Take it Back

Today National Public Radio ran a story featuring Harlyn Geronimo, descendant of the Chiricahua leader Geronimo, asking US officials to “apologize for the military’s use of the codename Geronimo during the raid that ended with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden’s death.”

NPR describes Harlyn Geronimo as “an Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam” who said in a statement to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that “this use of the name Geronimo” be expunged “from all the records of the U.S. government … leaving only for history the fact this insult to Native Americans occurred in all its pity.”

Harlyn Geronimo made headlines in 2009 when he filed a lawsuit asking that the remains of his great grandfather be returned. The Chiricahua leader’s grave was reportedly plundered in 1918 by a secret club at Yale University called the Skull and Bones.

In the current rift, Harlyn argues that using the name Geronimo fosters stereotypes about American Indians and associates the Apache warrior with Osama bin Laden, “one of history’s most-hated men,” according to NPR.

While the effect of using such terms hasn’t been established, it’s worth noting that hate speech and harassment rest firmly in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder. If Harlyn Geronimo finds the use of “Geronimo” disrespectful, that’s his call.
Not everyone agrees.

But courts often uphold such judgments and you could lose your job for saying something offensive. A political advisor resigned his post in 1999 when he was quoted in the press for his description of using a “niggardly” approach to solving the budget: the term means “stingy” or “miserly.”

The word is just too close to a racial slur and many objected to his use of the term.
What counts in our mass mediated world is how people interpret meaning, not necessarily the intent of the speaker.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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