Codename: Geronimo

Following quick on the heels of the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s demise at the hands of U.S. Special Forces Special Operations personnel, the public has learned more about the top secret operation to find this elusive enemy. One of the most revealing bits of trivia has been that Bin Laden was assigned the code name “Geronimo” by the operation tasked with capturing and killing him. This raises the question, what does a nineteenth century Apache leader have to do with twenty first century Saudi millionaire? Perhaps nothing when viewed from an academic standpoint, it seems more like a non sequitur. But when read as expression of an underlying ideology, one that has legitimated American military action for centuries, the answer is: quite a lot, actually.

In his seminal work Playing Indian, Philip Deloria describes the history of white performance in Indian disguise, exploring the role of the Indian in the American national imaginary. Mainstream American perceptions of Indians are defined by a dialectic of repulsion and desire. The Indian, he writes, is at once “Us” and “Not-Us.”

In this ambivalent relationship, Indians as savages serve as “oppositional figures against whom one might imagine a civilized national Self” (Deloria 1998:3). Yet just as frequently Indians were trotted out as symbols of freedom for they were in possession of “barbarian virtues,” to borrow a phrase from Matthew Frye Jacobson, that deserved to be emulated especially as an antidote to the supposed ills of modernity and city life with its changing gender norms.

This was a uniquely American nationalism: one that saw itself as civilized, yet not European, native born of a society rooted in ancient history and of the natural American landscape. This history shows that Indian play has always “[clung] tightly to the contours of power” (Deloria 1998:7) within U.S. national subjectivity. Indian play, Deloria argues, came to serve a function in the ongoing search for an authentic and meaningful social identity in the face of modernity’s uncertainties. This tradition of playing Indian in the U.S. has wrought a slue of stereotypes in U.S. popular culture including: the Indian as environmentalist, spiritual messenger or guide, team mascot, filmic protagonist, and tourist destination.

Turning now from Deloria’s critical analysis of practices American cultural and literary expression, we can see how Indian play has served a prominent role in helping Americans make sense of war. As a polysemous and highly flexible trope of the U.S. military, Indian imagery in representations of American military conflict constitutes a veritable genre unto itself. Broadly speaking it boils down to two general types that mirror Deloria’s dialectic of desire and repulsion: the Indian as martial ally and the Indian as worthy opponent.

To wit – the Indian is Us and Not-Us:
Osama Bin Laden, “Geronimo”

Geronimo, an Apache

An Apache

Making Bin Laden into an Indian elevates him. The Washington Post isolates Geronimo’s elusiveness, “[he] was rumored to be able to walk without leaving any tracks,” as the key trait that links him to Bin Laden. This is meant to illustrate some degree of respect the American military leaders have for their foe. It also serves to cast the United States in a better light. We are, after all, magnanimous in victory. By heaping praise upon one’s enemy, likening them to such a worthy opponent as Geronimo, the American military bestows prestige upon themselves. They won the fight by besting a legend.

A little excess social capital couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Playing Indian is a dynamic practice, changing with time as American anxieties change from one generation to the next. Giving Bin Laden the code name “Geronimo” rises out of the need to address the ambivalence Americans have over the value of the current war. By imbuing it with Indians the war is legitimated but it is also made comprehensible. The current war is made legible in terms of previous wars. In fact, the ideology of American/ Indian martial conflict and the contradictory imagery of Indians as Us and Not-Us plays itself out, over and over again, in every American military conflict. This is part of American culture and shows how we make war make sense.

A defining element of the War on Terror has been the theme of “civilization,” the role of the US military in combating “barbarians” and reform efforts to save foreign populations from their backwards cultures. For example when, in April 2004, four Blackwater private security contractors were lynched in Fallujah, Iraq, the following day Paul Bremer, then chief of the Coalition Occupation, addressed a cohort of Iraqi men and women graduating from the police academy. “The men and women who are standing before us today are the line between civilization and barbarism,” he said, “Yesterday’s events in Fallujah are a dramatic example of the ongoing struggle between human dignity and barbarism” (Updike 2004:20).

