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Code Name “Geronimo,” and my Native American Nostalgia

This is a weeklong story, but it seems that details of what happened will continue to be revealed, and corrected, and many of us will grow tired of the disclaimers, protected sources, and all the political interpretations. Even before the May 1 event in Abbottabad, Pakistan, I wouldn’t have imagined to be writing about the world’s most celebrated terrorist, and let alone about his demise. In a sense, I didn’t even feel like writing out his name in full!

What grabbed my attention was a now-iconic transmission from Abbottabad, Pakistan: “Geronimo EKIA,” or “Geronimo, Enemy Killed in Action.”

Why Geronimo? I asked myself. Was this a reference to a Chiricahua Apache tribe, or to some other meaning given to that name? Was this a reference to an exclamation of parachuters’—“Geronimo!—when they jump from planes? Whatever—was this about the Indian who—to the Apaches—was a symbol of their values, aggressiveness, or courage in the face of difficulty, or all of the above and more? Yes, a freedom fighter to some, and a villain to others.

What assisted me were the reports in Washington Post and Huffington Post (May 5, 2011) pointedly referring to a choice of a code name for bin Laden – Geronimo – as being insensitive, offensive, painful and insulting. The events of May 1 that took out the “apostle of hatred,” as Jim Wallis referred on his blog in Sojourners to the Al Qaeda leader, caused me to reach back into my history as I attempted to learn from this latest historical moment. The media immediately exploited the clandestine raid that ended the life of a notorious and ruthless jihadist terrorist, and a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. While most entertainment-news media concentrated on reporting the eruption of euphoria that bin Laden was killed, a few pointed to the moral underpinning of joy when a human being is killed. What is Christian at being glad at taking a human life, any life?

As the 9/11 tragedy claimed nearly 3,000 lives in America, many in the Middle East took to the streets with jubilation. On May 1 similar public expressions were replicated throughout America. References to “eye for an eye” cried to high heavens.

Pastor Jim Wallis’ moral compass pointed out that “it is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, even one so given to the face of evil.” The Dalai Lama reflected that bin Laden was a human being who may have deserved compassion and even forgiveness. Yet, the evil deeds of Al Qaeda and its founder came with responsibility and needed to be opposed. Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. But would the May 1 outcome push the world community toward nonviolent conflict solving?

Now, coming back to Geronimo, it was the Native Americans themselves who said, “Wait a minute? Geronimo—was he also a terrorist?” Was the choice of such designation a seeming continuation of three hundred plus years of death brought on by globalization? What was our American officialdom thinking? Was there anyone who would challenge such a decision?

The Indian Country Today commented about the code name’s choice. Lise Balk King wrote:

embedded within it is a message that an Indian warrior, a symbol of Native American survival in the face of racial annihilation, is associated with modern terrorism and the attacks on 9/11. It equates being Native American with being hated, an enemy to the world, and someone to be hunted down and killed, and re-casts one of their heroes into a villainous role.

There is what I would call a Native American nostalgia in our home. Every so often it recollects as sense of innocent nonconformity in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Grazyna and I, though growing up in different cities, would hide under the covers, turn on flashlights and way past midnight swallow the books of Karl May. We grew up on the fictitious adventures and ethos of Winnetou and the Old Shatterhand. In those days I imagined siding with the Apaches and dreaming of having a haircut like one of the illustrated warriors. Though Karl May never traveled to the Wild West, he described the Indian predicament as being on the losing side in the ruthless territorial expansion of the frontiersmen settlers, supported by the U.S. Army. But they were my heroes. Karl May’s call to peaceful living and embrace of freedom is enshrined in my own worldview.

Later, in 1970, it was Geronimo who became a hero of mine when I supported the vision of Radio Geronimo, an independent broadcaster in London whose claim to fame was “jamming of the BBC.” It happened at the BBC Broadcasting House corporate headquarters in Portland Place with literal strawberry jam – jars and plastic bags of it with spoons to aid! These were the days of Radio London and Radio Caroline, the nonconformist precursors of broadcasting deregulation in Britain. Radio Geronimo offered an alternative music choice, transmitted on weekends from Monte Carlo – 205 Meters MW, midnight onward. The station was nonconformist, a warrior for the liberation of broadcasting, the Apaches of the airways.

In 1971 it was the Dan Brown’s Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee that added to my fascination with the culture, history and fate of the indigenous tribes of America. I was offered to write a book review for Insight Magazine. I considered it an honor to do.

Geronimo’s story – his quest to preserve the tribe’s identity, freedom and integrity – etched itself in my own attitudes. The “here I stand” symbol of survival in the face of ethnic (racial) annihilation could hardly be compared with modern terrorism and the underpinning evil of the attacks in 2001.

The Abbottabad reference by a Navy Seal to Geronimo, also reminded me of a visit to the Pamunkey Reservation in Virginia, the land of a tribe famed for King Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas. Then came a crowning moment to my fascination with Geronimo and the Apaches – a visit in 1984 to Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona. Hosted by the USIA, the visit aimed at an introduction to the present-day lifestyle and continued challenges for the contemporary Apaches.

After arriving at a motel, a sound of screeching tires woke me to attention when an assistant of the Apache Tribe President arrived to summon me for a visit at the tribe headquarters. “I heard that a member of the Lech Walesa nation is visiting our territory,” said the Apache chief. “I wanted to pay my respects to the Polish people.”

Then and even today, I am inclined to compare the Solidarity warriors of Gdansk to the “here I stand” of Geronimo and his band of freedom fighters.

In my estimate, the choice of Geronimo’s name for bin Laden may not have been considered with needed sensitivity, and with respect for the First Nations of America. Geronimo’s story was decidedly different to that of the Al Qaeda chief, though both were hunted. And a difference is indicated in Geronimo’s own comment: “I was living peaceably when people began to speak bad of me.”

Now, to the memory of Geronimo himself, again in his own words: “I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”

Ray Dabrowski directed communication for the Seventh-day Adventist Church from 1994 to 2010.

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