BY BEVERLY ANN DEEPE KEEVER – The 37th annual Inter-Tribal Powwow featuring Apache, Choctaw, Navaho singers and dancers at Thomas Square Park on Honolulu’s balmy weekend of Oct. 1 and 2 prompts one to reflect on the recent acrimonious controversy involving American Indians.
The code name of Geronimo E-K.I.A to announce that America’s No. 1 enemy of the era—Osama bin Laden—had been killed in action outraged American Indians and a smattering of others worldwide.
The toxic linking of that renowned Apache chief with America’s prime terrorist exposes a long and pernicious pattern of official name-calling that warrants remedying by top U.S. leaders, including Hawaii’s Senator Daniel K. Akaka, who heads the Committee on Indian Affairs.
More than a mere code name for bin Laden was used. U.S. Navy SEALs conducting the top-secret raid “had created a checklist of code words that had a Native American theme,” writes reporter Nicholas Schmidle in the Aug. 8 issue of The New Yorker. “Each code word represented a different stage of the mission: leaving Jalalabad, entering Pakistan, approaching the compound, and so on.”
This checklist using indigenous names to signify checkpoints through dangerous territory insinuates that the SEALS were being ferried into “Indian country,” a term I often heard covering the Vietnam War when U.S. troops marched from their encampments into pro-communist-held areas.
As the SEALs cornered the unarmed bin Laden, shot him once and then again, the radio crackled, “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” Then, Schmidle reports, the voice exclaimed, “Geronimo E.K.I.A”—enemy killed in action. Five days later, the SEALs presented President Obama with a flag from the raid carrying the inscription: “For God and country. Geronimo.”
Official use of that code name drew some irate reactions. Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) lamented, “Apparently, having an African American President in the White House is not enough to overturn the more than 200-year American tradition of treating and thinking of Indians as enemies of the United States.”
Reacting to a “Farewell to Geronimo” headline over a newspaper column about bin Laden in the New York Times, Nan Socolow wrote from the Cayman Islands: “That ‘EKIA Geronimo!’ has reverberated throughout the world.”
The names of the helicopters ferrying the SEALS have drawn little comment. Yet the Black Hawks transporting SEALs into the raid carry the name of the illustrious Sauk chief who led warriors battling U.S. units during the early 1800s. The Chinook that lifted skyward bin Laden’s corpse carries the name of the peoples who greeted the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805.
Official name-calling was conspicuous in what I described as “the world’s first helicopter war” in Vietnam, when the U.S. military bequeathed the names of American Indian tribes or chiefs to choppers. This association led scholars to observe that U.S. leaders saw “helicopter development as somehow a natural extension of Indian Wars.” This flashback to the conquest of the Indians thrived before and after the Vietnam War in films and fiction and it continues a half-century later in the official name-calling employed by federal executive-branch agencies.
Arriving in South Vietnam in 1961 were 42 H-21 Shawnee helicopters, which journalists typically described as crescent-shaped “banana boats.” I had forgotten-if I ever knew–that the Shawnee people, even before the American Revolution, spilled and sacrificed blood fighting from their original hunting grounds in what is now Kentucky but were eventually reduced to becoming almost-refugees.
The last slow-moving Shawnee banana-boat was retired from service in a simple ceremony I covered on June 27, 1964, and then was replaced by turbo-jet-powered HU-1 Iroquois, the namesake of the peoples encountering the first Europeans to arrive along the upper East Coast.
Soon more specialized helicopters arrived in Vietnam carrying Indian names: Sioux for the bubble-nosed scout; Kiowa, for observation; Mohave, for lifting heavy cargo under its belly; the Chickasaw and Choctaw utility transports named after peoples uprooted from or finagled out of their vast tracks where whites wanted to expand cotton production and, under presidential orders, forcibly removed in what one scholar calls “nothing less than a death march.”
Hitching the names of helicopters to Indian-fighting opens a window exposing the dispossession of the native peoples during what Professor Patricia Limerick describes as a “legacy of conquest.”
Decades before bubble-nosed choppers bearing their names dotted Vietnam skies, the Sioux wiped out Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s infamous 7th Cavalry in the Battle of Little Big Horn but 24 years later, were virtually annihilated during the Massacre of Wounded Knee. “Both in fact and in symbol,” historian Robert Utley explains, that Massacre of 1890 “marks the passing of the Indian frontier.”
The official use of the code name of Geronimo lays bare not only this dark past but also the deep anti-Indian biases still embedded in American culture that need corrective remedies by U.S. leaders.
Without these remedies, white domination will remain “so complete that even American Indian children want to be cowboys,” asserts Scholar Michael Yellow Bird of the Sahnish and Hidatsa Nations. He concludes: “It’s as if Jewish children wanted to play Nazis.”
(A co-editor of and contributor to “U.S. News Coverage of Racial Minorities,” Beverly Ann Deepe Keever reported the Vietnam War for seven years and is now professor emerita at the University of Hawaii’s School of Communications.)
(Professor Emerita Beverly Ann Deepe Keever, Ph.d., Day and Night Tel.: (808) 732-7598; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.)