In June 2004 National Public Radio reporter Nancy Updike aired a collection of stories on the program This American Life centering on the lives of private contractors in Iraq. Most of Updike’s stories center on the aptly named security company Custer Battles, a group she worked with despite having been warned to stay away from. One of her key informants, Hank, admitted, “We got a bad reputation, probably as gunslingers,” (Updike 2004:9).

She shares a rumor that the Custer Battles team had engaged in a gunfight at their hotel, “and when the smoke cleared, it turned out they had been firing at each other the whole time” (Updike 2004:9). Hank clarified that something like that did happen, their hotel was hit by a rocket powered grenade and Custer Battles retaliated by expending 3000 rounds of ammunition out the hotel windows and into the surrounding neighborhood. With no clear consequences for private contractors acting recklessly because of their ambiguous legal status, Hank was prompted to address the issue from his own worldview.

People shooting people and not being held accountable for shooting people? Oh, I suppose there’s a lot of that going on. And I think in this brief period of time just like in the Wild West, you control your own company. You assert a little bit of control in your own little world. (Updike 2004:9).

Hank has found a way to make sense of the chaos of the situation by reckoning the current war through a common myth of the American past that is informed by the representation of war in popular culture.

We can learn more about this notion of the “wild west” by considering Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and its legacy in U.S. popular culture. In order to elevate the story of the American west into something on the scale of a Barthesian myth, Buffalo Bill Cody’s hero needed an enemy worth his mettle: the cowboy needed an Indian as his foil and Cody found his greatest financial success when he employed real Indians (including such luminaries as Sitting Bull and Black Elk) to play the part. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West made an enduring impact on popular memory and popular culture through its shaping of the Western genre as a nationalist narrative by which Americans could imagine their relationship to a world of non-American others.

Joy Kasson argues in her Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory and Popular History, that over its lifetime the Wild West show changed in relation to the development of modernity. Thus in the early days of the 1880s when the frontier was “open” and war with the tribes was raging,

Audiences understood that its spectacle was fiction but approved its claims to authenticity… Buffalo Bill’s frontier was contemporaneous but spatially distant; it existed right now on the Great Plains, and Buffalo Bill had just arrived to tell his audience all about it (Kasson 2000:221).

After the Massacre at Wounded Knee brought armed Indian resistance to an end and railroads expedited commerce and travel to the Pacific coast, it became increasingly difficult to maintain that the “wild west” still existed and whereas Buffalo Bill’s performances had once been imagined as coeval with its audience, his later days are best described as fomenting a nostalgic denial of coevalness. Kasson writes, “In the early days, the claim to ‘realism’ rested on physical remoteness, but after 1890, the Wild West made its best case for authenticity by invoking temporal remoteness” (Kasson 2000:222).

When Cody’s narratives shifted from reportage to historical reenactment he also began to imagine future wars as repetitions of the Indian wars. For example with the advent of the Spanish-American war, Cody proposed a unique strategy for dealing with the Spanish in a newspaper piece titled, “How I Could Drive the Spaniards from Cuba with 30,000 Indian Braves.” Indians, those malleable national symbols, were here fashioned into bellicose warriors, a stereotype his show had helped to create, in order to re-imagine the same as a secret weapon for the U.S. military. Kasson offers a compelling interpretation, “Cody projected the capture of Havana as if it were already an act in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West; he imagined war imitating the re-enactment of war and, in particular, modern war replaying the Indian wars” (Kasson 2000:249).

In the early twentieth century Buffalo Bill’s success gradually gave way to cinema and the birth of the genre of Western films. Jacquelyn Kilpatrick’s Celluloid Indians identifies an important filmic device of Westerns: our white hero is somehow able to out Indian the Indians, “becoming a superior form of native fighter and supplanting the ‘vanishing’ Indian” (1999:43). Beginning with the silent films themselves drawing on Buffalo Bill, Indians were represented as icons of conflict and violence.

Then during World War II, an interesting thing happened. Indians, who fifty years earlier were still at war with the U.S., were now enlisting in the military in droves and a complicated nationalist mythos emerged to claim these definitively American soldiers —think Ira Hayes and the Navajo codetalkers. In 1944 Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes described the advantages of having Indians among the U.S. soldiers. Thanks to their “inherited talents,” Indians have,

…endurance, rhythm, a feeling for timing, co-ordination, sense perception, an uncanny ability to get over any sort of terrain at night, and, better than all else, an enthusiasm for fighting. He takes a rough job and makes a game of it. Rigors of combat hold no terrors for him; severe discipline and hard duties do not deter him (Finger 1991:108).

