all Native Americans. The letter was posted Wednesday morning on the Oklahoma tribe’s website.
“Right now Native American children all over this country are facing the reality of having one of their most revered figures being connected to a terrorist and murderer of thousands of innocent Americans,” Houser wrote. “Think about how they feel at this point.”
Houser said Obama was elected on a message of compassion and change. Forever linking the memory of Geronimo to “one of the most despicable enemies this country has ever had” shows neither compassion to Native Americans nor change in perception of Indians or their struggle, he said.
Geronimo is a legend among Apaches and other Indian tribes for the fierce fighting he brought on during the 19th century as he tried to protect his land, his people and their way of life from encroachment by U.S. and Mexican armies. Stories have been passed down about the Chiricahua Apache leader being able to walk without leaving footprints, helping him evade the thousands of soldiers and scouts who spent years looking for him throughout the Southwest.
News about the code name spread quickly across Indian country and on social network sites, resulting in a groundswell of criticism against the U.S. government. Other tribes and tribal leaders issued statements of disapproval, while countless Facebook and Twitter users chimed in, some using historical photos of the Apache leader for their profile pictures.
Tribal elder James Neptune of Maine’s Penobscot Indian Nation said Wednesday that the military’s use of Geronimo’s name was disrespectful to all Native Americans.
“It just stirs up more of the old feelings that we’re trying to get rid of,” he said. “It shows no respect at all.”
Native people have earned the respect of others by serving the country, he said, even though they weren’t recognized as full American citizens until 1964.
“Our people fought in every single conflict of this county,” said Neptune, who is the Penobscot Nation Museum coordinator. “And we didn’t get the right to vote until 1957.”
The wounds caused by years of oppression have been slow to heal, and they are healing, but are reopened whenever native history or its people are openly offended.
“Maine native people have been persecuted for so long and Geronimo’s people have been persecuted. It adds fuel,” Neptune said.
The U.S. government could have found a code name that would inspire the soldiers without offending people at home, he said.
“Why didn’t they call it Hitler or something that everybody could hate?” Neptune said.
The White House referred questions on the matter to the U.S. Defense Department, which said no disrespect was meant to Native Americans. The department wouldn’t elaborate but said code names typically are chosen randomly so those working on a mission can communicate without divulging any information to adversaries.
In his letter, Houser told Obama that his tribe — like the rest of the nation — was ecstatic about learning of bin Laden’s death during a raid in Pakistan. But those feelings were tempered as details about the code name emerged.
“Unlike the coward Osama bin Laden, Geronimo faced his enemy in numerous battles and engagements,” Houser wrote. “He is perhaps one of the greatest symbols of Native American resistance in the history of the United States.”
Geronimo was born in 1829 in what would later become the state of New Mexico. Aside from leading resistance efforts for his people, he also was known as a spiritual leader. After the families of Geronimo and other Apache warriors were captured and sent to Florida, he and 35 warriors surrendered to Gen. Nelson A. Miles near the Arizona-New Mexico border in 1886. Geronimo eventually was sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where he died of pneumonia in 1909 after nearly 23 years of captivity. He was buried in the Fort Sill Apache prisoner of war cemetery.
BDN reporter Nok-Noi Ricker in Bangor contributed to this report.