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Posted on Sun, May 15, 2011 : 6:12 a.m.

Challenging stereotypes and defensiveness regarding the Geronimo codename and the Paper Tiger

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Seven-year-old Little Brother came home recently wearing a spiffy new Cleveland Indians baseball cap with a bright red Chief Wahoo embroidered on it. A gift.

He was so happy to have this special gift from special friends.

But Chief Wahoo? Seriously? Still?

I did not want to criticize the friends who gave it to him — nice, well-meaning folks who know nothing about the controversy surrounding the use of Native American caricatures as mascots.

Caught between the conflicting desires to honor this friendship and not perpetuate harmful stereotypes, I let Little Brother wear the cap around the house for a few days until the newness wore off and then let nature take its course — the cap got swallowed up and disappeared somewhere in the mess that is our house.

Then we went to the library and read about real Native Americans to gently supplant that stereotype in his young mind.

A week later, the message that Osama bin Laden had been killed came across the news, “Geronimo E-KIA” (“Enemy-Killed in Action”).

Again. Disbelief. Geronimo? Seriously? Today?

Native American reaction was swift and pained, describing the association of the most well-known Native American leader with America’s most-hated enemy as “a bomb in Indian Country” and “FAIL,” especially in light of Native American contributions to the U.S. military.

The Fort Sill Apache Tribe asked for an apology, gently noting that the codename must have been a cultural and historical misunderstanding, but “right now Native American children all over this country are facing the reality of having one of their most revered figures being connected to a terrorist and murderer of thousands of innocent Americans. Think about how they feel at this point.”

Native American writer Susan Power writes how defending her point of view to those who try to convince her that the codename is not offensive sent her spiraling straight back to childhood:

“I could viscerally recall being the only Native student in my elementary school class, squirming as teachers described my people in ways I didn’t recognize, couldn’t honor. And, when I timidly raised my hand, wishing to sink through the floor because I was so shy, near-whispering a comment that in my family and my tribe this was my experience and what I’d been taught, the teacher would smile in a smug way, and tell me how wrong and misguided I was. This is how a child learns that she is invisible in America. This is how a child learns that her voice doesn’t count, her experience is invalid and not to be trusted. This is how a child sometimes wonders if she’s crazy since her truth never matches the one the mainstream tells her is The Truth.”

I have been surprised at the defensiveness with which many have tried to justify the codename.

Asian American writer Gil Asakawa nails it when he writes, “The fact is, if something is offensive to someone, it’s offensive. Period. It’s not about the motivation, or the intent. It’s about the impact.”

The Asian American blogosphere has been locked in its own fierce debate this week over the impact of Asian American writer Wesley Yang’s overly long, angst-ridden and stereotype-reinforcing article for New York Magazine, “Paper Tigers — What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?

Ostensibly about the bamboo ceiling, the article rehashes many old issues and tired stereotypes, including the difficulty of Asian American men to get white women to go out with them. Yang blames Asian culture (ala Amy Chua Tiger Mother) and protests a bit too much about how cool he is (because he is the opposite of stereotype). A painful read.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is an editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for and a contributor for New America Media’s Ethnoblog. She is on the Advisory Board of American Citizens for Justice. She team-teaches “Asian Pacific American History and the Law” at University of Michigan and University of Michigan Dearborn. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at



Thu, May 19, 2011 : 1:45 p.m.

I am 79 and a Korean war veteran. As a kid playing war games with playmates we would shout Geronimo when "attacking" the enemy. This was considered a battle cry honoring the bravery of a great Indian and always considered so by our Paratroopers who made the same yell as they leaped from an airplane during a jump. Geronimo would have been proud of this use of his name. It was an ill-conceived use of his name in association with the killing of Osama, however. The code word should have been "Twin Towers". Having said that, I can understand the feelings of those who are offended by a stereotype that denigrates their own sense of dignity. Unfortunately. we humans seem to use such "shortcuts" in categorizing others in terms useful to them. The eternal French-English spat as well as the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry certainly would be good examples.


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 9:05 p.m.

I'm sorry, but the notion that " if someone is offended it's offensive. period" is a complete non starter. For example, from threads alone ,( to say nothing of the real world locally and beyond ), it's clear that certain folks with deeply held antisemitic beliefs and conspiracy theories are "offended" if they are challenged / rebutted ,as they well should be. Well , tough!! Judgements in a complex world must rely on more than thin skins....and if the spanish name ( geronimo= jerome) of a Chiricahua war chief ( whose real name was 'goyaklah' or 'yawner') was the battle cry leading to the death of the world 's greatest terrorist ( whose indiscriminate tactics would kill any apaches in the vicinity of a suicide bomber), i'd imagine the real-life geronimo would be proud. After all,he certainly traded on his name in his own lifetime both before and after his surrender. (e.g. a bow and arrow signed by him for the late 19th century tourist trade was authenticated on a recent ANTIQUES ROAD SHOW)

Rennie Sharp

Sun, May 15, 2011 : 4:02 p.m.

I am in totally agree when its said that today's society are still living in the dark ages. To think these types of stereotypes don't exist is to think we haven't landed on the moon yet. We see each and everyday, from Corporate American to social status, these stereotypes were somewhat created as means to keeping the minorities of this population in its place. However, the contributions made throughout history is quickly downplayed while we tend ignore the bigger issue which is a personal or in this case an entire culture since of being and having the same opportunities available to them. From the building of the railroads during the 1800's to the great western run. These terms of "Geronimo" should be always recognize for what it truly was meant to be. A man who believe in the survival of his people and was willing to stand up for something he truly believed in. I guess when we talk of stereotypes, this is usually the case without really knowing the diversity of a group or culture and how ones personal opinion can have such adverse effect. If history taught us anything, it should be that this nation was birth and grown from all walks of life and not particular group have the right to shame to belittle another. Rennie Sharp


Sun, May 15, 2011 : 2:23 p.m.

A thoughtful and thought provoking observation on how stereotypes shape daily thinking. I have been on the receiving end of "harmless" assumptions much of my own life. Some painful, some absurd. I was once asked, "Are you Chinese or Japanese?" I told them my grandparents came from Japan. "You can't be Japanese--you're too tall!' I was asked to take pictures at a memorial service for a co-worker by his father who flew in from out of state. "Do you know how to work this camera? You must, you're Japanese." We use shortcuts to make convenient explanations. Shortcuts--stereotypes-- eliminate our need to think about what is good or bad. That goes from the individual all the way to the government. The antidote to stereotypical thinking is to become educated, then educate others. This is waht the author has done in presenting an insightful (inciteful?) article to dedicated readers.