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Akaka: Use of Geronimo code name ‘unfortunate’


WASHINGTON >> The U.S. military’s use of Geronimo as a code name for Osama bin Laden tarnished the achievement of the raid by insulting an American ethnic group, Native American tribal leaders and advocates told Congress on Thursday.

Comparing the legendary Apache leader to a terrorist and enemy of the United States was deeply insulting and did real damage to Native Americans of all ages, said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, a Washington-based Native rights organization.

"It is shocking, really shocking, that this happened," said Harjo, a member of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.

Harjo called the incident a painful reminder of a pattern that goes back to the founding of the country.

"Our names are stolen and then we’re renamed in order to control us, frankly," she told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "My dad was not an enemy when he helped win World War II."

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Indian Affairs panel, said in written testimony that he was dismayed at the use of Geronimo’s name in the raid that killed bin Laden.

"This victory has otherwise united our country, and it’s unfortunate that this code name was chosen," Akaka wrote.

(Akaka did not attend the hearing because he had broken two ribs in a fall at home earlier in the week, according to his spokesman.)

The committee had scheduled a hearing on racial stereotypes before the raid that killed bin Laden, but Akaka said the controversy over the code name showed the importance of focusing on institutional stereotypes.

The use of Geronimo’s name has appalled many Native Americans and drawn calls for an apology. The 19th century warrior was known for his ability to walk without leaving footprints, allowing him to evade thousands of Mexican and U.S. soldiers, much like bin Laden evaded capture for the past decade.

But for Native Americans, there’s an important difference: Geronimo was a hero — not a terrorist.

Statements of disapproval from tribal leaders, a call for President Barack Obama to apologize, and scores of angry comments on social network sites have surged since the issue came to light this week.

Jeff Houser, chairman of Geronimo’s Fort Sill Apache Tribe, noted in a letter to Obama that the decision behind the code name stemmed from an ongoing cultural disconnect, not malice. But the damage is the same.

"We are quite certain that the use of the name Geronimo as a code for Osama bin Laden was based on misunderstood and misconceived historical perspectives of Geronimo and his armed struggle against the United States and Mexican governments," Houser wrote.

"However, to equate Geronimo or any other Native American figure with Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer and cowardly terrorist, is painful and offensive to our tribe and to all Native Americans."

The White House referred questions on the matter to the Defense Department, which said no disrespect was meant to Native Americans.

The department wouldn’t elaborate on the use of Geronimo’s name but said code names typically are chosen randomly and allow those working on a mission to communicate without divulging information to adversaries.


Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.

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