When you see U.S. Coast Guard helicopters flying across southwestern Oregon, look for the artwork on the aircraft.
In honor of Native American Heritage Awareness, according to the Coast Guard, the command of Sector North Bend has adorned MH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopters with original artwork modeled after cultural references from the confederation of local tribal nations.
The Thunderbird artwork was designed among the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians and the 13th Coast Guard District.
In traditional tribal stories, the Thunderbird was father of the ocean, father of the food, giver of the tides and bringer of the storms. His favorite people were the Salmon People.
If the Salmon People, or any other water peoples, were shown any disrespect, then fishing could suffer, great storms could form or tsunamis strike.
The "salmon with waves" in the wing of the design references a traditional tribal story that warns against such disrespect.
The "way up above road" on the tail of the design represents the trail to the Creator, and the "scallops" (triangles) featured throughout are commonly found on traditional tribal basketry.
"I think the public should remember that these symbols have existed in this area for thousands of years," said Confederated Tribes cultural stewardship manager Jesse Beers. "And that they speak to the need for stewardship and respect for our foods, lands and waters."
Beers said that as a sovereign nation with a strong canoe culture, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians respect the Coast Guard for their abilities on the water. "And we are grateful for them being available, if ever we should get into a dangerous situation.”
It's traditional for a Coast Guard aircraft to carry a symbol that represents its region, although the aircraft out of North Bend have been without one for more than a decade. "Some stations just place the unit patch on the side," said Coast Guard Cmdr. Winston Wood, executive officer at Sector North Bend.
"There are several air stations with separate and distinct tail art. To name a few, Traverse City has the cherry wings, Detroit has the old English ‘D,’ New Orleans has the fleur-de-lis, Savanah has the cloverleaf, and Houston has the longhorn.
“I wanted something that spoke to the region in which we operate."
Prior to 2007, North Bend's tail art was "The Guardians of the Mist."
As the newer MH-65C helicopters started replacing the older HH-65B helicopters, North Bend began rotating helicopters with other units every three to six months. With that kind of turnaround time, the engineers stopped adding tail art to the aircraft.
Later, the Coast Guard permanently assigned five MH-65D Dolphin helicopters to Sector North Bend.
"It has been too long since North Bend aircraft had a symbol of unit pride," Wood said. "We seized the opportunity of a blank slate, and I think it faithfully represents the heritage of the community where we live and work."
The markings also help to designate an aircraft during situations of mass mobilization. The Coast Guard has implemented a doctrine of training standardization that allows for air crews to be assembled from a variety of different units during a state of emergency.
For example, when the Coast Guard responds to a major hurricane, aircraft from air stations all over the United States will be flown in. Regardless of where a service member is permanently stationed, they can jump into any similar aircraft and perform the same duties and responsibilities they would at home.
"We all travel and train together," Wood said. "So, it's nice to be able to look up and see that the spirit and culture of Oregon is being carried with us."