WASHINGTON (AFP) – Prominent Native Americans are furious over the use of Apache leader Geronimo's name in a message confirming the death of Osama bin Laden, and some have demanded an apology from President Barack Obama.
In an operation last weekend, a team of elite US Navy SEALs announced that they had killed bin Laden during a raid on his compound in Pakistan using the coded message "Geronimo - EKIA" -- "enemy killed in action."
"After all he went through, 'enemy killed in action' is astonishing, shocking," Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, a Native American rights organization, told a Senate committee hearing on Thursday.
"When people representing the US reach back a century to take a gratuitous swipe at Geronimo as an enemy and to equate him with a terrorist, they are insulting all Native American nations and people."
Geronimo, an Apache leader who lived from 1829 to 1909, was a famed warrior who fought US and Mexican forces in what is now the US state of New Mexico as the American West was being settled.
He was never captured or killed but eventually surrendered when a US general promised that he would be reunited with members of his tribe who had been forcibly moved to the state of Florida from reservations in Arizona.
The United States did not hold to its promise, and Geronimo died a prisoner of war, the Native Americans at the hearing said.
Harlyn Geronimo, a descendant of the Apache leader, asked Obama or Defense Secretary Robert Gates to explain "how this disgraceful use of my great grandfather's name occurred" and to apologize "for the grievous insult."
In a statement submitted to the hearing, which Harlyn Geronimo did not attend, he also asked that his family name be expunged from all US government records describing the operation to kill bin Laden.
Arizona state representative Albert Hale asked Obama to make a nationally televised apology, calling the president's "willingness to allow and endorse the use of Geronimo's name appalling."
Levi Pesata, president of the Jicarilla Apache nation, said the choice of Geronimo's name for the operation to take out bin Laden added to the hurt felt "constantly" by Native Americans, who are still stereotyped as "savage," "bloodthirsty" and "uncivilized."
"Geronimo was none of these things. Nor was he a terrorist," Pesata said.
Chaske Spencer, the Lakota Sioux actor who plays Sam Uley in the Twilight series, spoke of growing up in an America in which he felt "shame and guilt since a lot of media and propaganda portrayed us as savages."
Tying Geronimo's name to bin Laden didn't help matters, he added.
"When we associate Geronimo with someone like Osama bin Laden ... the negative connotations are inevitable."
The hearing had been scheduled long before the weekend raid in which bin Laden was killed and was supposed to focus on the demeaning impact of racist sports team names, like that of the Washington Redskins football team.
"You would never call a team 'the Wetbacks," said Spencer, referring to a derogatory term used for Mexicans who enter the United States illegally by crossing the Rio Grande River.
"We don't have the New York Jews or the San Francisco Chinamen," said former professional football player turned actor and university lecturer Jim Warne, an Oglala Lakota.
"We don't have teams called the brownskins or blackskins or yellowskins or whiteskins. Nobody wants to be a mascot," he added.
Like many Americans, Warne was jubilant when he learned of bin Laden's death.
"I thought yes! We finally got him!" he told AFP.
"But then I heard 'Geronimo - EKIA -- enemy killed in action -- and I thought, bummer, we're still the bad guys.
"It's socially accepted racism, and as American Indians, we are simply asking for the same respect that has been shown to other cultures."