by Ulises Silva
It must be nice to have attack helicopters named after you. It must be cool to have drunk sports fans wearing paraphernalia stamped with caricatured versions of you while chanting something culturally resonant—like the Tomahawk chop. And now, to have the world’s most notorious terrorist code-named after one of the great leaders in your history? Wow, Native America, I bet you’re feeling really honored now!
And why not? Our best helicopters—the Apache, the Chinook, and the Black Hawk—bear Native American namesakes. Those shock-and-awe cruise missiles of ours? Tomahawks. And it’s not just the military honoring Native America. Turn on ESPN, and you’ll see Americans willingly cheering for Chiefs, Braves, Indians, Redskins, and the Fighting Sioux. And last year, the Chicago Makataimeshekiakiaks…sorry, the Black Hawks…won the Stanley Cup!
So with all this rampant honoring, how come Native Americans got so angry over the use of Geronimo as a code name for Osama bin Laden?
I’m guessing it has to do with history—both past and current. The horrible truth about “honoring” Native America with sports teams and hi-tech weaponry is that it’s a duplicitous combination of cultural appropriation and historical amnesia.
In case you didn’t hear, Native America didn’t fare too well during that Manifest Destiny thing. And the reservation system? Most reservations, isolated from economic opportunities, remain in abject poverty. (Don’t think for a minute that casinos have cured all of Native America’s ills, please.) Activists like Leonard Peltier remain imprisoned for dubious reasons. And for whatever reason, some folks continue to call Wounded Knee a battle.
And now, the world’s most wanted terrorist was code-named Geronimo. Which would make sense if we described both men as leaders of outnumbered armies who were eventually hunted down by the U.S.—and left it at that. But that’s where the similarities end. Geronimo was a courageous leader who resisted American and Mexican colonization of Apache lands by fighting alongside his outnumbered warriors; bin Laden sent fanatical extremists on ideological suicide missions while he holed himself up in his million-dollar bunker.
But it’s all good; they used Black Hawks and Chinooks in that daring operation to kill “Geronimo.”
It’s not just the U.S. who’s doing this. In Mexico, the FX-05 rifle bears a Nahuatl name, and their air force uses Aztec iconography aplenty. And yet, Subcomandante Marcos and the war in Chiapas are recent reminders of Mexico’s racist policies against people of indigenous descent (the irony of our collective indigenous descent notwithstanding).
The rationale for all these—according to sports fans who rabidly defend their teams whenever Native Americans argue that “redskin” is a derogatory term—is that we’re simply “honoring” the proud Native Americans. Uh-huh. There’s something inherently wrong with “honoring” a people’s bravery by naming teams and weapons after them, while keeping those people contained and ignored in institutionalized poverty. And the negative impact and influence of team names like the Washington Redskins have been discussed at length by Native and American academics alike.
If we really want to honor Native America, let’s try something different. Like getting to know more about them in a modern context—because, yes, they’re still around, they’re still proud, and most hated Dances with Wolves. Like rethinking the reservation system so that Native America can still retain its cultural uniqueness while having connections to economic opportunities. Like accepting that we can’t change history, but can take bold steps toward reshaping a shared future.
In the meantime, the next time we have a high-value terrorist target, or the next time we have a team to name, let’s “honor” someone else.
The Decepticons, maybe.
To learn more about Ulises, visit Digital Decaf.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.