By Brig. Gen. David C. Hill
November is National Native American Heritage Month, with a theme of “Serving our Nations.” What a great theme that dovetails with other November observances that highlight service, such as Veterans Day. But the spotlight throughout the month belongs on Native Americans and their contributions, sacrifices, and achievements that have made our nation the great country that it is today.
Native Americans have a long and illustrious history throughout the Southwestern Division region, and their influence is still seen today. Although they comprise a relatively small number of our Division workforce at 68, that is still almost 20 percent of the Native American percentage across the USACE workforce. Oklahoma alone is home to 39 federally recognized Tribes, and Texas to three. Our Tulsa District, with 47 of SWD’s 68 Native American colleagues, has a strong Tribal Support Program that affects the quality of life of the Tribes within its District boundaries.
Although I have shared this information previously, I think it really brings home the significance of the Native American influence in our region: the very names of the states within our Division all trace their roots back to American Indians.
- Arkansas, from Acansa: the name of a Quapaw Indian town and literally means “southern or downstream place;”
- Oklahoma, from Okla Homma: “Red People” in the Chowtaw Indian language;
- Texas, from tejas or taysha: “friend” in the Caddo Indian language;
- Missouri: named for the Missouri Indian tribe whose name means “town of the large canoes;”
- And Kansas: from the Kansa Indian tribe, literally “south” and meaning “people of the south wind.”
Not only are Native Americans part of USACE and the U.S. Army today, they have participated with distinction in U.S. military actions for more than 200 years. Their courage, determination, and fighting spirit were recognized by American military leaders as early as the 18th century. Some have served quietly and with no recognition, and some famously. The latter who immediately come to mind are the Navajo code talkers in World War II, and Marine Corporal Ira Hayes, who was one of six flag raisers immortalized in the iconic photograph of the flag raising on Iwo Jima during World War II.
Their military contributions continued in the 1980s, 90’s and this century, as they saw combat in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Altogether, American Indians have earned 71 Air Medals, 51 Silver Stars, 47 Bronze Stars, 34 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 32 Medals of Honor.
The Army will never forget the contributions and sacrifices of Native Americans, and in at least one small way, we work to honor them through a long-standing tradition of using American Indian names for our helicopters.
In the case of the Army’s newest Lakota aircraft, the name honors the Lakota legacy as stalwart defenders of their homeland. Joe Red Cloud, a chief of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Lakota Nation, accepted the Army’s first Lakota helicopter, saying, “You honor our tribe by naming this helicopter Lakota. You are not only honoring our past, you are recognizing that we are still here, joint partners in the heritage of the promise of America.”