Why Army Helicopters Have Native American Names

By Katie Lange

(Editor’s Note: NAT’s Editorial Board prioritizes stories that honor our nation’s Armed Forces, and showcase how Native Americans, throughout history, have contributed to their critical mission. To experience other first-run stories: Exclusive Interview: Indian Country Scores High With Dept. of Defense and The Native American: Warriors in the U.S. Military.) 


The Black Hawk, named after the war leader whose attempt to reoccupy tribal lands resulted in the Black Hawk War of 1832. (Photo Credit: Air Force Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet)

The U.S. military has a long history with Native Americans. Armed conflicts between the two were commonly known as the American Indian Wars and were fought intermittently from the time the U.S. was first settled by Europeans to early in the 20th century. 


A Soldier performs maintenance on an AH-64 Apache helicopter at Katterbach Army Airfield in Ansbach, Germany. (Photo Credit: Charles Rosemond)

But Native Americans also served as some of the fiercest fighters for the United States for more than 200 years. In fact, 32 Native Americans have earned the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

The tradition of naming helicopters after Native Americans was once an official regulation. That regulation no longer stands, but the tradition continues.


Another photo of the Black Hawk helicopter. (Photo Credit: Spc. Mitchell Murphy)

Here’s how it all came about:

According to an unnamed Army museum official, the naming convention goes back to before the Air Force split from the Army in 1947 when Army Gen. Hamilton Howze was assigned to Army aviation. His mission was to develop doctrine and the way forward when it came to employing Army aircraft and how they would support warfighters on the ground.

According to the museum official, Howze wasn’t a fan of the names of the first two helicopters – Hoverfly and Dragonfly. So, he laid out instructions for naming the helicopters after their abilities.


Army Gen. Hamilton Howze speaks with Maj. Gen. Bogardus Snowden "Bugs" Cairns, namesake of Cairns Army Airfield in the 1950s. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Howze said since the choppers were fast and agile, they would attack enemy flanks and fade away, similar to the way the tribes on the Great Plains fought during the aforementioned American Indian Wars. He decided the next helicopter produced -- the well-known H-13 of “M.A.S.H.” fame -- would be called the Sioux in honor of the Native Americans who fought Army soldiers in the Sioux Wars and defeated the 7th Calvary Regiment at the Battle of Little Bighorn.


The H-13 Sioux is a light helicopter that was mainly used as an observational aircraft. (Photo Credit: Heritage Flight Museum)

That’s likely how Army Regulation 70-28 was created in 1969. The regulation listed criteria on how popular names would be given to major items of equipment. Name choices had to:

1.Appeal to the imagination without sacrificing dignity.

2.Suggest an aggressive spirit and confidence in the item’s capabilities.

3.Reflect the item’s characteristics including mobility, agility, flexibility, firepower and endurance.

4.Be based on tactical application, not source or method of manufacture.

5.Be associated with the preceding qualities and criteria if a person’s name is proposed.


An AH-64 Apache helicopter fires a rocket during a combined arms live-fire exercise near Litochoro. (Photo Credit: Army Staff Sgt. Kris Bonet)

According to AR 70-28, Army aircraft were specifically categorized as requiring “Indian terms and names of American Indian tribes and chiefs.” Names to choose from were provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Other categories included tanks, which were to be named after American generals like Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; infantry weapons would receive names for famous early American pioneers like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett; and assault weapons would get fearsome reptile and insect names like cobra and scorpion.


Two members of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation dance in traditional attire around a South Dakota Army National Guard UH-72 Lakota helicopter after a blessing ceremony for the aircraft. The South Dakota National Guard and the Lakota Nation have partnered together to support the people living on the reservations and to help inspire the youth to become active members of the community. (Photo Credit: South Dakota National Guard Sgt. Jacqueline Fitzgerald)

AR 70-28 was eventually rescinded and replaced with policies that didn’t mention that criteria, but it’s clear that the tradition has continued. You only have to look back to a few years when the Army named its current primary training helicopter, the UH-72A Lakota, after the Lakota tribe of the Great Sioux Nation in North and South Dakota.

Lakota elders ritually blessed two new South Dakota Army National Guard UH-72A Lakotas at a traditional ceremony on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Ceremonies like these happened often over the past several decades.

So when you think of these helicopters, remember the spirit, confidence, agility, endurance and warrior ethos their names evoke!

To learn more about the tribes mentioned in this article:

Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska (Black Hawk)


Chinook Nation


Kiowa Tribe


Standing Rock Sioux Tribe


The Apache Tribes: 

Chiricahua Apache Nation


Jicarilla Apache Nation


Yavapai - Apache Nation


Fort Sill Apache Tribe


Lipan Apache Tribe 


Mescalero Apache Tribe


Apache Tribe of Oklahoma


About the Author

Katie Lange, author of “Why Army Helicopters Have Native American Names”, has been a featured writer for the U.S. Department of Defense, Main Street Examiner, RealClearDefense (RCD) and other leading publications.

Lead Story Image: The OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, which is primarily operated in an armed reconnaissance role in support of ground troops. (Photo Credit: Pinterest)

Native America Today and NAM programs would like to express their appreciation and gratitude to the United States Army and U.S. Department of Defense for their support in making this story possible.