Bin Laden, Geronimo and Lawton | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Bin Laden, Geronimo and Lawton

NOBODY IN the White House situation room made a fuss when the message from Pakistan, “Geronimo EKIA,” was relayed to President Barack Obama. Everyone was so busy celebrating at this news nobody realized Geronimo was a politically incorrect name given the target, Osama bin Laden, who was shot dead, hence, “EKIA” for “Enemy Killed In Action.” Some people, after the fact, are reminding the world that the use of Geronimo was an insult to the memory of the Apache warrior who fought Mexicans and Americans in his part of the 19th-century world. Critics say the use of Geronimo was racist, that it would have been understandable under a WASP or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant US president, but not under Obama, the first black US president. There are so many coincidences here—Obama and Osama—so many cross-references that go all the way from an Apache warrior to the Philippine American War, and the colonization of the Philippines by the United States.

Geronimo (1829-1909) was an Apache chief who fought for his ancestral territory in Arizona against Mexican and US invaders. His name at birth was Goyaale or Goyahkla which, in the Chihuahua language, means “one who yawns.” He did not live up to his sleepy name and was involved in many battles. Unlike Western soldiers who display bravery on their chest in the form of medals and ribbons, Geronimo proudly enumerated scars from wounds received in battle:


“During my many wars with the Mexicans I received eight [sic] wounds, as follows: shot in the right leg above the knee, and still carry the bullet; shot through the left forearm; wounded in the right leg below the knee with a saber; wounded on top of the head with the butt of a musket; shot just below the outer corner of the left eye; shot in left side, shot in the back. I have killed many Mexicans; I do not know how many, for frequently I did not count them. Some of them were not worth counting.”

The man usually credited for the capture [or surrender, depending on the source you are reading] of Geronimo was Capt. Henry Ware Lawton (1843-1899) who served in the US Civil War, the Apache Wars, the Spanish-American War (where he served in Cuba), and in the Philippine-American War. Killed by a sniper in the Battle of San Mateo on Dec. 19, 1899, Brigadier General Lawton was the highest-ranking casualty of the Philippine-American War. Thus, his name was given to a city in Oklahoma; a street in San Francisco, California; a borough of Havana, Cuba; and, of course, the area in front of the Manila Post Office, once known as Plaza Lawton, until it was renamed Liwasang Bonifacio in 1963.


If Lawton was indeed the man who captured the Apache chief Geronimo in 1886, then his death in San Mateo becomes ironic because the Filipino general he encountered was Licerio Geronimo (1855-1924). Another person forgotten by history is 1Lt. Charles B. Gatewood (1853-1896) who is said to have persuaded Geronimo to surrender. Lawton used Apache scouts to trace and pursue Geronimo. When Lawton tried to discuss an agreement regarding Geronimo’s surrender, the Apache warrior declined and said he would only talk with a higher authority, in this case US Gen. Nelson A. Miles. Thus, Lawton escorted Geronimo back to US territory. Lawton never claimed credit for the capture of Geronimo, but that is not how the story is retold. The same can be said of our General Geronimo who gets all the credit for the death of Lawton rather than the nameless sniper who cut him down, a name that is forever lost in oblivion.

All this demonstrates how history is like a jigsaw puzzle with many missing parts. To complicate things, historians reconstruct the past using the memories and memoirs of various people whose version of the story is colored by memory loss or memory’s fictions. This is why when Geronimo was used as a code name for Osama bin Laden, the cross-referencing goes far back into our own history and the names of Lawton and Licerio Geronimo.

One other Philippine footnote is in Geronimo’s recollection of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair where, treated as a celebrity, he sold his photograph at 25 cents each (he kept 10 cents from each sale) and was paid 10, 15, or even 25 cents more for his autograph. He made so much money in the fair, more than he had ever had in his life. He described some of the things he saw there thus:

“There were some little brown people at the Fair that United States troops captured recently on some islands far away from here. They did not wear much clothing, and I think that they should not have been allowed to come to the Fair. But they themselves did not seem to know any better. They had some little brass plates, and they tried to play music with these, but I did not think it was music, it was only a rattle. However, they danced to this noise and seemed to think they were giving a fine show.

“I do not know how true the report was, but I heard that the President sent them to the Fair so that they could learn some manners, and when they went home teach their people how to dress and how to behave.”

Those were people of the Cordilleras displayed to illustrate the “Benevolent Assimilation” process that justified the American colonization of the Philippines, so that the poor heathens there could be “civilized and Christianized” by Mother America.

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