In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011, an invisible tsunami of moral outrage swept across America. Learning that the code name “Geronimo” was used by the US Navy Seals tasked with raiding bin Laden’s secret mansion in Pakistan, a flood of indignation rippled throughout Indian Country. But it made little impression on the American news media and the national storytelling that followed.
In the stories that deluged American Indian news outlets, outraged racial Indians told each other a remarkably consistent tale: Geronimo, our revered American Indian icon, has been defamed by the racist US military, who equated him with a hated mass murderer and international terrorist.
In hearings held by a committee of the US Congress just a few days after the incident, a group of prominent American Indians protested against the use of the name of an Indian hero in the bin Laden military operation. Suzan Shown Harjo testified that Geronimo “has become a fine role model for our children all over Indian Country.” What she meant was that Geronimo has assumed an almost mythic stature in the master narrative of racial Indianhood, and the story of his doings has a well-respected place as a chapter in pan-Indian racial bonding.
This tenet of pan-Indian bonding applies just as much to Pawnees as to other adherents to racial Indianhood. The next issue of the Pawnee Nation newspaper that followed the bin Laden incident (Chaticks si Chaticks, June 2011, p. 4) featured an article on Harjo. This article honored her as “a leader in the arts, culture and policy,” and as “the great-granddaughter of Nannie Aspenall,” a Skidi Pawnee who married a Cheyenne named Richard Davis.
The Pawnee newspaper didn’t mention Harjo’s views on Geronimo, but another prominent Pawnee condemned the use of Geronimo’s name by the US military in terms that echoed Harjo’s opinions. In a May 2011 blog posting titled “The Characteristics of Anti-Indianism” Julia Good Fox weighed in on the controversy, describing the range of views expressed by racial Indians: “Responses from Indian Country to this latest act of anti-Indianism ranged from the usual Soma-induced and Fort Colonized responses to the tepid ‘sorry to bring this to the U.S.’s attention’ to the impressively incisive condemnations” (published in Phati’tude, volume 3, #1, Spring 2011, p. 10, 12).
Good Fox is an educator at a major pro-race university in Kansas and sits on the board of the Pawnee Nation College. It would be interesting to know the full spectrum of Pawnee views on the Geronimo controversy and whether this spectrum matches the characterization put forward by Good Fox. But another point interests me even more. For her, the incident served as an opportunity to bond through race with other like-minded adherents to racial Indianhood, and it provided a convenient teaching moment. Good Fox felt moved to share her personal vision of what an ideal pan-Indian pro-race cultural agenda should look like.
I can imagine that Pawnees might well hold a diversity of opinions about the US military’s choice to conflate Geronimo and bin Laden. But I can hardly believe that very many pro-race Pawnees would pass up such a popular opportunity to affirm their commitment to some kind of pan-Indian agenda. Pawnees believe in race. The identity system of racial Indianhood is central to understanding what it means to be Pawnee today.
Looking for Pawnee opinions in the weeks and months after the killing of Osama bin Laden, I scanned the internet every day, reading article after article written by dismayed Indians defending Geronimo from the taint of bin Laden. I soon noticed a somewhat disconcerting pattern. Absent from almost every iteration of this pan-Indian storytelling was any examination of Geronimo’s exploits against Mexicans.
Geronimo was born in the course of a very bloody sporadic conflict between Apaches and Mexicans. When he was a young man, a Mexican military force slaughtered his family, and he spent the rest of his life crossing international borders to raid Mexico and kill Mexicans.
In his autobiography, recorded in old age, Geronimo said he didn’t know how many Mexicans he had slain, but some didn’t really seem worth counting. At one point he casually mentioned that he and his partisans had meticulously murdered the “inmates” of every Mexican household they encountered in the lonely hinterlands of northern Mexico. Even in his advanced old age, he would gladly kill more Mexicans, he said.
Among adherents to racial Indianhood, veneration of Geronimo is sincere and widespread and unquestioned. His resistance to American hegemony has bestowed upon him a mantle of moral authority, a social ambience of lofty purpose.
But given Geronimo’s history, the high regard for him among Indians could reasonably be seen as problematic for some Latinos and Mexican American immigrants. True, it isn’t exactly clear how Geronimo’s views on Mexicans impacts (or ought to impact) our contemporary politics of multiculturalism and the notion of racial solidarity among “people of color.” What should Latinos make of Geronimo’s iconic status among American Indians?
