While We’re on the Subject of Indian Nicknames, Let’s Talk About the Army

Native American names are everywhere.


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.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Race and Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James says:

    This was in Andrew Exum’s twitter feed earlier

    @abumuqawama In fact, the Army does ask them (and I understand that it always has): http://www.nativetimes.com/index.php/news/tribal/5415-lakota-chopper-lands


  2. superdestroyer says:

    People have already forgotten that the U.S. military carried out a series of nuclear tests in the 1950’s that were named after American Indian tribes.


    Once gain, the naming was not done to be insulting but is the U.S. military suppose to go back and change the names of the tests?

  3. If I was going to complain about the naming of stuff by the United States military, I would go be more bothered by the USS John C. Stennis, named for a guy who, while he was a local prosecutor before he became a Senator, had no problem using confessions obtained through the torture and attempted hanging of three black men to sentence them to death.

  4. James Joyner says:

    @James: I figured that might be the case.

    @superdestroyer: I’ve never heard anyone suggest that we should go back in time and rename things. The issue is what to call existing things going forward.

    @Timothy Watson: The examples of that sort of thing are nearly infinite. Most public officials, including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, have some rather prominent skeletons in their closet. But that’s really a completely separate issue.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Some things are obviously offensive, like “Redskins”. Others not so much so, like the “Braves”, tho it can be argued that the very act of naming one’s team, mascot-ting if you like, after native Americans can be offensive and the “tomahawk chop” Brave fans were doing is obviously, laughably, offensive.

    The helicopters is a bit of a toss up, as Indian names for killing machines could be taken either way, tho if the Kiowa tribe got together and voted against it, I would have no problem changing it.

    Indian place names (and the b*st*rdizations there of) are hardly offensive in and of themselves, especially when you consider that most of the time that was the native American name for these places to begin with.

    Fortunately, as far as I know anyway, we don’t have the equivalent of a village named “Castrillo Matajudios”, whose name means “Camp Kill Jews,” If we do? Long past time to change that name.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: You and I are in agreement over where it makes sense to draw the line. But, ultimately, I’m not sure old white dudes are the right arbiters.

  7. @OzarkHillbilly: But the Florida State Seminoles also use the “tomahawk chop” without any complaints of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which they have worked with since 1972 on team imagery.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Timothy Watson: which shows that ugliness as well as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 😉

    @James Joyner: Agreed.

    As an aside, in caving, the “original” name is the preferred name for a cave. Most Indian names have long been lost to the fog of history, so the default is, “what do the locals call it”. A lot of caves don’t have a name in which case the first person to report it to the state cave data base gets naming rights. Some names are silly, Sodnammoc Cave being one (Commandos backwards) others are whimsical (Coatituesday Pit in Mexico), others are named for a common feature (Lechuguilla Cave, named for the plant that grows there). It gets really fun when caves are large enough that just to talk about the cave requires one to name various places within it. For instance, Lechuguilla has the 3 Amigos, the Leaning Tower, There be Dragons, and of course the famous Chandelier Ballroom. which is even more awe inspiring in person than the pictures can begin to capture. Some people take these “naming rights” vary serious as they feel it is a part of their “legacy”. Myself, I never put too much meaning in it. After I die, I will soon be forgotten, and what does it matter whether any of the names I gave to places last beyond me?

  9. Rafer Janders says:

    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

    Jesus, that is sad. It took you YEARS to see that “Redskins” was a slur, and even now you only grudgingly admit it “is still perceived that way by some”?

    Report: Redskins’ Name Only Offensive If You Think About What It Means

    WASHINGTON—A new study published Monday by the University of New Mexico confirmed that the name of the Washington Redskins is only offensive if you take any amount of time whatsoever to think about its actual meaning. “When you hear or say ‘Redskins’ in the abstract, it’s completely harmless, but we’ve discovered that if you briefly pause to remember it’s a racial slur for an indigenous group wiped out by genocide over the course of a few centuries, then, yeah, it’s awful,” said lead researcher Lawrence Wagner, adding that only if you allow the NFL franchise’s name to register in your mind does it evoke the thought of human beings devastated by the forced removal from tribal lands, intentional exposure to smallpox, and countless massacres. “It has the potential to come across as a degrading relic of an ethnocentric mentality responsible for the destruction of an entire people and their culture, but that’s only if you take a couple seconds to recognize it as something beyond a string of letters.”


  10. Console says:

    I tend to make fun of the extensive use of Native American and Mesoamerican tribe names used by Piper aircraft. Hell, how many Cherokees have ever actually even worked for Piper?

  11. DrDaveT says:

    By this logic, nothing should bear American Indian naming unless named by American Indians.

    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.

    Intellectual property; what a concept.

    But [that doesn’t] strike me as quite right.

    Whyever not?

  12. DrDaveT says:

    evidence that the tribes have been supportive of the Army’s use of their names

    Be careful there; the feelings of Native American veterans are probably not perfectly representative of the feelings of Native Americans in general.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders: For most of us, “Redskins” simply means “The Washington DC football club.” There have always been prominent Amerindian supporters of the team and the name, so the notion that it’s per se offensive is by no means obvious. The name doesn’t offend me in the way ‘Washington Niggers” would. I just understand that it’s origin word is considered a slur and is still perceived as that way by a significant number of people.

    @DrDaveT: I think it works okay for the sports franchises issue, at least in the ones definitely named after tribes. It doesn’t solve the issue of “Chiefs” or “Braves” or “Indians,” since there’s no one obvious to whom to assign those rights. But I’m not sure that we’d retroactively rename “Chicago” or “Illinois” or “Mississippi River” based on extortionate rights fees demands.

