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Tribal leader rubbed elbows with elite


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Tribal leader rubbed elbows with elite

BY SHAWN WHITE WOLF - IR Staff Writer - 11/03/03

Walter "Blackie" Wetzel learned early on that in order to achieve the success he wanted for his people, he would need to use every bit of political power he had — at home and in Washington, D.C.

In the 1950s and '60s, Wetzel, at the height of his political career, was the chairman of the Blackfeet Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians.

Born in 1915, Wetzel grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation.

Early on, Chief White Calf gave Wetzel a right of passage of the chieftainship of the Blackfeet Nation.

"I am still a chief today," Wetzel said Friday afternoon from his Helena home.

White Calf, who was over 100 years old at the time, conducted a special ceremony and gave Wetzel his Indian name — Six-o-num, meaning Blackie.

Throughout Wetzel's lifetime, he has served on the Blackfeet council, Montana Intertribal Council, National Congress of American Indians, and worked with Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy and numerous congressmen.

In September of 1990, Wetzel, among others, was honored as a distinguished alumnus of the University of Montana for attending nearly four years at the school back in the 1930s, although he didn't graduate for personal reasons.

Sen. Mike Mansfield once wrote Wetzel a letter that he keeps framed in his living room.

"As a friend of many years, decades really, we both have great appreciation, admiration, and respect for your many accomplishments during your lifetime," wrote Mansfield.

During his time in office, Wetzel said, he fought hard against policies that would terminate tribal governments and reservations.

At the same time, he fought for employment, aid, the development of the tribes' land and minerals and other issues on his own reservation as well as for hundreds of other tribes throughout the country.

"I think President Kennedy would sometimes order the (federal) government to send food," said Wetzel.

Nearly 40 years after Kennedy's assassination, Wetzel said he still remembers his most beloved president.

Just months prior to the assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the president had visited Great Falls on a nationwide tour.

As decided by Kennedy, Wetzel was to introduce the president at an event in Great Falls on Sept. 26, 1963. However, Wetzel said, at the last minute, Stuart Udall, U.S. secretary of state, changed the course of events.

"The president was there for business, and I was considered too political," said Wetzel.

However, he said, the president insisted that he come into an area blocked off for security reasons.

"Blackie, what do you have there?" Kennedy asked Wetzel as he held an object in his hands.

Wetzel, who named Kennedy High Eagle, presented the president with a carved gavel by Albert Racine, a Blackfeet artist.

In addition to the American politicians, Winston Churchill requested from Wetzel a complete Blackfeet regalia after Churchill found out his mother was half Indian.

"A Royal Guard showed up to collect the regalia, but Churchill didn't come," said Wetzel.

Another eye-opening Wetzel accomplishment was his idea to put the head of an Indian chief on the helmets of the Washington Redskins.

"Back then, (in the 1960s) there was only the letter "R" on the helmet, so I requested a few pictures to be sent down from my reservation of Indian chiefs," Wetzel explained.

Wetzel said he walked into the office of the Washington Redskins and said, "I came here to see you guys about seeing a real Indian on the helmets."

He said a person told him that they would look over his proposal and consider it.

After the team finally picked his idea, he said, he felt really proud — and has ever since — seeing the Indian chief on the helmet.

Since then, numerous groups and American Indian leaders throughout the country have fought against Indian mascots.

Wetzel said that people from the Washington Redskins send him tickets and other types of memorabilia.

A Washington Post reporter has even contacted him about the Redskin logo for a story that ran in January of 2002.

Two weeks ago, he said, he saw it on the news that the team was keeping the name and logo.

"I felt good about that, and they are proud to wear it," he said.

Today, Wetzel said he has retired to his quiet home in Helena after a busy political career and then several years in the U.S. Department of Labor and Montana Department of Labor.

"I am just playing her cool now," Wetzel said while leaning back in his recliner.

