Geronimo, Bin Laden and the Military Occupation of Indian Country

Winona LaDuke
Special to News From Indian Country June 2011

With the capture of Osama Bin Laden, also known as “Geronimo EKIA (Enemy Killed in Action) recently, a  din of protest  echoed in the halls of Congress.   Harlan Geronimo, an Army Veteran who served two tours of Vietnam and is the great grandson of Apache Chief Geronimo asked for a formal apology and called the Pentagon’s decision to use the code name Geronimo in the raid that ended with Al Quaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s death, a “grievous insult”. He was joined by most major Native American organizations, in calling for a retraction and apology, with the Onondaga nation stating, “ this continues to personify the original peoples of North America as enemies and savages… The US military leadership should have known better….”

It is an ironic moment in history. A hundred years after Geronimo’s death at Ft. Sill Oklahoma, (where he died after  27-years as a prisoner of war - his crime, being Apache), this great patriot is accorded little peace.

The analogy, from a military perspective is interesting. At the time of the hunting down of Geronimo, over 5500 military personnel were engaged in a l3-year pursuit of the Apache Chief. Geronimo traveled with his community, including 35 adult men, 8 male children and l00 women and babies, who, in the end surrendered in exhaustion, and to promises which were never fulfilled. It was one of the most expensive and shameful Indian wars.

It is a hundred years later, and a similarly exorbitant amount of both time and money has been spent finding Osama bin Laden. The actual Pakistan mission itself (over the past two months) cost around  $40 billion, but the toll for the Al Quaida leader’s posse, and of the wars associated with it is over $3 trillion.  That is, probably where the analogy ends.  The reality is that Geronimo was a true patriot, his battles were in defense of his land, and he was a hero. The coupling of his name with the most vilified enemy of America in this millennium is dangerous ground.

The military, it seems, is comfortable with this ground. Indeed, Native nomenclature in the US military is widespread. From Apache Longbow Helicopters to Black Hawk Helicopters, and Tomahawk missiles, the machinery of war has many Native names.  In a war zone, to leave the base is to “ go off the reservation”. To move further away, is go into “Indian territory”.  Indeed, past Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Ft. Carson in 2008,   (named after the infamous Indian killer, Kit Carson). There, he instructed the troops to  …”Live(d) up to the legend of Kit Carson…fighting terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan, hunting the remnants of the deadly regime in Iraq, working with local populations to help secure victory. And every one of you is like Kit Carson…”

It may be time to end the Indian Wars.

The military has, a de facto ecological war in Native America. The largest landowning peoples in the US are the Native American community, and the largest land owner besides Native people is the military, with  the US government.   Many military bases have been carved out of reservations and Indian territory, over l9 reservations are named after forts themselves (Ft. Berthold, Ft. Peck, and Ft. McDermitt, among them).

The single largest ecological impact on Native Hawaiian lands is the US military, with takings ranging from Kaho olawe to Pohakuloa.  The former is an entire island seized by the military in l945, and the latter is being seized today, for the expansion of the Strykker base.  The US military has detonated thousands of atomic weapons in Western Shoshone territory and the Pacific, and until recently, Schofield Barracks in Honolulu was riddled with deadly depleted uranium waste.

(During community discussion on the Stryker Brigade environmental impact statement in 2004, Army officials assured the public that depleted uranium was never used in Hawaii. However Zapata Engineering, a military clean-up contractor found fifteen tail assemblies from spotting rounds made of D-38 uranium alloy, also called depleted uranium, in August of 2010.) Depleted Uranium weaponry has been condemned by the United Nations as a form of biological weaponry since 2005, but remains a significant part of the American arsenal, contaminating land here, and worldwide.

The secrecy assumed by the military has resulted in a good deal of contamination of land, and people. Some 1900 military toxic sites rest throughout Alaska, including Point Hope, where nuclear materials from Ground Zero at the Nevada Test site were buried, to document the lichen-caribou-man cycle of radiation bio-accumulation over a period of time. Over l5,000 pounds was distributed in 450 sites near the Inuit community of Point Hope, and not discovered until secret documents were released in the l990s.

One case is close to home in Wisconsin. The Badger Army Ammunitions facility is in the middle of Ho Chunk territory, near Baraboo, Wisconsin.  From l942 to l975, the facility made propellants for small rockets  and other armaments, leaving a host of toxic chemicals including carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethene, and others. Clean up costs are considered to be upwards of $80 million, on some of the 7400 acres. The Ho Chunk would like clean land returned to their people, as pristine as when it was seized.

Shamefully, the military has secured exemptions from significant environmental laws including the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Many of the communities most impacted by the toxins, remain Native American.

Despite all of the impact, Native people remain at high rates of enlistment in the US military, and have the highest rate of living veterans of any community. These people deserve respect.   George Red Elk, Comanche Indian Veterans commander, among others sadly noted, “…this is the way they  (veterans) are repaid for their service given to the United States. “

In the end, it’s l00 years after Geronimo passed to the next world.    It would seem that it is time to rethink the terms used by the military, from Geronimo EKIA to “ the reservation”. It is indeed, time to end the Indian Wars. 

Winona LaDuke  is the author of six books, the latest of which, “ The Militarization of Indian Country”, discusses many of these issues.  The Executive Director of Honor the Earth, she lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, and served two times as Ralph Nader’s Green Party Vice Presidential Candidate.   The Militarization of Indian Country was published by Honor the Earth.




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