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What’s in a name: the real Geronimo

What’s in a name: the real Geronimo
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First Published: Tue, May 24 2011. 09 57 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Jul 02 2011. 03 23 PM IST
Students of British drama must be familiar with the name of Hieronimo. He is the central character in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. The play had revenge as its theme, and served as a model for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There is even an instance of honour killing in the play, when Lorenzo kills low-born Horatio for being in love with his sister. “Hieronimo” is of Italian and Greek origin, and means “sacred name”. “Geronimo” is a variant of Hieronimo.
On 2 May, the White House received a cryptic message—“Geronimo: EKIA.” The acronym stood for “Enemy Killed In Action” and carried the message that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Across the US, there were celebrations. Many believed that Geronimo was a code name for Osama. Native Indian groups were outraged to see their leader’s name bestowed on the man who slaughtered thousands of innocent men, women and children. Geronimo’s great-grandson, Harlyn Geronimo, called it an “unpardonable slander of Native America and its most famous leader in history”.
Geronimo was born in 1829 in present-day New Mexico. His Indian name was Goyathlay, which means “one who yawns”. In 1846, he became a member of the warriors’ council and as leader of the Apache tribe, waged incessant war against colonial powers. In 1858, Mexican soldiers killed his mother, wife and children. He vowed revenge, and conducted successive raids against Mexican settlements in the south-west.
In 1874, American troops moved a few thousand Apaches to a reservation. But under Geronimo’s leadership, they left the reservation and continued their war against Spanish and American colonists. The sequence of capture and escape continued. In 1884, he surrendered, but the following year he escaped. The final campaign was commanded by General Nelson Miles. Still with his small band, Geronimo was able to resist the force of nearly 5,000 soldiers under Miles. In 1886, he again surrendered, getting a promise from Miles that he could return to Arizona after a period in Florida. But this promise was never kept; Geronimo died in 1909 in Fort Sill.
Geronimo’s life has been portrayed in several movies, including Geronimo: an American Legend. The military use of his name goes back to 1940. A group of paratroopers were getting ready for a new manoeuvre, a “mass jump”, in Fort Benning, Georgia. The previous evening, they had watched a film featuring Geronimo. As he jumped, one paratrooper shouted “Geronimo!” and the others followed suit. This confidence-boosting yell remained a tradition with paratroopers, until it was stopped for security reasons.
Many clerics criticized the manner in which Osama’s body was buried in the sea. US officials said that the last rites were observed in conformity with Islamic practice, which involves ritual washing, covering with a shroud and burial within 24 hours. There was apprehension that if the body was buried on land, that spot would soon become a shrine for extremists. Muslim scholars believe Islamic law has been breached.
The burial of the real Geronimo also was marked by controversy. There were reports that his skull and bones had been stolen from the cemetery and were deposited at Yale University. In 2009, on the 100th anniversary of Geronimo’s death, Ramsey Clark along with 20 descendants of Geronimo filed a lawsuit against Barack Obama and others demanding that the bones be returned. Since the grave had been desecrated, it was necessary to rebury the body in Geronimo’s tribal homeland so that the spirit could rest in peace. The judge dismissed the lawsuit saying that the law cited applied only to violations after 1990.
On 5 May, officials clarified that Geronimo did not stand for Osama, and that the mission had been code-named Operation Neptune Spear. But Harlyn Geronimo persists in his demand for an apology from Obama.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column
Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, May 24 2011. 09 57 AM IST