New Mexico Senator Tom Udall joined others Thursday in criticizing the U.S. military’s use of the code name Geronimo during the mission that led to Osama bin Laden’s death days ago.
The Democrat Udall praised the mission’s intent but said Geronimo’s association with the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was “highly inappropriate and culturally insensitive.”
Udall’s comments opened up a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing previously set to discuss racial stereotyping of Indigenous people. The hearing took on a broader focus with news of the Apache leader’s use as a code name, which has angered many Native Americans and drawn calls for an apology.
“It highlights a serious issue and the very issue we have come here to discuss today: A socially ingrained acceptance of derogatory portrayals of indigenous peoples,” Udall said.
Various media reports state that “Geronimo” was the name of the operation, while “Jackpot” was bin Laden’s code name. After bin Laden was killed, the message “Geronimo EKIA” or enemy killed in action, was sent back to the White House.
While refusing to elaborate on the code name, the U.S. Defense Department has said that no disrespect was meant to Native Americans.
Among other theories, some believe the code name was used because both Geronimo and bin Laden long eluded capture by U.S. authorities. After a more than a decade of fighting U.S. and Mexican armies to protect Apache land, Geronimo surrendered in 1886.
“For him to be compared to a terrorist and to be called an enemy is shocking,” said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, a Native American rights group.
Harjo was joined by a panel of tribal leaders, actors and researchers in condemning the “Geronimo” code and describe the negative effects that mascots such as the Washington Redskins and the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux have on Native Americans.
Harjo said the number of Native mascots in sports has dropped from about 3,000 in the 1970s to less than 1,000 today but the remaining are “the tough nuts.”
Charlene Teters of the Institute of American Indian Arts said the “Geronimo” code and Indian mascots create an unnecessary burden for Native Americans, one that strips their identity away and replaces it with a stereotype.
What happens is most people then view Native Americans as less than human, Teters said.
Actor Chaske Spencer, best known as Sam Uley from the “Twlight” films, told the committee that he’s found only a few roles in Hollywood that weren’t stereotypical “feathers and leathers” roles.
In light of this and the Geronimo code name, he said “we need to be more conscious of the associations we make.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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