Code Name 'Geronimo' Sparks Anger

President Obama said he knew the mission to execute Osama bin Laden was complete when he heard "Geronimo" had been killed. Some Native Americans are angry about the name association between the global terrorist and Geronimo. They're asking Obama to apologize. Host Michel Martin discusses the controversy with Tim Johnson of the National Museum of the American Indian.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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But, first, we'd like to take a moment to talk about a persistent sour note for some Americans following the successful conclusion to the 10-year hunt for terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. He was hunted down and killed by U.S. Special Forces just over a week ago in a mission reportedly named Geronimo. Now, the Defense Department and the intelligence services have told us they do not confirm operational details, including code names. But President Obama made mention of it in an interview with the CBS News program "60 Minutes" that aired Sunday night.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "60 MINUTES")

BARACK OBAMA: There was a point before folks had left. Before we had gotten everybody back on the helicopter and were flying back to base, where they said Geronimo has been killed. And Geronimo was the code name for bin Laden.

MARTIN: Now, the use of the name of the legendary Apache leader Geronimo has caused anger and (unintelligible) hurt feelings among many Native Americans, and not just members of the Apache tribe. We wanted to get perspective on this so we've called on Tim Johnson. He is the associate director for museum programs at the National Museum of the American Indian, which happens to have an exhibition on Chiricahua Apache up right now. And, actually, Geronimo was a member of that tribe. Tim Johnson is also a former executive editor of Indian Country Today. That's the nation's leading American Indian newspaper and he's also a member of the Mohawk tribe. And he's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

TIM JOHNSON: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: Now, for our listeners who may not be familiar with Geronimo or his story, can you just briefly tell us a little bit about who he was? And we'll, you know, come back and talk more about that later. But just tell us briefly who he was.

JOHNSON: Sure. He was a Chiricahua Apache man who was born in 1829 in the traditional homelands of the Apache, Southwestern United States. And he was raised really in a traditional, cultural framework. And along with his people they lived largely off the land hunting and gathering throughout their territory. And over time, of course he was born at a time when encroachment was beginning to happen by both Mexican and American people, some settlers. And so this is kind of the era that he was born into.

MARTIN: And then what happened? And he's famous because...

JOHNSON: Well, what happened, of course, is as these encroachments continued, conflicts began to arise between the Apache and both Mexican and, later on, American peoples. And one of the signature events in his life was when his family was killed by Mexican forces in 1858. And during that particular raid that happened when the Chiricahua Apache men were off trading with the nearby village, that these Mexican forces came in. They killed his wife, his three children and his mother.

MARTIN: And so he is kind of famous in the popular imagination for what? Leading, you know, resistance against these encroachments. And he also eluded capture by, you know, federal forces and also by Mexican forces, U.S. federal forces and Mexican forces for quite some time. Eventually he was captured and the other - he eventually surrendered and he and the, you know, fellow members of the tribe were moved to internment camps for quite some time. They were in captivity for quite some time.

JOHNSON: They were in captivity for 27 years, which is the longest period of time that any people have been in internment in United States history.

MARTIN: And he finally, eventually he did die as a prisoner of war.

JOHNSON: Correct.

MARTIN: OK.

JOHNSON: He lived out the rest of his life as a prisoner of war.

MARTIN: Now, you, as we mentioned, you're a former newspaper editor as well as a museum director. And it seems to me that you're getting quite a lot of feedback from people about how they feel about this. Tell me a little bit about how people in Indian country feel about the use of the code name Geronimo. I understand it's evoked quite a reaction.

JOHNSON: Yeah, it was interesting because I, like many American Indians across the country, were watching with great interest the news of Osama bin Laden's capture and killing. And along with everyone else we were, you know, gratified - deeply gratified and thankful that that had happened.

So in the midst of that sort of shared experience, if you will, as the details began to emerge of the actual operation, when it became known that the code name or the name of the operation, whatever it may be - although as you referenced earlier, President Obama did cite that - that when that news came forward that the use of the code name Geronimo was a great disappointment.

MARTIN: Because why?

