Geronimo (1829-1909), whose given name was Goyahkla, sometimes spelled Goyathlay, is one of the most famous figures in the history of the American Indian resistance effort. His name is virtually synonymous with that of a warrior, so much so that his name has been appropriated for a wide range of military (or simply adventuresome) endeavors. Geronimo's reputation is well deserved, for his very name excited fear in settlers both north and south of the U.S-Mexican border. He was hated by Euro-Americans and even by some Apaches, who blamed him for continuing to stoke the fires of warfare after ultimate defeat of the Apaches seemed inevitable. In addition, he lacked the social and political leadership skills of a Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and the multidimensional qualities (including the spiritual character) of a Sitting Bull, the great Lakota leader who served as the magnet attracting huge numbers of Plains Indians to him, a force that would secure the most famous resistance victory ever against the U.S. military - at Little Bighorn in 1876.
Geronimo was primarily a fighter, a lasting reputation that led American paratroopers in World War II to call out the name "Geronimo" before plunging from their planes. Schoolchildren, for decades after Geronimo's death, would similarly yell his name before undertaking a real or imagined feat of bravery, such as leaping from a swing into a river. A much more recent, and highly controversial, use of Geronimo's name was its employment by the U.S. military as a code name linked to the operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
The association of Geronimo's name with that of the hated terrorist elicited considerable resentment by a wide range of organizations and individuals, including the National Congress of American Indians, the Onondaga National Council of chiefs, Native American publications, Fort Sill Apache Tribal Chairman Jeff Houser, and Geronimo's great-grandson Harlyn Geronimo. Their response was so intense that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs took up the issue at a hearing previously scheduled to discuss use of Indian names and images as sports mascots and in other areas of popular culture. Defense Department officials argued that they had intended no disrespect to Geronimo and had named the total operation against bin Laden Operation Neptune Spear, further naming each step alphabetically. The "G" step involved the capture or killing of bin Laden and was coded with the Indian leader's name, an explanation that did not do much to satisfy those who had raised objections to the use of Geronimo's name.
So what led Geronimo onto the path that would lead from the battlefields of Mexico and the Southwest to a raid into Pakistan? Although it would be serious oversimplification to reduce all of Geronimo's public life to one incident, certainly his life as a warrior was deeply influenced by a very personal event, an attack on an Apache camp by a Mexican general, Jose Maria Carrasco.
For years, Apaches had been both trading with and fighting Mexicans. As soon as he reached adulthood, at about the age of seventeen, Goyahkla, who was not yet known as Geronimo, was accepted as a warrior and entered into this dual relationship with Mexicans. About two years earlier, around 1844, Goyahkla's father, Taklishim, had died of an illness, and Goyahkla assumed responsibility for his mother, Juana (Juanita). Geronimo's autobiography - dictated to Stephen M. Barrett, superintendent of schools in Lawton, Oklahoma, with Asa Adklugie, a former student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, translating, and published in 1906 - shows a son deeply committed to his mother.