Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Great Day to Be Indigenous

There was outrage in Native American circles (and others) recently when it was learned that the mission to take out Osama Bin Laden was codenamed "Operation Geronimo."

BoingBoing reported:
Even the NYT's account would appear to have inaccuracies now: They report that "Geronimo" was code name for bin Laden, but CNN cites an administration official later clarifying that this was the code name for the operation, not the man himself.
Oh, well! That's all right then. But it didn't appease the administration's critics. An LA Times op-ed agreed:
Present-day Native American leaders have rightly objected to the implied comparison between Geronimo and Bin Laden. As Jeff Houser, chairman of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe noted in a letter to President Obama, "to equate Geronimo … with Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer and cowardly terrorist, is painful and offensive to our tribe and to all native Americans." No religious fundamentalist, Geronimo never sought to create an all-encompassing caliphate. Rather, he simply wanted to be left alone.
(Geronimo as Greta Garbo -- I like it.) I'm not defending the mission's title, I only want to suggest that Native American critics should treat it as a salutary reminder of the history that they seem to be trying to forget as fiercely as any other Americans. The op-ed drew on an article by Karl Jacoby, a history professor at Brown University, who wrote:
The appropriation of Indian labels is particularly unseemly given the reality of today's military. Native Americans have one of the highest per capita enlistment rates in the military of any ethnic group. Powwows often begin with the entering of an honor guard, composed of military veterans who carry the U.S. and tribal flags. At the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, where Geronimo was confined in the 1870s and '80s, the tribal government maintains a billboard proudly listing all the San Carlos Apaches serving in the military.

It's no wonder that Indian peoples feel their sacrifices have been dishonored by the labeling of our worst enemy as Geronimo and that they themselves have been treated as other than real Americans. As Guyaalé's great-grandson, Joseph Geronimo, noted recently, using the name in the operation to kill Bin Laden was a "slap in the face." His ancestor, after all, "was more American than anybody else."
Kaplan acknowledges "the 1939 movie 'Geronimo,' (a film advertised at the time as featuring images of 'war-maddened savages terrorizing the West')". Whatever the reality of Geronimo's career, that's how he was long seen in white American culture. The US military still uses the term "Indian country" to refer to "enemy territory"; the usage is apparently of Vietnam-war vintage, but survives in Iraq. (A Marine general's use of the term in 2003 also aroused controversy and hand-wringing.) In the American military imaginary, they're still fighting the Indian wars.

The Indian wars are reckoned to have ended with the capture of Geronimo in 1886, though, so I guess it's not too surprising that many Native Americans now want to see and present themselves as patriotic Americans. But I can only go along with that wish so far. If Native Americans want to overlook their past sufferings at the hands of the US Government they are now so proud to serve, so be it; it's their choice. There's another inseparable side of that story, though: it means supporting, endorsing, and participating in the present crimes of the US. Which is not okay.

This morning I was listening to the Native American music program on my local community radio station. Today's installment was dedicated to Memorial Day, and between songs I vaguely heard references to "defending our country." Then they played a song called "She's My Hero", by Radmilla Cody, a tribute to Lori Piestewa, described on Cody's label's website as "the first Native woman to die in the Iraq war". (Well, no. "Native" in Iraq would mean "Iraqi," and I'm sure that many native Iraqi women were victims of our invasion before Piestewa was killed. This is another indication why "Native" is not a suitable label for the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas. But that's another issue.) I listened more closely to the words as the song played:
Her name was Lori
synonymous with Glory
she answered her country's call
she did it for us all
Oh the woman warrior
she's my hero

The price that she paid
the sacrifice she made
There's peace all around us
embraces all Americans
Oh the woman warrior
she's my hero
The CD's liner notes describe Piestewa as "the first Native American woman warrior to die in battle protecting the freedom of her people and the United States of America." So few words, so many lies. Piestewa wasn't a warrior, she was (according to Wikipedia) "a member of the army's 507th Army Maintenance Company, a support unit of clerks, cooks, and repair personnel." An Iraqi in an analogous position could have ended up in Abu Ghraib or Bagram.

Far from "protecting the freedom of her people and the United States of America", Piestewa was a participant in an illegal and horrific war of aggression against people who had not attacked the US. Even if she was, according to Jessica Lynch (who was injured in the same ambush -- remember her?), "the true hero" of the debacle, and even if Lynch named her daughter "Dakota Ann" (?) in Piestewa's honor, and even if "Her death led to a rare joint prayer gathering between members of the Hopi and Navajo tribes, which have had a centuries-old rivalry," what she was doing in Iraq should not be whitewashed. It had better be possible to sympathize with her and her family's loss without obscuring this reality. I am sorry Piestewa died, but she didn't do it "for us all." Not for me, and not for you either.

"There's peace all around us"? The song and the program's content were especially outrageous coming on the heels of this (via) defense of America and our freedoms:
For the second time in three days, a night raid in eastern Afghanistan by NATO forces resulted in the death of a child, setting off protests on Saturday that turned violent and ended in the death of a second boy. . . .

"American forces did an operation and mistakenly killed a fourth-grade student; he had gone to sleep in his field and had a shotgun next to him," [the district's governor, Abdul Khalid]. said. "People keep shotguns with them for hunting, not for any other purposes," Mr. Khalid said.
As Glenn Greenwald commented,
Just imagine the accumulated hatred from having things like this happen day after day, week after week, year after year, for a full decade now, with no end in sight -- broadcast all over the region. It's literally impossible to convey in words the level of bloodthirsty fury and demands for vengeance that would arise if a foreign army were inside the U.S. killing innocent American children even a handful of times, let alone continuously for a full decade.
When I hear about women warriors (or any others) proudly hearing their country's call and defending us all, I can only think of "heroic" exploits like that one. There've been so many.