While We’re on the Subject of Indian Nicknames, Let’s Talk About the Army
Members of privileged in-groups can go for decades without having it ever occur to us that some commonplace part of everyday life might be offensive to an out-group. The long-standing controversy over the “Washington Redskins” and other sporting teams named after Native Americans is an example currently in the news. Even though the debate has been going on for decades, it often seems silly to those of us who just see them as background rather than as central to our identities.
After years of dismissing the sports team arguments as nonsense, I finally came around a couple years ago on Redskins, which had its origins as a racial slur and is still perceived that way by some. I’ve yet to be sold on the more benign names—Chiefs, Indians, Braves, Seminoles, etc.—but can see the argument. And, certainly, I’ve long since understood why cartoonish characters like Chief Wahoo or Chief Noc-A-Homa were offensive.
Yet, while I’ve at least been vaguely aware of that controversy for decades, I’ve been totally oblivious to a related one for the same length of time. Simon Waxman raises my consciousness about “The U.S. military’s ongoing slur of Native Americans.”
In the United States today, the names Apache, Comanche, Chinook, Lakota, Cheyenne and Kiowa apply not only to Indian tribes but also to military helicopters. Add in the Black Hawk, named for a leader of the Sauk tribe. Then there is the Tomahawk, a low-altitude missile, and a drone named for an Indian chief, Gray Eagle. Operation Geronimo was the end of Osama bin Laden.
Years ago, my reaction would have been pure amusement. Now, it’s more bemusement.
I’ve known for 30 years that we named Army helicopters after Indian tribes. It never once struck me as problematic, much less offensive. Like Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, it’s always seemed obvious that the names were intended to honor rather than demean. Indeed, Waxman concedes that it’s so. Alas, he argues,
Why do we name our battles and weapons after people we have vanquished? For the same reason the Washington team is the Redskins and my hometown Red Sox go to Cleveland to play the Indians and to Atlanta to play the Braves: because the myth of the worthy native adversary is more palatable than the reality — the conquered tribes of this land were not rivals but victims, cheated and impossibly outgunned.
The destruction of the Indians was asymmetric war, compounded by deviousness in the name of imperialist manifest destiny. White America shot, imprisoned, lied, swindled, preached, bought, built and voted its way to domination. Identifying our powerful weapons and victorious campaigns with those we subjugated serves to lighten the burden of our guilt. It confuses violation with a fair fight.
It is worse than denial; it is propaganda. The message carried by the word Apache emblazoned on one of history’s great fighting machines is that the Americans overcame an opponent so powerful and true that we are proud to adopt its name. They tested our mettle, and we proved stronger, so don’t mess with us. In whatever measure it is tribute to the dead, it is in greater measure a boost to our national sense of superiority. And this message of superiority is shared not just with U.S. citizens but with those of the 14 nations whose governments buy the Apache helicopters we sell. It is shared, too, with those who hear the whir of an Apache overhead or find its guns trained on them. Noam Chomsky has clarified the moral stakes in provocative, instructive terms: “We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’ ”
If the native tribes did not stand a chance, this does not imply lack of resistance or of courage; regardless, it doesn’t much matter in this context. Whatever courage they had, the U.S. military is not heir to it. If honor matters to the members of our armed forces, they will agree.
This is a strong argument. At the same time, it takes us down the slippery slope that many defenders of the “Redskins” moniker point to. By this logic, nothing should bear American Indian naming unless named by American Indians. And maybe that’s right. But it means many of our states, nearly all of our major rivers, a great number of cities and towns, and all manner of other things need to be renamed as well.
To cite just one example that comes to mind, the Chicago Blackhawks NHL team shouldn’t be named, say, the Chicago Fire or some such. After all, “The name ‘Chicago‘ is derived from a French rendering of the Native American word shikaakwa, translated as ’wild onion’ or ‘wild garlic’, from the Miami-Illinois language.” Which reminds me that it’s not just America’s third largest city that needs a new name but the entire state of Illinois, since it, too, is a French derivation of an Indian tribal name.
I’m not engaging in reductio ad absurdum here. If white-assigned Amerindian naming is a theft of heritage—and I tend to think that it is—there’s no obvious place to draw the line here. Changing the name of a sporting franchise is easier than changing the name of a state or a city or a river, so we can cross those off the list first. But there’s no logical end point.
One possibility is something of a reverse Redskins solution. That is, we could assign trademark rights to the tribal names to the tribes themselves and they can license them as they wish. Or, again borrowing from the Redskins debate, we could put the onus on Native Americans to demonstrate that a particular usage is offensive. But neither of those solutions strike me as quite right.
Ultimately, the resolution of this issue will play out over a very long time, with the Indians themselves having to drive it. Comparatively easy cases like Redskins and Chief Wahoo will be settled soon, probably before the end of this decade. But I suspect the Mississippi River will still be the Mississippi River a century from now. And, frankly, I haven’t the slightest idea how intermediate cases, like Tomahawk missile, will go.
UPDATE: Commenter James below points me to a 2011 Native American Times piece as evidence that the tribes have been supportive of the Army’s use of their names.
Wafts of the earthy aroma of wild sage filled the air as Oglala Medicine Man Roy Stone offered a prayer, blessed the South Dakota National Guards newest aircraft, the UH-72A Lakota Light Utility Helicopter, then tied an eagle feather onto it.
