Charlene Teters

Geronimo, Mascots and Meaning

The assignment of code name Geronimo, and code phrase Geronimo E-KIA to mean that Navy Seal Team 6 had killed enemy Osama bin Laden in action in Pakistan has reflected that, even as we consider a new cultural sensitivity to the Arab world in not releasing pictures of the dead Osama, a lack of cultural sensitivity to indigenous Americans persists.

Allan Houser, Geronimo

For Native Americans the chilling fact that the most wanted terrorist of the United States was captured with a historical referent to the Chiricahua Apache leader who died in captivity at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1909 (Wikipedia tells us the Bin Laden operation has been retroactively called, Operation Neptune’s Spear) still evidences crimes of commission in which America’s favorite pastime, football (and baseball) continue to use bias-speech reflecting ingrained racism.

Suzan Shawn Harjo testified in Washington, D.C., Thursday, about the ongoing  impacts of bias-speech. In the long-ago days of 1970 and 1971 racial stereotypes about Native Americans proliferated in US sports teams and at universities and even high schools- inspiring, timed with American Indian Movement and other awareness politics, an outcry that effected change: The Willie Wampum team mascot was abandoned at Marquette University in 1971; Names of Red Raiders, Brown Squaws, and just plain Savages (1972; Dickinson State) were dropped and substituted with race-neutral labels into the 2000s. Some of this went to Harjo et. al’s trademark litigation against Pro Football Inc. – she and seven other plaintiffs including Tewa artist Mateo Romero and Vine Deloria Jr. joined her.

Mateo Romero's Neo Tribal

Charlene Teters, a professor at Institute of American Indian Arts, has also been at the forefront of efforts to end racial stereotyping in sports. In 1989 Teters was in graduate school at University of Illinois – Champaign-Urbana – and began moves to see jettisoned that school’s mascot, Chief Illiniwek (the Illini were an Algonquin speaking band) but it took until 2007.

We’re at a moment here that shows how sadly little has altered to change the majority culture view of Chiricahua Apache, especially, as fierce warriors against the United States’ expansion aims in the 18th and 19th centuries. Against this effort comes word on Mashable that Native Americans are changing their profile pictures on Facebook to that of Geronimo.

But here’s yet another media literacy moment. CBS News has published a headline “ Osama bin Laden was no Geronimo,” but: “Like bin Laden, Geronimo proved to be an elusive target. More than 5,000 soldiers were deployed to capture him in around 1885.” As Debbie Reese of Nambe pueblo wrote in the Wall Street Journal, to consider Geronimo a terrorist is to create for new generations of Native American children an in-exile-at-home effect.

That art has taken up repeatedly the question of identity and awareness is indeed the case. And so let’s keep looking and talking about the significance of what images say, and what words mean.

Charlene Teters performance in Ghent, Belgium



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