It would seem that Secretary Ickes had seen a great many Westerns because these qualities are more frequently displayed by fictional characters than real people. And this fictional role of Indians as fighters in the American national imaginary had consequences for soldiers who happened to be Indian.

In his oral history of Native American Vietnam veterans, Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls (1996), one of Tom Holm’s informants, a Creek and Cherokee man describes his experience:

I went into the army and to Vietnam because I’d seen the same John Wayne movies as everyone else and thought I was doing an honorable thing, that war was the ‘Indian way’… But when I got to Vietnam, I found that my job was to run missions into what everybody called ‘Indian country.’ That’s what they called enemy territory… I woke up one morning fairly early in my tour and realized that instead of being a warrior like Crazy Horse, I was a scout used by the army to track him down. I was on the wrong side of everything I want to believe I was about (Holm 1996:175).

Upon reflecting on his decision to go to war, this man points to his experience of seeing Indians represented in cinema as an important motivator. He and “everyone else” saw John Wayne in the Westerns. Popular culture helped him envision his enlistment in the tradition of Indian warriors, yet during the war he no longer thought of his participation so romantically.

Over the course of his research, Holm found that the vast majority of Indian vets believe that they were singled out for especially dangerous jobs because they were Indian. This included being assigned to the “point” position or being first in line as a platoon traversed the jungle. A Navajo vet explains:

[I was] stereotyped by the cowboys and Indian movies. Nicknamed ‘Chief’ right away. Non-Indians claimed Indians could see through trees and hear the unhearable. Bullshit, they even believed Indians could walk on water (Holm 1996:152).

Many Indian vets reported being exclusively committed to scouting activities called Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols or Lurps. These were teams of six men that would explore enemy areas and then report back by radio. In 1968 many of these Lurp teams were consolidated and assigned even more dangerous missions as “hunter-killer” teams that would dress as Vietnamese peasants and attempt to execute counter-guerilla operations. American Indians who could “pass” for Asian were frequently used on such missions.

These Indian experiences of war get re-inscribed into popular culture too, for example in the movie Predator (1987), staring Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Dutch” and featuring an Indian character named Billy, played by Sonny Landham. In Predator Dutch leads a team of six men into the Columbian jungle to disrupt Communist guerilla activity, naturally he has an Indian for a scout. Billy’s powers of observation are almost magical: he is able to count the number of Columbian guerillas by their boot prints. Billy walks point. He is first to find new clues and first to leave the group after receiving his orders. Frequently Billy will sense something, he will pause, and the music will tense. He carries a medicine bag around his neck and when he senses the Predator nearby we see him fondle that bag. Billy is a sign that the rest of the commando team reads, they can tell that he is “spooked” and acting “squirrelly” which sets them all on guard.

At the end of the movie Billy is the last fighting character to die before Dutch and the alien go one-on-one. Following Billy’s demise, at the movie’s climax Dutch is only able to defeat the monster by covering his body with mud, to protect against the alien’s infrared vision, and relying on a bow and arrow instead of his machine gun. Thus, with the death of the Indian, Dutch is able to become an Indian with a painted body and primitive weapon. By playing Indian, Dutch is able to become more Indian than Billy because he is able to defeat the alien, something the real Indian could not accomplish.

The myth of “the Indian” and the American frontier should inform our critique of the ongoing war on terror. And I’m not just talking about George W. Bush being called a “cowboy” – although Playing Cowboy opens up whole new fora of analysis to serve as a foil to Playing Indian.

During the Western Indian Wars, White-Indian conflict got represented in popular culture by means of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The Wild West show gave way to cinema, the Western genre, and modern forms of popular culture. The Western genre becomes very popular, such that during the Vietnam era, some Indians claim to have been motivated by the representations of Indians in the movies to join the military. While in Vietnam these Indian soldiers experience racism at the hands of non-Indians that, to their eyes, drew upon the Westerns. Then in the 1980s using generic tropes of the Western, Predator re-inscribes the Vietnam War experiences of Indians into popular culture. Now in Iraq and Afghanistan, we find that private security contractors and the US government are using tropes from the Western genre, that of gunslingers, the wildness of the “Wild” West, and indomitable foes such as Geronimo to make sense of and legitimate their experience of war. A war often rendered in terms of “civilization.”