Native American Veterans groups from across the state stood sentry as more than 600 people watched the dedication ceremony that was held in sacred He Sapa (Black Hills) with the image of Crazy Horse one of greatest Lakota warriors to ever walk Ina Maka (Mother Earth) as a backdrop.
During the ceremony the new Delta Company, 1/112th Aviation Company of the National Guard unveiled an official patch that also honors the heritage of South Dakota Native people.
The motto for the unit patch is the Lakota words “Wiconi Un Kiya” which translates to “fly for life” or “life flight.” The patch symbolizes a Native American medicine circle representing the four winds and the sacred nature of life inscribed with the units motto and designation.
Within the circle rests a Red Cross which symbolizes saving a life while the colors white and blue represent purity, the sky and water. An image of the UH-72A rests upon the Red Cross in profile along with two eagle feathers, one red and one white which represent honoring and protecting the injured. Two more eagle feathers on outer edge of the emblem bring the total to four eagle feathers representing Delta Company’s four UH-72A Lakota aircrafts.
“It is my honor to be here on this sacred ground with all of you,” US Congresswoman Kristi Noem (R-SD) said. “It is my pleasure to share all the rituals and the culture and the bonding and the relationships that we will build through this ceremony.”
She said she believed that the spirit of partnership between the National Guard and the Lakota Nation when naming the aircraft is going to bring honor to everyone involved. “It’s going to build and strengthen many relationships over the years. It’s going to be a testimony to our children and to our grandchildren of what we can do and what we can accomplish in the name of our great nations.”
Maj. Gen. Timothy Reisch said he was honored to serve as the adjutant general on “this special day as we begin a new chapter of Army aviation in the South Dakota National Guard.”
“The fact we now have an aircraft named Lakota in our state is truly significant,” Reisch said and that department of the Army took particular note of the Lakota legacy as stalwart defenders of their homeland when considering what to name this aircraft. “I firmly believe that they got it right.”
Native American veteran David Oliver COO, spokesman for EADS North America, the company that makes the UH-72A Lakota helicopter said, “I am really pleased to be on sacred ground to look out at all these fellow veterans and these fellow Native Americans on this wonderful day.” He said he was honored to present to the Lakota people and the National Guard the best helicopter made in America today that will carry men and women safely and successfully.
Charles Murphy Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe a Vietnam Veteran said, “As a Lakota, we should have had Lakota in Vietnam,” and that when you see a veteran shake their hand in honor of the sacrifices they’ve made on behalf of this country and his tribe.
Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellowbird Steele also a Vietnam Veteran spoke on behalf of all the tribes living in South Dakota, “For this dedication of the Lakota Helicopter, we have representatives of all the Lakota bands here but we also have Dakota’s and Nakota’s represented here.”
He thanked the National Guard, all the horseback riders who came from the four directions including Standing Rock and Pine Ridge as well as the dancers and drum groups who added a welcome cultural element to the historic event.
Next to speak was the Chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Rodney Bordeaux who gave a brief history on the naming of the Lakota helicopter. He said in 2006 letters were sent out to the all the tribes in the region asking for permission to name a light utility helicopter after the Lakota people.
“We were told the US Army has a tradition of naming helicopters after Indian tribes. The reason being was the proud warrior history portrayed by all the Indian tribes. In addition it was fitting to find tribes that fit the US Army’s proud history in defending this great nation and way of life,” he said.
He said most of the tribes gave their approval and that they were invited to a rollout ceremony in December of 2006 in Columbus, Mississippi where Oglala Medicine Man Stone also blessed the first Lakota helicopters to come off the production line.
“This is a very proud day for all of South Dakota. It is very fitting and an honor to hold this ceremony here at Crazy Horse Mountain in honor of the spirit of one of our greatest warriors,” Bordeaux said.
Bud Thompson, Cmdr. Am. Legion Post #1587 a Vietnam Navy Corpsman Veteran from the Seneca Nation in New York, said he was honored to be invited to the ceremony by the Eyapaha of the event Richard Charging Eagle, a Vietnam Veteran from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
“We traveled a long way to be here to participate in the unveiling of this helicopter. Our tribe and our Iroquois Post 1587 feel very honored to be here,” he said.
South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard who serves as Commander in Chief of the South Dakota National Guard said he researched the meaning of the word Lakota which means feeling affection, friendly, united and allied.
“But I don’t think that’s why the National Guard named this helicopter Lakota. It is because the ancestors of the Lakota Tribe here were fierce defenders of their homeland and well known for their mobility, firepower and endurance. That’s why naming this helicopter Lakota is so appropriate,” Daugaard said. “One of its missions is the fierce defense of our homeland with great mobility, firepower and endurance.”
He said the traditional Lakota meaning is also appropriate because the Lakota will be used primarily for ambulance, evacuations, rescue airlifts and other domestic missions.
“The soldiers and airmen in our National Guard are the epitome of what it means to be a dedicated, extremely competent and reliable person in this world. They are excellent role models for their own children and for all of our children,” he told all the national guardsmen present for the event.
The ceremony ended with the blessing by Stone, followed by a commemorative blast detonated on Crazy Horse Mountain. The National Guard, tribal and state dignitaries, all the veterans groups and those who had traveled to watch the historic event then shared a meal as they enjoyed traditional Lakota song and dance performances.
It certainly sounds like the Lakota, at least, take the naming in the spirit in which it was intended.