JOHNSON: Well, because it's out of context with history, you know. And it's sort of pairing up, if you will, this really heinous killer, mass murderer with Geronimo, whose experience was far different. And the antecedents of those experiences were far different. And so it was a great moment of disappointment, actually, in a time of shared experience.

MARTIN: Well, is it that people feel that you're equating, that name Geronimo, equating Osama bin Laden with Geronimo or is that a reference to the fact that he was a skilled military and strategic leader, Geronimo was, who successful eluded capture?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think in the popular American imagination that's where it lives, right? So you have this sort of surface level understanding of who Geronimo was. And it is - the more understood history is that the U.S. Army chased after Geronimo for quite time. He eluded capture for quite some time.

MARTIN: But you're saying you feel like it's equating him with a mass murderer.

JOHNSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: That's why. As opposed to...

JOHNSON: That's the perception. Whereas American Indians would see him more as somebody who really fought for the freedom of their people and defending their own territories.

MARTIN: In fact, there was a statement by Harlyn Geronimo, the great grandson of Geronimo. He submitted a statement to the official record of the United States Senate Commission on Indian Affairs, which actually held a hearing on Indian stereotyping or stereotypes of Indians last week. And in that statement he says that as the son of - a grandson of Geronimo, who is a U.S. soldier, fought in Omaha Beach on D-Day and across West Europe to the Rhine in World War II, having myself served two tours of duty in Vietnam during that war, I must respectfully request from the president or commander-in-chief or his secretary at the department of Defense, a full explanation of how this disgraceful use of my great grandfather's name occurred. A full apology for the grievous insult after all that Native Americans have suffered and the expungement from all the records of the U.S. government this use of the name Geronimo.

Do you feel, though, Tim, obviously one cannot argue with how people feel, but do you really feel that people associate this use of Geronimo that that's the - that that's what people are saying - that he was a mass murderer? You really think that they're saying that?

JOHNSON: Well, I don't know if they're saying that, but it's this disjuncture with how history is brought forward. And what Harlyn also said is he called it a subversion of history. And I think it's in that realm where most of the disagreement actually exists. That the fulsome nature of who Geronimo was isn't reflected in simply giving his name as a code name linked to Osama bin Laden.

MARTIN: How widespread is this feeling that Harlyn Geronimo encapsulated in his statement? Are you hearing, like, across Indian country, across tribes that people are very upset by this?

JOHNSON: Well, when I first heard it, I wondered, did I just hear that? And my second thought was, I wonder how other American Indians are going to react to this. Right? Because I was home alone just listening to the news as it was breaking. And as it turns out, it's pretty universal all across the country there's been all sorts of commentary and protests, calls for apologies and so forth.

MARTIN: But what - forgive me if I just press the question - why should the president apologize for this? I very much doubt he picked the code name.

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: What would be the importance of his doing that?

JOHNSON: Well, I think it's to convey a sense upon reflection that perhaps the language that was used, the name that was used in comparison wasn't the best way to go. So there are many who are calling for apology.

What I'm really seeking myself is more of an editorial adjustment. That the president, for example, is editor-in-chief, if you will, of the armed forces, actually take a look at how they're using symbolism and analogies and metaphors of American Indians in the lexicon of the U.S. military and in other government and civic agencies as well.

MARTIN: And just to press a point, because one of the points that Harlyn Geronimo also made is that - actually, we've reported on this in this program - that Native Americans, American Indians have a very distinguished history of serving in the U.S. military.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. I don't think there's any family that doesn't know somebody who's directly served in the military. My father was a paratrooper, a Korean War era veteran.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, if you would describe this as a teachable moment, if I can use that term, what would you like people to draw from this? And I assume I can use that with you, as a museum director, part of your mission is to educate. What would you like people to draw from this experience who perhaps really don't understand why it is that people are as upset as they are?

JOHNSON: Well, I just think it's important that people actually get a more rounded picture - a more fulsome picture of history, and understand that there is more than just one story to be told, and that there are multiple perspectives that lend themselves to history.

MARTIN: Tim Johnson is the associate director for museum programs at the National Museum of the American Indian. He's also a member of the Mohawk tribe and a former executive editor of Indian Country Today, which is the foremost newspaper for Indian country, and he was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Tim Johnson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Michel.

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