WASHINGTON, May 5, 2011 -- A New Mexico senator wasted little time today in blasting the military's use of "Geronimo" as a code word in reference to the Osama bin Laden mission.
"I find the association with bin Laden to be highly inappropriate and culturally insensitive," Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat, said before an Indian Affairs committee hearing on racist Native-American stereotypes. "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."
The hearing had been scheduled long before Navy SEALs killed bin Laden Sunday, but their reference to Geronimo after killing the most-wanted terrorist served as kindling for today's heated meeting.
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Udall, who noted that Native Americans historically have the highest per capita rate of military service of any ethnic group, said he has tried to get clarification about the use of the name Geronimo from the Pentagon, but military protocol prohibits the release of any additional information.
Tex Hall of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association in Nouth Dakota echoed Udall's criticism of the reference to Geronimo.
"This is a misfortunate incident that we need to acknowledge and try to rectify," Hall testified.
Suzan Shown Harjo of the Washington, D.C.-based Morning Star Institute, an American Indian rights group, said, "For him to be compared to a terrorist and to be called an enemy is shocking, really shocking that this happened."
Before the hearing started, Geronimo's great-grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, who was not present, released a scathing statement calling the use of the Geronimo name insulting and slanderous.
"Whether it was intended only to name the military operation to kill or capture Osama bin Laden or to give Osama bin Laden himself the code name Geronimo, either was an outrageous insult and mistake," Geronimo said.
"And it is clear from the military records released that the name Geronimo was used at times by military personnel involved for both the military operation and for Osama bin Laden himself. Obviously, to equate Geronimo with Osama bin Laden is an unpardonable slander of Native America and its most famous leader in history."
Indeed, amid the celebration of the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, its use of the name of the famous 19th century Chiricahua Apache leader has reignited the controversy about racist Native-American stereotypes.
"Geronimo E KIA," the Navy SEALs said when they had the world's most wanted man. The transmission meant, "Geronimo, enemy killed in action."
At issue is whether the name Geronimo was used as code for bin Laden or the act of capturing or killing bin Laden, as the Obama administration has indicated, and whether either was appropriate.
Groups such as the National Congress of American Indians are crying foul about the use of the name Geronimo.
"To associate a Native warrior with bin Laden is not an accurate reflection of history and it undermines the military service of Native people," the group's president, Jefferson Keel, said in a statement. "It's critical that military leaders and operational standards honor the service of those who protect our freedom."
Meanwhile, Tina Marie Osceola of the Seminole tribe in Florida said they want an apology from President Obama.
Charlene Teters of the Institute of American Indian Arts said, "When the administration used our historical hero, the name of our hero Geronimo, a family member in this connection with military action, it takes from us, it takes from us our hero.
"Is it possible," she asked, "that the deepest insult was not delivered on al Qaeda abroad, but on a small people here at home?"
The iconic yell of "Geronimo" by paratroopers originated in Hollywood years ago. A little-known 1939 western named "Geronimo" ultimately left a large legacy.
Geronimo's Image on Military Patch
Today the name is not only used as a motivational yell or as code in military missions, but also as an insignia for an Army brigade. The 1st Battalion Airborne, 501st Infantry Regiment, wears the insignia of the Native-American leader on its sleeves -- literally.
A patch bearing Geronimo's image is emblazoned on the unit's uniforms. In the build-up to World War II, some paratroopers in the unit saw the film, prompting them to adopt the "Geronimo" motto in the future.
There is even a connection between Geronimo and President George W. Bush. According to conspiracy theorists, the 43rd president's grandfather, Prescott Bush, once joined with fellow members of the elite Yale University secret society Skull and Bones to rob Geronimo's grave.
"Prescott Bush, George W.'s grandfather, and a band of Bonesmen robbed the grave of Geronimo, took the skull and some personal relics of the Apache chief and brought them back to the tomb," Alexandra Robbins, a Yale graduate who wrote a book about Skull and Bones called "Secrets of the Tomb," told CBS News in 2003. "There is still a glass case, Bonesmen tell me, within the tomb that displays a skull that they all refer to as Geronimo."
Now, in the wake of the bin Laden mission, the name "Geronimo" is making waves once again.