Reporter Shawn White Wolf can be reached at 447-4028 or shawn.whitewolf@helenair.com

a01110303_01.jpgEliza Wiley IR Staff Photographer - Walter Wetzel is shown holding a photo of Robert F. Kennedy. Wetzel, who served two terms on the National Congress of American Indians, was very close to the Kennedy family. Wetzel is pictured wearing a cap bearing the logo of the Washington Redskins, which he helped design.

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I searched for the archived article in the Washington Post and here is the text of that article. If anyone wants it, it was in the Metro Section, Jan. 26, 2002 (but why would you when its right here??).

American Indians Among Admirers Of Redskins Name

Marc Fisher


January 26, 2002; Page B1

Scalp 'em, swamp 'em We will take 'em big score

Read 'em, weep 'em, touchdown

We want heap more -- "Hail to the Redskins," original 1937 lyric

In a few days, football will fade from view and the Redskins will lurk in the background as an autumnal hope. But the debate over the Redskins' name knows no seasons; it has been with us for more than four decades and shows no sign of abating.

With local governments now in the act, urging Dan Snyder to pull an Abe Pollin and change his team's name to something bland, the name game takes on a new urgency.

The name changers appear to have the upper hand, as they sweep the nation forcing high schools and colleges to abandon traditional mascots and scrap names such as Indians, Chiefs, Braves and Warriors.

Interestingly, most of the people who sizzle with outrage over Indian team names and mascots are not Indians. American Indians can be found vigorously arguing on both sides. Academics are split, too: Anthropologists call team names and mascots humiliating, while linguists say "redskin" describes "stalwart attributes." Even dictionaries disagree (the Oxford English says "redskin" is "generally benign," while Webster's says it is "usually offensive").

The Redskins debate -- in addition to the latest condemnation from the Metropolitan Council of Governments, a challenge to the team's trademark is tied up in federal court -- focuses on the genesis of the name (was it born as an ethnic slur?) and its use today (does it denigrate Indians?).

There are at least three versions of the name's origin. The official story, says team spokesman Karl Swanson, is that when the Boston Braves football team left Braves Field to play at Fenway Park in 1933, owner George Preston Marshall needed a new name for his squad.

He chose Redskins in honor of Lone Star Dietz, the team's coach and an Indian who often wore an eagle feather headdress, beaded deerskin jacket and buckskin moccasins. Dietz brought four to six -- accounts vary -- Indian players with him to Boston from the Haskell Indian School in Kansas, where he had coached for four years.

Another version has the team being named for the white men who dressed up as Indians to stage the Boston Tea Party at the start of the American Revolution. Yet another genesis story says the name stems from the colored clay that Plains Indians used to paint themselves for tribal ceremonies.

Whichever version is right, "the reality is more benign than people on both sides of the fence are attributing to it," says sports historian and museum consultant Frank Ceresi. "The name was meant very, very positively."

The genesis may always remain murky because Marshall never wrote a word about his choice, the Boston newspapers from the time are silent on the question (football was a minor sideshow in those days), and survivors of the period offer conflicting and vague recollections. But it is clear that the Boston Redskins, who moved to Washington in 1937, sought to capitalize on their Indian players and coach: The team played wearing red war paint. And Indian players from the time considered the name and trappings an honor.

So does Walter Wetzel, former chairman of the Blackfoot tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians in the 1960s. By the early '60s, the Redskins had dropped any reference to Indians in their logo, uniforms and merchandise. Wetzel went to the Redskins office with photos of Indians in full headdress.

"I said, 'I'd like to see an Indian on your helmets,' " which then sported a big "R" as the team logo, remembers Wetzel, now 86 and retired in Montana. Within weeks, the Redskins had a new logo, a composite Indian taken from the features in Wetzel's pictures. "It made us all so proud to have an Indian on a big-time team. . . . It's only a small group of radicals who oppose those names. Indians are proud of Indians."

Snyder, meanwhile, intends to keep the name, no matter the protests. "Frankly, we don't hear much from fans about this," Swanson says. "Words take power from their usage. We don't use funny mascots. We don't have tomahawk chops. We've always used the word in a respectful way, to mean tradition, courage and respect."

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