FORT POLK, La. (Army News Service, Sept. 23, 2008) -- Fort Polk's 5th Aviation Battalion has been flying the Army's new utility helicopter for a year, and Monday pilots had a chance to meet the namesake of their birds, the Lakota tribe of South Dakota.

The pilots were invited to participate in the tribe's annual sun dance, a traditional religious and cultural ceremony that honors warriors and elders of the Lakota Sioux tribe that lent its name to the UH-72 Light Utility Helicopter.

"They wanted us to bring an aircraft up there since it was named after them so that they could recognize it and show it off to their people," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Steven Dunn, who participated in the mission.

The unit flew two helicopters to Rosebud, S.D., and displayed them at a local university and the sun dance ceremony. The pilots took the opportunity to learn more about Lakota culture. The tribe refers to its veterans as "warriors," and regards them with the same esteem that their ancestors did centuries ago.

"Even now, when they join one of the armed forces, in their society they are considered warriors," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Allen Galbreath, who also flew to the ceremony.

Today, a main focus of the gathering is the recognition of veterans. Galbreath said the pilots were invited to take part in the ceremony. "At one point we were in the arena, surrounded by the tribe. We came in with the dancers, who were in full regalia, and were followed by the veterans. The dancers kept pouring in; at one point there were about 300 dancers. It was wild." The dancing lasted for hours, the pilots said.

The pilots came away from the event impressed with the patriotism of the Lakota people. "They are probably some of the most patriotic people you will ever meet," said Dunn. "They are so proud of their traditions and their people, but they're proud of their country. They consider themselves Americans and part of this country. Are they still resentful of what happened to them' Sure they are. They did not forget, because it's handed down through their families, but they don't turn their back on their country."

Fortunately, the Army was able to give back to the tribe during this mission. When the tribal elders mentioned a project that their university was conducting, which involved the compilation of a list of holy sites, the pilots were more than happy to assist. They flew to each of the sites and took aerial photographs. The naming of the helicopter is a monument to the Lakota tribe's place in American history.

"It's actually quite a process to name a helicopter," said Galbreath. "There is a Department of Defense directive that requires the naming of helicopters after Indian tribes. The tribes put in a request to have the helicopter named after them. The tribes characteristics also should fit the characteristics and uses of the airframe.

"The Lakota were known as peaceful people, and 'one with the earth,' so that's how this helicopter came to be known as the Lakota. They were disappointed that it didn't have guns on it, though."

"The Lakota are famous for wiping out the 7th Cavalry during the Indian Wars of the 19th century though," said Dunn, noting the irony.

"They are peaceful up to a point!" said Galbreath.

The 5th is the second active duty unit in the Army to receive the Lakota. The Lakotas replace UH-60 Black Hawks that are currently used in non-combat roles, to provide more Black Hawks to the war effort.

The unit uses its aircraft to support Joint Readiness Training Center with distinguished visitor flights and personnel movement on Fort Polk, but is also in the process of training and qualifying for an array of other missions here.

The pilots are already adding some Lakota customs to their unit's traditions.

"Something we picked up from them was the saying 'hoka hey,' which means 'let's roll,'" said Dunn. "The elders also gave us each a medicine wheel. It protects the individual and represents the four tribes of Lakota, the points of the compass and is made of porcupine quill."

Before the Soldiers departed, they invited the Lakota veterans to sign the backs of the helicopters, inside the doors.

"I think it meant a lot to them that we allowed them to do that," said Galbreath.
Those signatures will likely provide inspiration to generations of flight crews as long as the aircraft are in service, reminding them of their proud heritage.

(Zach Morgan writes for the Guardian newspaper at Fort Polk.)