HELENA — Lance Wetzel looks at the Washington Redskins logo and is bombarded with a flurry of positive emotions because the logo itself is symbolic of his family, his culture and his Blackfeet tribal ancestry.
The image depicted on the Redskins helmet is of John "Two Guns" Whitecalf, a Blackfeet Chief whose likeness also appeared on the Buffalo nickel, minted from 1913-38.
The man responsible for the image is the father of Helena High assistant basketball coach Lance Wetzel, Walter "Blackie" Wetzel.
"When I look at the logo, I mostly think of my dad because he was a person who found pride in the Redskins logo, of having our people in the spotlight, and being represented by a big-time professional team," Lance Wetzel said. "Back in that time frame, there wasn't a whole lot of positives about Native Americans. To look at that helmet and see the representation there, I see a whole lot of pride."
Lance and cousin Ryan Wetzel were even honored by the Washington Redskins on behalf of Walter "Blackie" Wetzel this year at a Washington Redskins home game. They waved the Blackfeet flag honoring the origin of the logo.
Walter Wetzel, a former Blackfeet tribal chairman and National Congress American Indian President, urged the Redskins in 1971 to change their logo from the burgundy and gold "R'" to the image it still has today.
The name, logo and likeness have been mired in controversy because of the racial connotations associated with it. There's historical context to how the Redskins logo and name showcase a different intention than some interpreted, according to Lance Wetzel.
"I took my dad's word that this was a big-time logo representing our people," he said. "You look at the logo and Blackfeet history, and they are considered powerful people. I identify and connect with the logo that way."
Walter Wetzel passed away in 2003. He was described by his family as fearless, charismatic and selfless, all characteristics that allowed him to excel and be on the forefront for rights of Native Americans during the era of the civil rights movement.
What's in a logo?
With the help of Mike Mansfield, who was Walter Wetzel's history teacher at the University of Montana, Wetzel established a distinguished career in politics.
He rubbed elbows with politicians in the 1950s and 1960s, including the Kennedy family and Lyndon B. Johnson, hoping to advance rights for Native people as the elected president of the National Congress of American Indians.
"In my opinion, my dad was kind of like Martin Luther King," Lance Wetzel said. "He never gave up and kept trying to make things better for the Native people."
Dr. Ken Ryan can attest to Lance Wetzel’s assessment of his father. Ryan, the economic development officer for the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for both the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes, expressed admiration for Walter Wetzel’s accomplishments.
Ryan credited Wetzel for furthering the advancement of Native people because getting the Redskins to change the “R” on the helmet to a standard image was symbolic of his accomplishments.
“He brought Native people together, and when he did, all of the tribes in national tribal programs advanced,” said Ryan, who is in his 51st year dealing with Native American Affairs. “We came from a very remote Indian reservation. Reservations were not given to our people to live here, they restricted our land size so they could become the state of Montana. Walter’s influences on all of the tribes of America and his influences are far-reaching and profound because he was a profound leader.”
Ryan said he believes former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke approached Walter Wetzel about changing the “R” on the shield of the logo to the tribal symbol.
“When they were Super Bowl champions (twice in the 1980s), every time people looked at the Washington Redskins football helmet, they saw a person with a Native American profile on the shield on the side of the helmet, and that subliminally had an effect on those that were Native,” Ryan said. “Some of the people in other tribes are anti that image and consider it demeaning. I’ve never heard any elected tribal leader object to the use and image of the Washington Redskins.”
Ryan expressed satisfaction of having the Native symbols on professional teams.
“It is very satisfying to see a Native American on a professional football helmet,” he said. “Before that, our people had the privilege of Jim Thorpe, who was a giant in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. We were also happy to have the Indian head nickel. The thing is, the tribes were satisfied, and I never heard anyone (in the tribe) object to being an Indian, and never heard any objections to the use of logos like the Chicago Blackhawks. I've never heard any complaints from the tribe.”
Ryan also referred to Walter “Blackie” Wetzel as one of his heroes.
“I had such great respect for him,” he said. “He was a kind and decent, humble and honorable ... I never heard him cuss, or ever heard any criticism from him at all.”
Lance Wetzel understands the perspective of many who have been opposed to the logo over the years.
"I can see both sides of the story," he said. "The way I see it, this opens the door to a great education for people to learn about the history of tribal people. I know my dad said the logo wasn't chosen in a derogatory kind of way."
The nickname "Redskins" also is surrounded by controversy. The name, allegedly the brainchild of William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz, is a lightning rod.