Maybe Buffalo Bill Cody was onto something when he imagined war imitating the re-enactment of war because narrative devices originating in the Western Indian wars continue to be used in the construction of the meaning of war.


Deloria, Philip Joseph
1998 Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Finger, John R.
1991 Cherokee Americans : the eastern band of Cherokees in the twentieth century. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Holm, Tom
1996 Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of the Vietnam War. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Kasson, Joy S.
2000 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West : Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History. New York: Hill and Wang.

Updike, Nancy
2004 “I’m From the Private Sector and I’m Here to Help” : Private contractors in Iraq. In This American Life: NPR.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

36 thoughts on “Codename: Geronimo

  1. That some military or civilian leader up top came up with this code name is one thing; most of us understand that along with the cream that rose there there are a few floaters, too. But then you have everyone who tells Indians that they need to understand that they should feel honored by it. If you want someone to feel like they matter just as much as you do in the family you might try letting them speak for themselves rather than berating them for not being grateful for how you portrayed they to the rest of the world.

  2. I suppose the cheering crowds and the media outlets take the operational virtuosity of the Abbottabad raid as an index of the U.S. Government’s war making proficiency (which it is only so long as they remain blissfully unaware of less virtuosic DEVGRU missions). What I see is a government so ignorant of the part of war which is the formation of social relations that they manage to alienate a segment of their own citizenry. But these are, after all, the same people who wonder why the handing out of soccer balls and the building of girls’ schools don’t seem to be convincing Afghans of our nation’s good intentions.

  3. Then during World War II, an interesting thing happened. Indians, who fifty years earlier were still at war with the U.S., were now enlisting in the military in droves and a complicated nationalist mythos emerged to claim these definitively American soldiers

    Arguably, American Indians were still “at war” with the U.S. Government when World War II happened – even though weapons were not always involved. Also, American Indians were already enlisted in the US military for World War I – some of them forcibly; see Michael L. Tate. “From Scout to Doughboy: The National Debate over Integrating American Indians into the Military, 1891-1918.” Western Historical Quarterly. October 1986.

  4. “This raises the question, what does a nineteenth century Apache leader have to do with twenty first century Saudi millionaire?”

    Undoubtedly insensitive to say so, but (1) “Geronimo!” has long been associated with parachuting and other forms of dangerous jumps, thus a good fit for a high-risk mission, and (2) the choice of the name could be read as a compliment to another dangerous foe, who like his illustrious predecessor, was both wily and elusive.

  5. Thanks for the reference, Gnou. This one might be of interest to you: John R. Finger. “Conscription, citizenship, and ‘civilization’: World War I and the Eastern Band of Cherokees.” North Carolina Historical Review 63, no. 3 (July 1986): 283–308.

    Undoubtedly insensitive to say so

    Not to me, but to me being insensitive isn’t disagreeing on the topic but rather refusing to hear the case out. I do, however, think you are incorrect.

    (1) “Geronimo!” has long been associated with parachuting and other forms of dangerous jumps, thus a good fit for a high-risk mission

    Not untrue, but… We were initially told that OBL was coded as Geronimo. Then we were told that the mission was Operation Geronimo and OBL was coded as Jackpot. As far as I know the official story at this point is that the mission was Operation Neptune(’s) Spear, OBL was coded as Jackpot, and Geronimo was code for something like “mission accomplished.” Which makes not a lot of sense to me, but maybe I am simple and can’t comprehend the nuances of how revealing to the enemy that you intend to accomplish the missions you undertake might compromise OPSEC. My suspicion is that the coding was more specific—”the planned extrajudicial killing has been completed” or perhaps “the facial recognition system, the bleeding wife, and DNA from his and his sister’s brains all concur; we assassinated the right one.” Geronimo was certainly a killer, but that’s not the initial role that comes to mind for most American Indians. That it does seem to be for non-Native Americans gets at part of why Indians have a hard not being bothered by this.

