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Geronimo! When Is It OK to Use a Term with Native American Roots?

Among the many aftershocks of the killing of Osama bin Laden was the controversy over the use of “Geronimo” as a code-name for the terrorist.

Among the many linguistic aftershocks of the killing of Osama bin Laden—including the spread of terms such as “EKIA” (enemy killed in action) and the birth of the proofers, our latest conspiracy theorists—was the understandable controversy over the use of “Geronimo” as a code-name for Osama bin Laden. Geronimo was, after all, a defender of Apache tribal lands and Native American hero.

This hubbub over this poor word choice highlights the fact that using any Native American-centric term is somewhat like being an American paratrooper in the 1940s who shouted the Apache leader's name before leaping from a plane: You’re dropping into territory that is dicey at best. “Geronimo” is just one of many Native Americans terms that are used sporadically or regularly in mainstream English. Given the awful history of what white people have done to Native Americans, every one of these words is loaded.

The story of “Geronimo” is well-told by Ben Zimmer, who investigates the twists and turns the adopted name of this Apache warrior has taken over the years. It’s one of many terms precariously balanced between respect and offense when used by white folks. Terms such as “rain dance,” “war-path,” and “war-paint” arose from Native American customs, as does “powwow,” which first meant a type of shaman, then a religious feast/rite, before evolving into the now-familiar meaning as a meeting or council. The cliché to “bury the hatchet” also comes from Native American culture, as did the less well-known “dig up the hatchet,” meaning go to war.

Speaking of sharp objects, the history of the word “scalping” evolved from Native American scalp-scalping to current ticket-scalping. Many talk about their people (whether friends or other like-minded folks) as being their tribe. The classic Peanuts story of the Great Pumpkin is a tribute to the Great Spirit of Native American lore—or is it really a mockery? Just the other day, my friend Dan and I were talking about the pluses and minuses of booze, and we recalled the term “fire water,” which might be one of the greatest synonyms ever invented. (For the record, it’s a little unclear whether Native Americans actually used this term or if it was concocted by white folks as something that sounded Native American-y). So when I have a powwow over some fire water to bury the hatchet with a nemesis, am I honoring or insulting the people who created those traditions? I have no idea. These terms seem neutral to me, but it does depend on the context.

Other cases are a little more clear-cut. It’s insane that teams like the Washington Redskins and Cleveland Indians still have those names in the year 2011, based as they are in caricatures of Native American culture. Idioms like “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” and “going off the reservation” feel sketchy too. Many offensive practices—like how some counselors at a summer camp I used to work at would dress up as preposterous, stereotypical versions of Native Americans—are defended with logic like “That’s the way we’re always done it, and it’s super fun, so stop being so sensitive, you hippie buzzkill!” On the other hand, we called the director “chief” at that camp, which seemed OK, if hokey, since it was a term of respect.

The Obama-Osama-Geronimo kerfuffle seems clearly disrespectful, though. When the government that mass murdered your people links the name of one of your heroes to this era’s top mass murderer, that goes beyond irony—it's an offensive WTF of historical proportions. I don’t know what you should call a mission to capture Osama bin Laden, but how about... anything else? Using “Geronimo” was a needless soiling of what was otherwise an apparently model operation. I’m not sure how we should feel about a term like “war-path,” but I completely understand why Geronimo-gate made so many so upset.

Now can we please get the Washington Redskins and their ilk some better names?

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