Everyone Relax—The Army’s Native American Helicopter Names Are Not Racist
There’s a difference between honor and exploitation
Sometimes, you look at an article twice just to make sure it’s not from The Onion. That was certainly the case when I read last Friday’s Washington Post, which featured an op-ed from Simon Waxman demanding the U.S. military drop the references to Native Americans from its helicopter names.
This of course comes in the wake of the recent controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins.
But Waxman, the managing editor of Boston Review, created a false equivalence between a football team named after a term generally considered to be a racial slur—“redskin”—and products named after the proper names for Native American tribes—Apache, Kiowa, etc.
A quick tip for op-ed writers. For something to be offensive, people generally need to be, well, offended in the first place. Yet notably absent from Waxman’s missive are any quotes from irate Native American leaders—a particularly glaring omission.
Nor did Waxman appear to have even bothered to contact the U.S. military for an explanation. Fortunately for rational people everywhere, I was on hand to do a little research. It took little more than a quick Google search to put me in touch with the remarkable staff of the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Even most Army helicopter pilots are baffled as to just how the ground combat branch came to name its aircraft for Native American tribes. The staff of the Aviation Museum helped clear things up.
According to the museum director, early Army helicopters had relatively benign names like Hoverfly. That apparently didn’t sit well with Gen. Hamilton Howze, one of the pioneers of air-mobile warfare.
According to Bob Mitchell, the museum curator, Howze “envisioned the helicopter as a fast, mobile, stealthy machine on the field of battle using terrain and vegetation to an advantage similar to the Warrior Tribes.”
Shortly thereafter, the Army’s next rotorcraft became the H-13 Sioux, the iconic Korean War aircraft most famous for its appearance in the television show M*A*S*H*.
“The rest is history,” museum director Bob Mitchell wrote.
Piston-powered whirlybirds like the Shawnee, Choctaw and Chickasaw soon followed. In 1959, the Army christened its first turbine-powered helicopter the UH-1 Iroquois, although aircrews would universally refer to their beloved ride as the Huey.
In the 1960s, however, the Army broke with tradition when it introduced a slimmed-down tandem-seat gunship version of the Huey it dubbed the HueyCobra—later, simply, Cobra.
Of course, Cobra was a fitting name for the slender bird of prey, striking targets as it slithered among the mangrove trees of the Mekong River.
Nevertheless, some Native American leaders were actually taken aback that the new aircraft wasn’t named for a Native American tribe. Indeed, though Army officials broke with tradition in an effort to not offend Native American tribes, the gesture actually backfired.
In short order, the Army revived the tradition, with the AH-56 Cheyenne, OH-58 Kiowa, AH-64 Apache and not one, but two Blackhawks.
Although not an official policy, Army officials typically name attack aircraft for tribes that historians have noted for their martial prowess. The RAH-66 Comanche, for instance, honored a tribe of mounted warriors that out-maneuvered, out-rode and out-fought the best-equipped U.S. Cavalry—a feat even more impressive when one considers the Comanche first encountered the horse only in the late 17th century.
So what evidence do we have to suggest that Native Americans aren’t offended by the Army’s tradition? Take, for instance, the fact that Army Material Command actually gets approval from Native American tribes before naming its aircraft. That’s according to the Department of the Army’s Pamphlet 70-3, paragraph 1-11-4-g, for you sadists out there.
Still not convinced? Well, consider that some Native American tribes don’t just approve of the Army’s naming convention, they give their outright blessing—literally.
In 2012, Native American leaders were on hand to bless two brand new LUH-72 Lakota helicopters—named for the nation which handed the Army one of its most notorious defeats at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
The two helicopters, christened “Eagle” and “Turtle” for prominent Native American symbols, carry honor feathers in their cockpits, gifts from the tribe to the North Dakota National Guard.
The Army’s naming convention isn’t about a whitewash of history. It’s not racism. It’s respect. Taking Waxman’s logic to the extreme, we should expect to see legions of Peloponnesian-Americans demand the military purge its references to Spartans from its lexicon. And let’s not forget the howls of protest from disgruntled Fighting Irish.
The author would like to thank the staff of the U.S. Army Aviation Museum for their tireless efforts to preserve the heritage of Army aviation. Maj. Crispin Burke is a U.S. Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 Blackhawk and the LUH-72 Lakota. His views are his own and not those of the Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter at @CrispinBurke.