Some Native Americans have taken issue with the US government’s use of the name “Geronimo” for the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, America’s most hated and feared man of the 21st century. They reason that the bulletproof leader of the Chiricahua Apaches was “one of the greatest Native American heroes,” in the words of Loretta Tuell, staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Geronimo emphatically was not a hero to Americans of the 1800s, when a bitterly-fought war to settle the southwest pitted stubborn pioneers against a Native American nation determined to defend its territory by any means necessary. Fairly or not, the Chiricahua were characterized as the terrorists of their time, with Geronimo seen as Public Enemy No. 1.
The US spent considerable time, money, and lives pursuing Geronimo and his people through the mountainous terrain of the desert southwest and Mexico. The blood between the Chiricahua and the settlers got so bad that when Geronimo finally surrendered in 1886, he and his people were exiled to Florida, far away from what would become Arizona in 1912.
Geronimo remained a prisoner of war for the rest of his life and ended up at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he lived to be 90. He was a celebrity, appearing at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. But he never was allowed to return to Arizona, where vengeful feelings still ran high.
It is not a huge stretch to draw a historical parallel between the maddeningly elusive, defiant, and powerful Geronimo’s significance to the US military and that of Osama bin Laden. But to conflate an indigenous leader fighting for his land with a global villain is a mistake.