  14. rudderpedals says:

    @Console: Mrs pedals worked at the factory and she says there were not more than one or two native Americans at Piper (mid 90s)

  15. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Sure. But we do have Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellowbird Steele (also a Vietnam Veteran) and Chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Rodney Bordeaux among other tribal leaders quoted in the piece as supportive.

  16. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I’m not sure that we’d retroactively rename “Chicago” or “Illinois” or “Mississippi River” based on extortionate rights fees demands.

    Chicago and Mississippi aren’t a problem; those aren’t tribe names. Place names have no trademark status.

    The State of Illinois, though, has a problem, and I don’t get your reticence in that case. Either you believe in intellectual property, or you don’t. Either these tribes own the rights to their own names, or they don’t. It seems a bit of a thumb in the eye to say to a tribe “You own the rights to your name, but you’ve lost them for failure to enforce them in the past…”

  17. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: I’m not sure a name constitutes “intellectual property.” It’s closer to a “right of publicity” issue. And trademarks also have confusion issues. Professional sports teams are making a commercial use of the trademark and, indeed, vigorously enforce licensing right to their own trademarks and brands. State names would seem to be in the public domain, though.

  18. Ron Beasley says:

    Here in the Pacific Northwest nearly everything, rivers, towns, cities, mountains and counties, are named after Indian tribes or in the case of Seattle an actual Indian Chief. Many geographic features were originally English translations of the Native American names although many of those were changed in the 20s. Squaw Tit became Mt Washington even though it still looks like a woman’s breast and Cock Rock became Rooster Rock in spite of the fact it looks nothing like a rooster but does look very much like a you know what.

  19. Dave D says:

    @James Joyner: There is a movement to retire Chief Wahoo and the Indians have taken him off their hats and moved him to be a secondary marker. Uniwatch a blog about uniforms and uniform design went through a kick recently about Amerindian uniform logos, but had an interesting guest piece about a New Zealand Rugby team and the Maori, that was pretty interesting. That piece ends a lot like this one in that the glaring racism is obvious and needs to end, but this issue is complicated, murky and longstanding.

  20. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m not sure a name constitutes “intellectual property.”

    I’m sure the Coca-Cola Company would be surprised to hear that they don’t have any recourse if you want to call your new sports franchise the “Cleveland Coca-Colas”. Some names, clearly, have legal status as intellectual property. Names of organizations — companies, professional societies, mercantile associations, trade unions, Native American tribes(?) — those seem likely to be covered.

    I’m just proposing that the Lakota Tribe have the same rights to the name “Lakota” and its various transliterations that the Coca-Cola Company has in their name.

  21. Eric Florack says:

    Oh, please, let’s talk about renaming Oklahoma….

  22. mrbill says:

    If I remember correctly….the Indians LOST….so F*** them. Name it what you want.

  23. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT: Yes, you’re right. I don’t think of trademarks as “intellectual property” but put them in a different category in my mind. But trademarks are in fact a subcategory of “intellectual property.”

  24. RM says:

    The easiest answer for the redskins problem is to keep the name redskins but change the logo from an Indian head to a red skinned potato

  25. Pylon says:

    Racial slur like Redskin = clearly offensive to me.
    Actual Tribe names = not as clear, but surely the tribe should have some say.
    Place names adopted from Indian language = no problem! common usage.

  26. mattbernius says:

    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.

    This is actually becoming a common practices. For example, Maori tribes have taken steps to copyright and trademark traditional tattoo and tribal patterns which were becoming increasingly popular among western tattoo artists.

  27. dazedandconfused says:

    The Nez Perce will never be honored by their name being attached to any military hardware, which is most unfortunate. Their brilliance and courage under fire was remarkable, there is nothing more difficult than retreat. They should demand the honor.

  28. DrDaveT says:


    The Nez Perce will never be honored by their name being attached to any military hardware

    Actually, they are an interesting case, given that Nez Percé is not their name for themselves; it’s what the French called them (“Pierced Nose”). They call themselves Niimiipu, and you’re right that it’s unlikely that anyone will ever call a military system “Niimiipu”. But do they (or should they) own any rights to the name Nez Percé? Is that name offensive, such that the USPTO should not grant trademarks for it?

  29. Grewgills says:

    I’m somewhat sympathetic to the idea of Native tribes being granted trademark rights to their names, but would rather the names not be trademarkable. It wouldn’t make much sense to have the United States trademark its name or flag or other national symbols, or for France or Germany to do the same. Nations and states, like place names, should be a separate animal. That would mean that the FSU Seminoles couldn’t trademark their name, nor could other similarly named teams. If they are willing to take the name without the trademark benefits so be it.

  30. Boyd says:

    @James Joyner:

    I just understand that it’s [sic] origin word is considered a slur and is still perceived as that way by a significant number of people.

    If that were true, I might agree with you. But as you’ve pointed out several times, it’s mostly old white guys who have a problem with calling the Washington NFL franchise “The Redskins,” and I really don’t care what *you* think on this subject.

    An infinitesimal segment of Native American are offended by the name of the Washington Redskins. Considering that no matter what you do with just about anything, you’re going to offend someone, I view this latter day “enlightenment” of old white guys with disdain, if not contempt.

  31. DrDaveT says:


    I’m somewhat sympathetic to the idea of Native tribes being granted trademark rights to their names, but would rather the names not be trademarkable.

    Part of me understands your argument, and sees the sense in it. The rest of me says “What the hell; we stole everything else they have, why not their names too?”