⚓ 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.

Five Myths About American Indians

Did one tribe really sell Manhattan for some beads?

This story originally appeared in The Washington Post and is reprinted here with its permission.

Kevin Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Follow Smithsonian NMAI on Twitter.

Thanksgiving recalls for many people a meal between European colonists and indigenous Americans that we have invested with all the symbolism we can muster. But the new arrivals who sat down to share venison with some of America’s original inhabitants relied on a raft of misconceptions that began as early as the 1500s, when Europeans produced fanciful depictions of the “New World.” In the centuries that followed, captivity narratives, novels, short stories, textbooks, newspapers, art, photography, movies and television perpetuated old stereotypes or created new ones — particularly ones that cast indigenous peoples as obstacles to, rather than actors in, the creation of the modern world. I hear those concepts repeated in questions from visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian every day. Here are five of the most intransigent.

There is a Native American culture.
This concept really took hold when Christopher Columbus dubbed the diverse indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere “Indians.” Lumping all Native Americans into an indiscriminate, and threatening, mass continued during the era of western expansion, as settlers pushed into tribal territories in pursuit of new lands on the frontier. In his 1830 “Message to Congress,” President Andrew Jackson justified forced Indian removal and ethnic cleansing by painting Indian lands as “ranged by a few thousand savages.” But it was Hollywood that established our monolithic modern vision of American Indians, in blockbuster westerns — such as “Stagecoach” (1939), “Red River” (1948) and “The Searchers” (1956) — that depict all Indians, all the time, as horse-riding; tipi-dwelling; bow-, arrow- and rifle-wielding; buckskin-, feather- and fringe-wearing warriors.

Yet vast differences — in culture, ethnicity and language — exist among the 567 federally recognized Indian nations across the United States. It’s true that the buffalo-hunting peoples of the Great Plains and prairie, such as the Lakota, once lived in tipis. But other native people lived in hogans (the Navajo of the Southwest), bark wigwams (the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Great Lakes), wood longhouses in the Northeast (Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois peoples’ name for themselves, means “they made the house”), iglus and on and on. Nowadays, most Native Americans live in contemporary houses, apartments, condos and co-ops just like everyone else.

There is similar diversity in how native people traditionally dressed; whether they farmed, fished or hunted; and what they ate. Something as simple as food ranged from game (everywhere); to seafood along the coasts; to saguaro, prickly pear and cholla cactus in the Southwest; to acorns and pine nuts in California and the Great Basin.

American Indians get a free ride from the U.S. government.
The notion that indigenous people benefit from the government’s largesse is widespread, according to “American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities,” by Choctaw historian Devon Mihesuah. Staff and volunteers at our Washington and New York museums hear daily about how Washington “gave” Native Americans their reservations and how the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages their lives for them.

The fight for Native American humanity | CONSTITUTIONAL | The Washington Post

But Native Americans are subject to income taxes just like all other Americans and, at best, have the same access to government services — though often worse. In 2013, the Indian Health Service (IHS) spent just $2,849 per capita for patient health services, well below the national average of $7,717. And IHS clinics can be difficult to access, not only on reservations but in urban areas, where the majority of Native Americans live today.

As for reservations, most were created when tribes relinquished enormous portions of their original landholdings in treaties with the federal government. They are what remained after the United States expropriated the bulk of the native estate. And even these tenuous holdings were often confiscated and sold to white settlers. The Dawes Allotment Act, passed by Congress in 1887, broke up communally held reservation lands and allotted them to native households in 160-acre parcels of individually owned property, many of which were sold off. Between 1887, when the allotment act was passed, and 1934, when allotment was repealed, the Native American land base diminished from approximately 138 million acres to 48 million acres.

‘Native American’ is the proper term.
Commentaries and corporate guidelines address the notion that “Native American” is preferred or that “American Indian” is impolite. During the 1492 quincentennial, Oprah Winfrey devoted an hour of her show to the subject. At the museums and on social media, people ask at least once per day when we are going to take “American Indian” out of our name.

The term Native American grew out of the political movements of the 1960s and ’70s and is commonly used in legislation covering the indigenous people of the lower 48 states and U.S. territories. But Native Americans use a range of words to describe themselves, and all are appropriate. Some people refer to themselves as Native or Indian; most prefer to be known by their tribal affiliation — Cherokee, Pawnee, Seneca, etc. — if the context doesn’t demand a more encompassing description. Some natives and nonnatives, including scholars, insist on using the word Indigenous, with a capital I. In Canada, terms such as First Nations and First Peoples are preferred. Ditto in Central and South America, where the word indio has a history of use as a racial slur. There, Spanish speakers tend to use the collective word indígenas, as well as specific national names.

Indians sold Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets.
This myth — repeated in textbooks and made vivid in illustrations — casts Native Americans as gullible provincials who traded valuable lands and beaver pelts for colorful European-made beads and baubles. According to a letter to Dutch officials, the settlers offered representatives of local Lenape groups 60 guilders, about $24, in trade goods for their homeland, Manahatta. The best insight we have into what the Lenape received comes from a later 17th-century deed for the Dutch purchase of Staten Island, also for 60 guilders, which lists goods “to be brought from Holland and delivered” to the Indians, including shirts, socks, cloth, muskets, bars of lead, powder, kettles, axes, awls, adzes and knives. The Dutch recognized the mouth of the Hudson River as a gateway to valuable fur-trapping territories farther north and west.

But it is unlikely that the Lenape saw the original transaction as a sale. Although land could be designated for the exclusive use of prominent native individuals and families, the idea of selling land in perpetuity, to be regarded as property, was alien to native societies. Historians who try now to reconstruct early transactions between Europeans and Native Americans differ over whether the Lenape considered it an agreement for the Dutch to use, but not own, Manahatta (the majority view), or whether even as early as 1626, Indians had engaged in enough trade to understand European economic ideas.


Mascots honor Native Americans.
Many people, including some American Indians , hold that naming sports teams after Native American caricatures, such as the Redskins and the Braves, recognizes the strength and fortitude of native peoples. “It represents honor, represents respect, represents pride,” Redskins owner Dan Snyder told ESPN.

A little history: The use of Native Americans as mascots arose during the allotment period, a time when U.S. policy sought to eradicate native sovereignty and Wild West shows cemented the image of Indians as plains warriors. (No wonder all of these mascots resemble plains Indians, even when they represent teams in Washington, Florida and Ohio.)

What’s more, social science research suggests not only that some native people recognize the word “Redskins” as a racial slur and are offended by it, but that exposure to mascots and other stereotypes of Native Americans has a negative impact on American Indian young people. According to a study by Tulalip psychologist Stephanie Fryberg, such mascots “remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.” Likewise, in 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the retirement of all Indian mascots, symbols and images, citing the harmful effects of racial stereotyping on the social identity and self-esteem of American Indian youth.

Twitter: @SmithsonianNMAI

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow updates on Facebook and Twitter.