    (2) the choice of the name could be read as a compliment to another dangerous foe, who like his illustrious predecessor, was both wily and elusive.

    If it were in fact a reference to OBL, then maybe. OBL’s Tora Bora escape is comparable to a cavern-related escape made by Geronimo. But Geronimo was more of a J.E.B. Stuart and OBL was more of a Jefferson Davis. And that being the case American Indians have a hard time believing that Secret Squirrel types had any less outright contempt for OBL than our politicians or media did.

  6. True that parachuters do yell “Geronimo” when jumping, but that doesn’t really explain anything.

    The practice of naming things after Indians is pervasive in the US military from Black Hawk helicopters to Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Western Indian wars closed 120 years ago, why are we still so hung up on it and why does this naming practice persist? No doubt a prominent role is played by popular culture in constantly reinscribing and updating the tradition of playful naming and stereotyping of Indians as powerful allies/ enemies.

    Deloria’s conclusion, and I think he’s correct, is that this play is exemplary of American nationalism and is symptom (yes) of an underlying anxiety inherent in settler society.

  7. Matt, why do you buy what Deloria says? Why should positing anxiety in a settler society be even remotely plausible? Is there actual evidence on the table? Would you believe a white man who imputed an inferiority complex to Native Americans, projecting something he wants to find, without asking for some facts to back the claim? Why should pop psychology be any more convincing from the mouths of victims than victors? I’ve never understood that. Perhaps you can explain it.

    While you are at it, if you want to know why a cruise missile is named a Tomahawk, why is an ICBM named a Minuteman? A ballistic missile launched from a submarine a Polaris or a Trident? A jet fighter a Saber Jet, Tomcat, or Hornet? Why is one helicopter an Apache, but another is a Cobra or, depending on the service a Blackhawk or a Seahawk? Are we supposed to invoke an anxiety for each of these names as well?

  8. I don’t think you can equate literary criticism to pop psychology when it makes use of critiques of ideology. We’re talking about a work of scholarship, not a cover story from “Psychology Today”. Your call for “evidence” (what’s that?) makes me think your objection is to interpretive anthropology more generally. If so we’ll have fun later this summer when I pull together my post on the Clifford Geertz.

  9. Matt, a lot of lit crit, including stuff gussied up as critique of ideology, is no better than pop psychology. The first few people who noticed that the white man had a point of vew and not the God-like omniscience he too often seemed to claim had a point to make. Consider it made Ditto for the observation that people may at for reasons that they don’t want to reveal and may not even be aware of. The question is, What then? Whether you are trying to establish a covering law or build a case on fragments of testimony and circumstantial evidence, there is more to sound scholarship than tossing out some half-baked idea that seems to fit the data because it fits your prejudices.

    Your account of what Deloria says sounds like that to me. Could be wrong of course. Can you demonstrate that by pointing to substantial evidence and clarifying how the inference is drawn? Your model doesn’t have to be Isaac Newton. Miss Marple or Hercule Poirrot will suffice.

  10. Typo list and P.S.

    line 3 point of view [not vew]
    line 4 missing period after “made”
    line 5 may act [not may at]

    P.S. Nothing against interpretive anthropology, just tripe produced in its name.

  11. John, I see where you’re coming from. I have similar issues with “cultural studies” – often I’m left with the impression that the author hasn’t the foggiest idea of what they mean by culture.

    I accept your challenge to explain Deloria and how he relates to the thesis of my piece, but it may be a couple of days before I get back to it.

  12. My first thought was similar to John McCreery’s. Namely, what is so bad about naming a daring military operation after a war chief known for his daring warlike accomplishments? But as it turns out, that is not the association. The association is to Bin Laden himself, the motivation, in the words of those involved in naming the mission, is that Bin Laden has been as hard to catch as was Geronimo. The potential to read this as a compliment plummets with that extra bit of info: we are just talking about two wily criminals now. It may be that from some perspective Bin Laden may be seen, like Geronimo, as heroic defender against Western tyranny, but I hesitate to make the comparison.

