Why ‘Geronimo?’ For Some, Bin Laden Code Name Holds Anti-Native American Implications

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Portrait of Native American Indian chief Geronimo (1829 - 1909), 1890s.

In the situation room Sunday, President Obama waited to hear if Geronimo was dead. Then word came. “We’ve IDed Geronimo,” said a voice.

Updated on May 4, 2011:

He was dead. He was also Osama bin Laden. So why nickname the operation to kill America’s most-hated terrorist with the name of a famous Native American freedom fighter? Good question.

Born with the name Goyahkla (meaning He Who Yawns), the 19th century Apache hero was eventually dubbed Geronimo by Mexican soldiers. (Geronimo declared himself an enemy of the country after the murder of his family by Mexican forces, which explains why the two were at odds.)

(More on TIME.com: See Geronimo’s skull in our Top 10 Stolen Body Parts)

After launching raids across the Southwest territories, Geronimo became legendary for his ability to evade U.S. and Mexican forces for nearly three decades, making him one of America’s biggest enemies of the day. Eventually, he was captured in 1886 as part of a “Dead or Alive” mission and passed away in captivity in 1909.

Since his death, the Apache warlord’s legacy has been upgraded from rogue guerrilla to freedom fighter, so it’s no wonder why the comparison between a Native American icon and perhaps the most-hated terrorist of all time would turn a few heads. Comment threads have lit up with debate, including TIME’s Facebook page. “Back in the day, America considered Geronimo a terrorist! The only real difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is whose side he’s fighting on,” said one reader.

So far, the reason for the choice is only subject to speculation, though some analysts report the choice was made for bin Laden’s similar ability to avoid capture.

Update: The AP is now reporting that the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is speaking out against the use of Geronimo’s name for the bin Laden op.”These inappropriate uses of Native American icons and cultures are prevalent throughout our society, and the impacts to Native and non-Native children are devastating,” said Loretta Tuell, staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Tuell also mentioned that the Senate Indian Affairs panel had an already scheduled hearing on Native American stereotypes scheduled for Thursday where the Geronimo code name will be heavily discussed.

More reactions from the Native American community have come out since the announcement of bin Laden’s death.  Steven Newcomb, a columnist for the weekly newspaper Indian Country Today, called the use of the freedom fighter’s name disrespectful. “Apparently, having an African-American president in the White House is not enough to overturn the more than 200-year American tradition of treating and thinking of Indians as enemies of the United States,” he said.

(More on TIME.com: See our full coverage of Osama bin Laden)