Whether or not Latinos ever give this situation any thought, what should we make of the Mexican families who suffered at Geronimo’s hands? Are we to see his vengeance as social justice? Can the suffering of those Mexican families be morally weighed against the suffering that Mexicans inflicted upon Apache families?
These are good questions. But whatever answers one may favor, it is very difficult for me to peer into the eyes of all those people, whether Apache or Mexican, as they are each individually made to pay the terrible price for total war.
And since I cannot easily grasp the moral logic that once sustained this total war, I feel some uncertainty about what to make of any moral logic that would casually dismiss the blood that everyone shed in those awful days. And I feel a strong sense that I should say something meaningful about collateral damage. But what?
Geronimo certainly wasn’t a Gandhi. About the time that Gandhi wandered into his philosophy of active non-violent “satyagraha” in South Africa, Geronimo completed the telling of his life-story to Stephen Barrett.
It is a tale of war, of blows taken and given. In this memoir, Geronimo wanted to be remembered for his military service. Having endured much suffering at the hands of enemies, he did not hesitate to reply in kind, and the Apache multi-generational conflict with Mexico served up plenty of bitter days for everyone involved.
War with Americans eventually put an end to Geronimo’s vendetta against Mexicans. Given Geronimo’s long-term status as an American prisoner of war, perhaps he can be usefully compared to Nelson Mandela.
When Mandela forsook Gandhi’s “truth force” non-violence and took up arms, he led a revolt against the institutions of apartheid, and during the years of his subsequent imprisonment his colleagues carried forth the revolution. Whatever bloodshed followed in the course of these events, Nelson Mandela did not make it his mission in life to systematically massacre his enemies and murder their families. In contrast to Geronimo’s heartfelt and lifelong commitment to killing Mexicans, Mandela became famous for promoting racial reconciliation in South Africa.
Here in the twenty-first century, a hundred years after Geronimo told his story, I suggest that the master narrative of racial Indianhood has strategically edited Geronimo’s life-story in order to promote Indian racial bonding and the gathering of racial social power. By minimizing his hatred of Mexicans, adherents to racial Indianhood can better weave his tale into an unadulterated story of resistance to American racial oppression. A heroic public image for Geronimo, free of distracting ambiguities, is helpful to this agenda.
As patriotic Americans, most Indians quickly joined the rest of America in congratulating the US Navy Seals for killing Osama bin Laden. But with Geronimo’s heroic status in hand, Indians also uniformly called for the United States to apologize for what the Seals said when they killed bin Laden in his secret mansion in Pakistan: “Geronimo, EKIA.”
The tsunami of moral outrage that shook Indian America had an agenda beyond any hoped-for response on the part of the United States. When Indians speak of Geronimo, they are really talking to each other, not to outsiders. They wish to encourage one another to speak the same language of race, a vocabulary of commitment to the American racial contract and to racial bonding.
Revering Geronimo, few American Indians today would want to send armed parties into Mexico to exact revenge for wrongs committed by Mexicans on Americans. Instead, the makers of racial Indianhood wish to see Geronimo enshrined among Indians as a “fine role model” for their children. They want their racialized children to successfully negotiate all the tests of racial loyalty that they will face in life. Having the right idea about Geronimo is one of those tests.
And for prominent Indian culture leaders like Suzan Harjo and Julia Good Fox, the bin Laden incident served as an important pro-race teaching moment, affirming the meanings of racial Indianhood. But it is unsettling that there is an implied presumption among adherents to racial Indianhood that loyal Indians ought to forget about Mexico when they summon up the icon of Geronimo, the hero, the role model.
When I look into the eyes of the Mexican children who suffered long ago at the hands of Geronimo and his compatriots, my heart feels troubled. I do not think they should be forgotten.
So I feel a little sad when I hear Indians describe Geronimo as a role model in their stories about racial injustice, and how systemic racism in the American military has suborned their hero Geronimo, and how racist America doesn’t care about the feelings that Indians may have about Geronimo the icon, and how a tsunami of outrage swept across Native America in the wake of the news of the killing of Osama bin Laden.