  13. In response to John McCreery’s first statement:

    Your first assertion is self-evident for many people residing in the U.S or familiarity with the American English speaking world. However, what does the history behind the why, how, and where of such act have to tell us, if anything? Why Geronimo, but not Crazy Horse, Joaquin Murrieta, Nat Turner?

    Prior to expressing your opinion you acknowledge that it may be viewed as “Undoubtedly insensitive”, while I would agree, but also add that the second point is undoubtedly “idiotic”. Again, I understand that many may regard the issue as addressed in your second point, but in the same light others will view such perspective as “idiotic”.

  14. So, what have we actually established here: The use of “Geronimo” as a code name for Bin Laden can be read either as an insult or or as an acknowledgement of Bin Laden’s skill at evading capture. Those who claim insult have, of course, every right to do so, based on the interpretation that Geronimo, a revered figure in Native American history, is being equated with a terrorist identified as a criminal. I would reply that, while it might have been better to handle 9/11 as a matter to be dealt with by police, the response was, for quite a while, labeled a war, i.e., “The War on Terror,” and the opposite side in a war is, while often accused, for propaganda purposes, of criminal acts, are enemies. Enemies and criminals are generally distinct categories. “Criminals” are us, who violate our rules. Enemies exist outside the domain to which our rules apply and often are, in fact, admired by soldiers on the other side if they are exceptionally good at what they do when fighting for their own cause. Geronimo is a case in point. He is remembered as an exceptionally wily and, in his own cause, effective fighter, and while it was the U.S. Cavalry’s job to capture or kill him, he is admired in retrospect for how hard that job turned out to be. I would not be surprised if, in another half century or so, Bin Laden is remembered in the same light.

    Thus I don’t take the claim of insult too seriously. I do, however, acknowledge that there are people who feel the insult deeply. My question for them is what they propose to do about it that is more important than addressing the truly hideous material conditions in which too many Native Americans live?

  15. In the modal historical memory of the West there are a number of conflicts beginning no later than the Battle of Marathon in which the best of the West stand strong against and triumph over the worst of the rest. The guys on the other side are at best backwards and at worst blackhearted. Except a select few who have been granted coeval-ness—Hannibal, Saladin, Rommel. I promise you that bin Laden is not one of those select few at this historical moment and I seriously doubt he will be ever.

    My question for them is what they propose to do about it that is more important than addressing the truly hideous material conditions in which too many Native Americans live?

    Suck it up. Take it like a man. Pretend that socially sanctioned language doesn’t also imply socially sanctioned ideology and behavior. Is that the correct answer?

  16. No. But it makes sense to recognize when adopting a “poor little me, you’ve been so mean” posture ceases to be effective and becomes a distraction from more important matters. Might be worth noting, too, that demanding respect is rarely a way to win it. Only works when you’ve got a big political movement on your side.

  17. But it makes sense to recognize when adopting a “poor little me, you’ve been so mean” posture ceases to be effective

    If by “you” you mean me then you need to learn to read not only for content but also for tone.

    Might be worth noting, too, that demanding respect is rarely a way to win it. Only works when you’ve got a big political movement on your side.

    And when you’re 0.5% of a country’s population the fact is that your country’s politicians don’t have to care about you. No matter how many of you have suffered in the same way that members of the other 99.5% have. Is pointing out that that kind of makes the claim that all of us are created equal look like it might be a bullshit platitude a distraction?

  18. Not a distraction, not at all. Could be the beginning of recognition that in a democracy, even one as screwed up as the USA currently is, you need access to money or votes or both before your complaints will be taken seriously. If you don’t like the Jack Abramoff route, running casinos and buying politicians, the alternative is forming a united front with those with whom you share some common interest–to this ignorant gringo, Native Americans plus Latinos looks like a possibility. If getting bent out of shape about using “Geronimo” as a code name for Bin Laden moves you in that direction, it’s worth making a fuss about. If it is, as I suspect, at best a distraction, it’s a waste of time and energy better spent on other things. A lot of indignation turns out to be like that.

  19. This has kind of gotten away from the gist of my post which was to underscore how American practices of naming things after Indians, whether suburban streets, football teams, or international bad guys, is constitutive of American national identity.

    Again, my point and Deloria’s is not that we should evaluate these practices as good or bad, but that they should be read as key performances of identity formation and nationalism.

