More on Geronimo …

[This feels like old news now … but is an expansion of a piece I wrote a few weeks ago. The input from Randy Woodley below deserves ongoing consideration, and that’s an understatement.]
Like a lot of people, I’ve expressed ambivalence about the bin Laden shooting and its celebratory aftermath. I keep asking myself, “Have we learned anything about what makes for peace over this last decade of war, or are we simply spinning harder and faster in the cycle of violence?”
I was traveling in Europe while the saga unfolded, and during a layover in the Hamburg, Germany airport, I got the chance to read a few newspapers. There I learned that an agency of the U.S. government (I’m not sure which one) code-named Osama bin Laden “Geronimo,” evoking the memory of the government’s capture and defeat of a Native American hero. I would think there has already been a lot of commentary on this, although I haven’t seen much yet.
Suffice it to say that as I sat in the airport reading, my reaction went from surprised to shocked to disgusted to ashamed. I boarded my plane with these feelings churning, and the unease hasn’t left me since. I find questions like these refusing all attempts to ignore or suppress them:

Are we still engaged in westward expansion, making our way from California to Hawaii and the Philippines, then to Southeast Asia and now to the Middle East? Are we still cowboys hunting Indians? Are we still working out a narrative of Manifest Destiny? Has there been no acknowledgment in our government and our people of the holocaust we waged against Native Peoples, the land theft, attempted genocide, cultural imperialism and outrageous injustice? In the code-name Geronimo, has the U.S. government made a “Freudian slip” that reveals one of the dark and violent drives still at work in our national psyche?

Some of my white friends will no doubt say, “It’s just a name. You’re making too much of it.” But I don’t think this question should be left to white people to answer. Just as we in the U.S. need to listen — as we have never listened before — to our neighbors in the Muslim world (not to mention our Latin American neighbors, our African neighbors and so on), we need to listen to our Native American/First Nations brothers and sisters and hear what they want to tell us about ugly parts of our history and contemporary national psyche. Just as in counseling or crisis individuals often uncover previously unacknowledged personal issues have driven their lives into cycles of conflict and chaos, nations need to uncover the unacknowledged and unresolved drives in their national psyche.
So what’s in a name? In the case of “Geronimo,” I fear, far more than we realize. When I shared my concerns with my friend Dr. Randy Woodley, a theologian, a Cherokee, an activist and a college professor, he sent me this response and filled in more information on the original Geronimo:

When I heard this I was not surprised.
Geronimo’s war was the last armed Native American resistance movement in the US. For many years, he and a very small band of guerilla fighters were able to out smart and out run the US Calvary, keep settlers and miners at bay from encroachment and cause fear among Western Whites just by the mention of his name.
As you probably know, his demise was pitiful. He spent years in Florida prisons and the rest of his life as a prisoner of war. He died, after having become a Christian, then he was kicked out of the Reformed Church for gambling. In his final years he was ambivalent about religion, an alcoholic, and selling crafts to tourists. He became the object lesson that Whites could and did use, to show potential enemies what happens to indigene and other enemies, who resist their own colonization. There is a reasonable case to believe the elite Skull and Bones society has his skull and femur. If so, even more the insult and affirmation of US power over him, and by representation, other enemies.
As an example of the use of power and humiliation towards a US enemy, Geronimo fills the bill. This is why I think Bin Laden was code named Geronimo. It had less to do with the character or toughness of the enemy, and more to do with what the end result of the hunt would garner for the US in terms of power. Indians are supposed to accept their fate, either to be humiliated and broken or, noble and dying in the sunset. Your point concerning the archetype for western expansion and cowboys is certainly not lost on me. I think this is so deeply rooted in the US psyche, it is ubiquitous.

Those who celebrated bin Laden’s death have had their time to celebrate. Those who felt torn about it have had time for the ambivalence to simmer. But all of us will be the more foolish if we fail to listen to voices like Randy’s at this moment. Could it be that a mirror is being held up to America, offering us a glimpse of our national psyche that others see more clearly than we do? Wise reflection could challenge us to imagine and build a better future — and to stop repeating destructive, addictive patterns from our past.