When military people hear the words Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, Lakota, and Black Hawk, automatically know that these are US Army helicopters. The civilian world generally knows them as the names of Native American tribes. This is not just some coincidence or some sort of random name-choosing. In fact, the US Army had been naming its helicopters after Native American tribes for decades now.

A Croatian Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior at AirVG 2018. (Ivekbeg5CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

American Indian Wars

Beginning the earliest colonial settlements in the 17th century until the early 20th century, The American Indian Wars were fought first by European governments and the colonists in North America. Later on, it became the United States and Canadian governments and their respective settlers versus American Indian and First Nation Tribes. Various wars occurred due to a lot of factors.

The European governments and their colonies enlisted their allied Indian tribes to help them conduct warfare against other colonial settlements. Many local conflicts in certain states and regions were frequently due to disputes over land use, but as settlers spread westward across North America, the armed conflicts between settlers and various Indian and First Nation Tribes grew in size, duration, and intensity.

The most intense, perhaps, was the War of 1812 when major Indian coalitions in the Midwest and the South battled against the United States and lost. After then, conflicts became less common and were quickly resolved by treaty. In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed and authorized the American government to enforce the removal of the Indians from east of Mississippi River and to the Indian Territory on the west American frontier. The Indian tribes were relocated to reservations. But above all these, the Native Americans also fought alongside the United States as some of the fiercest warriors, and they did so for more than 200 years. In fact, 32 Native Americans were recipients of the Medal of Honor.

Birth of The Tradition

Apache attack helicopter
An Apache attack helicopter of the Army Air Corps in Afghanistan fires rockets at insurgents during a patrol in 2008. (Staff Sergeant Mike Harvey, OGL v1.0OGL v1.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before the Native American names, the US Army had two helicopters named “Hoverfly” and “Dragonfly.” Army General Hamilton Howze was not too pleased with the names. After the Air Force split from the Army in 1947, he was tasked with a job to “develop doctrine and the way forward when it came to naming Army aircraft in a way that reflected how they would support warfighters on the ground.” He instructed the helicopters to be named after their abilities. He came up with the idea, as Army wrote,

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 Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

A few years later, in 1969, it was solidified with the Army Regulation 70-28.

Army Regulation 70-28

As per the regulation, Army aircraft required “Indian terms and names of American Indian tribes and chiefs,” with the names to choose from provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There were also other categories for tanks, which were to be named after American generals and assault weapons from fearsome reptiles and insects.

Following are the listed criteria for the name choices. They 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.
Traditional dancers perform in honor of the South Dakota National Guard’s newest aircraft, the UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopter. (Indianz.com)

According to the Army’s article published in 2008, they would need to ask for approval first, which usually takes 12 to 18 months. Once all the permissions were received, the aircraft would then be part of a ceremony that Native American leaders would attend to give it tribal blessings. Even when the AR 70-28 has been rescinded, that tradition still continues to this very day.