Deitz, who was a coach of the Boston Redskins from 1933-34, was accused of being an "impostor," trying to cash in on the fame of Native American athletes such as Thorpe, who was also a good friend, according to a Washington Post article written about Dietz in 2013.
"From what I read on Dietz, he wasn't using the Redskins name in a derogatory way," Lance Weitzel said. "I always look at that logo and that image and think about the pride I have in it."
Donnie Wetzel Jr., who lives in Helena and works in Native American Education, said he felt the logo controversy creates a divide in the Native American communities.
"My grandfather was more focused on the logo being a strong representation of the tribes," Donnie said. "For him to be able to do that, especially during the civil rights movement, was a big deal."
Ryan Wetzel, Walter's grandson, said he understood the historical context of the name Redskins and said he understands why some people get upset.
Ryan, like Lance and Donnie, is sympathetic to both viewpoints but still hopes the story of Lance's father gets out there.
"Whether it is offensive or not, the important thing is for everyone to understand the Wetzel side of things," Ryan said. "Grandpa saw that the "R" was not the right representation of this team and organization. He stepped up to the plate when no one else would, which was an enormous deal to give that logo a sense of respect. There was no harm, he didn't want to offend anyone. (He just wanted) to have an actual Native American on the helmet, a man who wanted to do something like this with heart and determination."
The man behind the effort
The symbol itself is an embodiment of not only the Blackfeet Nation, but also of Walter "Blackie" Wetzel's struggle. He overcame adversity in a time of great political and economic turmoil in the United States.
Raised in Browning on the Blackfeet reservation near Glacier National Park, Wetzel overcame a humble start to get an opportunity to go to the University of Montana in a time when most Native people didn't have a chance to attend college.
When Wetzel was 5, he was sent on a train to boarding school in Haskell, Kansas, with his two brothers and two other friends, to attend the Haskell Institute.
At the time, the U.S. government took Indian children from their families and sent them to boarding schools to be educated so they could assimilate into U.S. culture.
"He spent five years there, and that was plenty for him," Lance said. "Back in those days, returning to the reservation was a difficult transition because they would take Natives from different tribes, and board them halfway across the country."
"They would take them completely away from home, where everything was foreign to them. They didn't know the language, the way of life, and it was pretty hard back in those times. That was considered the 'lost generation' because some were too Indian to succeed in society and outside the reservation. However, my dad was pretty accepted by all of those people. It never changed who he was, which was the charisma, his leadership and everything he demonstrated in sports."
In 1934, Walter Wetzel met Max Worthington, the basketball coach at Shelby High, and moved from Browning to Shelby to play basketball. Worthington was an all-American player at Montana State and the main arena at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in Bozeman is named after him.
"He helped Worthington win a district championship," Lance Wetzel said of his grandfather.
Blackie's athletic aptitude created opportunities for him at Montana, where he competed in boxing, track and football. This was similar to the athletic path Thorpe took.
Walter Wetzel's prowess in boxing was even known to the movie star George Montgomery Letz.
"They had to fight each other, and he had a scar from his nose to his lips," Lance said. "When I would see him on a movie, I would say 'there is my old buddy,' and he still has that old scar. They were good friends at the same time."
After Walter's athletic career, he dove into a career in politics that spanned 40-plus years. He eventually moved to Washington, D.C.
Passing of the torch
The Wetzel family's success in athletics has been well-documented.
Ryan Wetzel, a motivational speaker who started his own company, was featured in a film titled "It's Never Too Late," is about a 36-year-old plumber from Stevensville who was discovered by Ryan playing basketball at a recreational gym and eventually fulfilled his dream to become a professional player.
The Wetzels have multiple college athletes in the family in basketball, football, soccer, baseball, volleyball, track, cross country, and fast-pitch, and Lance Wetzel is a long-time coach. He manages and coaches with his wife, the Helena Bearcats, a youth travel basketball organization, and also at Helena High. He has been a coach in the Helena School District since 2001, having also coached at Capital. Lance's uncle and Donnie's father, Don Wetzel, who also lives in Helena, was a star basketball player at Montana.
Other Wetzels are currently playing college basketball.
"Every member of our family is either playing basketball, track or baseball," Lance said.
Donnie Wetzel recalls some of the strong sports stories passed down in the family. That includes being on a team that reputedly defeated the Harlem Globetrotters.
"When I look at the logo, I see a Native American and a Blackfeet Indian on the helmet, and it represents who we are as people because we are strong people," Lance Wetzel said. "I look on there and see my dad, too. As I said, that was the first positive image of Native Americans in the '70s."