    When the US military deploys Indian names for weapons (the Indian is us) or targets (the Indian is not-us) this does not tell us anything about actual Indians, alive or in the past. It does however tell us something about the people who do the naming, about how they construct their own notions of self by rendering representations of others.

  20. Matt, you’re right. Let’s get back to your original question. I will say it plainly, the question is badly framed. Why? For the same reason that the various medical and other reasons for the Jewish prohibition of pork are dismissed at the start of Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger. The phenomenon you want to explain is part of a larger discourse from which you have cherry-picked only certain bits to look at. By framing the issue as you have, you have committed what is, anthropologically speaking, the original sin of taking things out of context.

    To be more specific, I point again at the fact that the naming of military weapons systems draws on many sources, some native American (Tomahawk or Apache), some associated with the American Revolution (Minuteman), some associated with stars (Polaris), some with animals (Cobra). Ditto for the naming of sports teams. The Cleveland Indians play with teams named for birds (Cardinals), beasts (Tigers), northern scalawags (Yankees), and men’s footwear (White Sox, Red Sox). If the terms associated with Native Americans are “constitutive of American national identity,” so are all of these. How these terms are used is an interesting question. It can’t be answered accurately by “evaluation” that starts from a prejudiced (pre-judged) perspective. If naming is the issue, all of the names in question must be considered.

  21. If I were to say that Captain American is constitutive of an American national identity, would you object that then I must consider all comic book characters in a similar manner?

    I see the point you are making, but I also think you’re being a little too stubborn and unimaginative. These military weapons named of stars, animals, and forces of nature (Desert Storm) all serve to naturalize the nation and its violence. I don’t know how many times I’ve read of American colonialism characterized as a “rising tide” of settlers. Colonial setters were nothing like the tides! By describing them as such naturalizes the dispossession of land. You get this too in descriptions of the economy, using naturalistic metaphors makes the recession seem like a spot of bad weather.

    Perhaps I am guilty of taking the manipulation of American Indian representations produced by non-Indians as being, a priori, part of American nationalism, but only because a veritable cottage industry of works in American Studies has grown up documenting this to be the case. Be that as it may, can we agree that the practice of naming is always consequential – that is to say that IT IS reflective of some aspect of the namers’ construction of self. There is a reason the Ravens play in Baltimore and the Yankees in New York. It is the case that fans of those teams bind up their fandom with their ownership of place, their rootedness in their cities.

    What is different in the case of naming things after Indians is that those names are consequential for living people who are not in a place to benefit from, object to, or amend the way they are represented. The Cherokee get no royalties from the sale of Jeeps. There really are people who are descended from Geronimo. But this doesn’t often cross the mind of those non-Indians who traffic in such imagery (1) because so few people in mainstream society have any idea what a contemporary Native person is like and (2) Indian imagery and stereotypes are perceived as public domain.

  22. Matt,

    I am not competent to address the legal claims vis-a-vis intellectual property, though I have read that, in one of the more ironical twists that the modern world as thrown at us, Native Americans may find themselves allied with the likes of Disney and Warner Brothers in demanding copyright in perpetuity, in opposition to creative commons and convergence culture advocates, who see perpetual copyright as a barrier to innovation and creative expression. Lawrence Lessig has a lot to say about these things.

    When you ask,

    “If I were to say that Captain American is constitutive of an American national identity, would you object that then I must consider all comic book characters in a similar manner?”

    my answer, as an anthropologist who has read Levi-Strauss on totemism and Mary Douglas on taboo, is, yes. Analyses of cultural data that arbitrarily pick their cases and do not consider the logic of the total field in which those cases are situation are, ipso facto, defective.

    The trickiest bit is, of course, the leap from, in the case at hand, naming a weapons system or choosing a code for the target of a military operation to “constitutive of American identity,” when what counts as the latter is far from obvious. Consider, for a moment, the relation between “Minuteman” and “Tomahawk.” I know a good many New Englanders for whom there is no question which is a central element in the American story and which is of only secondary interest.

    In my personal American mythology, derived largely from education in Virginia public schools, figures like Washington, Jefferson and Madison are very important, indeed. Pocahontas? A bit player. Geronimo? Never mentioned. But am I a typical American? When my Japanese friends ask what Americans think of this or that, I am forever having to say, which Americans are you talking about, male, female, white, black, Latino, East Coast, West Coast, MidWest, North, South, lawyers, steelworkers, college professors, ditch diggers, hamburger flippers…..The whole question of how you would decide when this or that historic figure is, as Joseph Levenson put it, of more than merely historical interest—to more than some particular set of Americans— strikes me as very fraught, indeed.

    Any thoughts about that?

  23. “Analyses of cultural data that arbitrarily pick their cases and do not consider the logic of the total field in which those cases are situation [sic] are, ipso facto, defective.”

    Should, of course, be “situated.”

  24. John, you are spending an awful lot of time on what you consider to be ‘at best a distraction’. Getting bent out of shape over people getting bent out of shape….

    Your objections also seem willfully argumentative. Matt’s question is at heart structuralist, something like: ‘What are the systematic contexts and associations of the deployment of Native American nomenclature in contemporary America?. He finds that tribal and personal nouns are systematically associated with contexts where a kind of renegade tribalism is valued (i.e. sports, special forces) amongst other things. His question is rather obviously not “what names are given to military hardware?” That, no doubt, would throw up a related, but different set of associations.

    Deloria’s “the role of the Indian in the American national imaginary” is a perfectly valid line of questioning.

  25. Oswald, the question of whether it was inappropriate or insulting to use “Geronimo” as a code name for Bin Laden is, to my mind, not worth getting upset about. But anthropological method has been a hobby of mine for a long, long time. As I said before, to me arbitrarily picking data that fit an author’s pre-existing assumptions and leaping to sweeping conclusions about something as ill-defined as “American identity” looks like the sort of mistake that undergraduates should be alerted to in their first courses in any scholarly discipline.

  26. P.S. “The role of the Indian in the American national imaginary” is a great topic. The question is how you tackle it. If the study were an historical one, I’d be delighted to read something along the lines of Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture.

  27. Um, not to put a damper on this fascinating argument, but Geronimo wasn’t his code name:

    “Back at the White House Situation Room, word was relayed that bin Laden had been found, signaled by the code word “Geronimo.” That was not bin Laden’s code name, but rather a representation of the letter “G.” Each step of the mission was labeled alphabetically, and “Geronimo” meant that the raiders had reached step “G,” the killing or capture of bin Laden, two officials said.”

  28. Sarah, I want to give you a big hug. Here we are pontificating. Then somebody goes and finds some data. That’s anthropology!

    P.S. I do hope that there is more than one source for this.

  29. I have a point to add that enhances your argument but also points to other Native American comparisons that have been used with Al Queda. I had read this a few weeks ago in the Miami Herald:

    Here’s my best review of the situation (I’m tired): Andrew Jackson’s incursion into Seminole lands (located in Florida which was then a Spanish colony) in an apparent attempt to stop the flow of runaway enslaved peoples led not only to the burning of Seminole property but the capture of two Brits who were aiding the Seminoles *in Florida, which was not part of the US*. These two were initially punished but subsequently put to death by Jackson.

    This incident was used as a precedent in the trial of one of the suspects who had been imprisoned in Guantanamo.

    Here is a piece from the legal case that I re-quote from the Miami Herald:

    “Not only was the Seminole belligerency unlawful, but, much like modern-day al Qaeda, the very way in which the Seminoles waged war against U.S. targets itself violate the customs and usages of war.”

    There is more to the story in terms of the Tribe requesting apologies. Aside from the absurdity of the comparison, they also mention the military service of Native Americans in the US. When I had read this article initially I found the whole thing quite bizarre. Your blog puts it in perspective – it’s part of a bigger picture.

  30. Nice observation, Betty. That builds on the point I was trying to make about how the Indian Wars shaped American ideologies of war in general. Only you’ve gone even farther back in history!

    And John, Mystic Chords of Memory has been on my to-do list for too long. I’ll be sure to check into it now.

  31. what is wrong with those indians being mad at the people protecting them from terrorists.

  32. Matt… Great post. I’d love to talk with you more about your work on the Cherokee reservation in NC. Shoot me an email if you have a chance. Thanks.

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