Family of Walter Wetzel, Native American who created Redskins logo, mixed on its retirement

The debate over the Washington football team’s moniker has been a divisive issue within the Native American community for decades. It’s standard to find families of indigenous descent with members on both sides of the fight.

The family of the man who created the Washington Redskins logo is no different.

In 1971, Walter "Blackie" Wetzel, a well-respected former chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe who dedicated much of his life to advancing Native American civil rights, met with executives from the Washington football team and persuaded them to drop the team’s “R” logo in favor of an image of a Native American warrior.

In the past week, as the franchise has announced it’s doing away with the logo and nickname, a handful of Blackie’s children and grandchildren have expressed conflicting feelings over the change. To some, the logo was a longstanding point of cultural pride for their family and the Blackfeet Tribe. To others, the logo was a divisive image that threatened to obscure Blackie's more significant accomplishments.

Walter Wetzel, middle, speaks with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. Wetzel, former president of the National Congress of American Indians, is responsible for the now retired Washington Redskins logo. (Francis Miller/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The man behind the Redskins’ logo

The story of Walter “Blackie” Wetzel begins near Cut Bank Creek on the Blackfeet Reservation in Northwest Montana. It was there that Wetzel was born in 1915, there that he came of age as a young man, there that he began raising a family soon after the Great Depression.

“He used to get up in the mornings at his place out in the country on the reservation, walk a mile to a well to get water and walk back,” grandson Bill Wetzel told Yahoo Sports. “Then he would walk to the highway and hitchhike as much as 30 miles to work and back. He would do this in the dead of winter, which in Montana gets as cold as minus-40 degrees.”

Being surrounded by poverty on the reservation motivated Wetzel to enter politics. He worked to help the Blackfeet tribe and indigenous people throughout the country by advocating for housing and job training and fighting policies that terminated tribal governments and reservations. 

As Wetzel served as chairman of the Blackfeet Nation and president of the National Congress of American Indians, he befriended President John F. Kennedy, Montana senator Mike Mansfield and others within government circles. Those connections gave Wetzel the clout to approach the NFL team in Washington with a proposal in 1971.

Wetzel urged ownership to remove the “R” from the team’s helmets and replace it with an image of a Native American. At a time when Native American activists sought to protect their legal rights and religious freedoms, and to restore tribal lands, Wetzel viewed the helmet design as a way to promote his people and shine a spotlight on those causes

“From what I understand, my grandfather wanted honor and representation for the native community,” grandson Justin Wetzel told Yahoo Sports. “His intent was to bring some recognition to the Native community in a positive manner.”

There are several theories about the identity of the Native American depicted in the logo that Wetzel helped design. Some insist the logo is inspired by a 1912 photo of Blackfeet chief Two Guns White Calf, also the model for the Indian Head nickel. Others say it’s an amalgam of White Calf and images of other Native Americans.

Regardless, Wetzel was happy to honor a Blackfeet chief who fought to hold the federal government accountable for unmet treaty agreements. Over the next 30 years, Wetzel and his Redskins cap were often inseparable.

In an interview with the Washington Post the year before his 2003 death, Wetzel said, “It made us all so proud to have an Indian on a big-time team.” When asked about the opposition to the Redskins name and logo, Wetzel said, “It’s only a small group of radicals.”

Imagine how surprised Wetzel would have been to learn that one day some of his grandsons would be at the forefront of the opposition.

Questioning Dan Snyder’s motive

In 2014, the decades-old debate over the name of Washington’s NFL team had reached a new level of intensity. A New York tribe launched a national ad campaign targeting the franchise. A lawsuit threatened the team’s trademark protection. Prominent sports journalists vowed not to use the Redskins name. Even President Barack Obama called on Snyder to “think about changing it.”

It was about this time that one of Blackie Wetzel’s sons offered a vehement defense of the Redskins name and logo. In a Feb. 19, 2014, story in the Great Falls Tribune, Don Wetzel Sr. said, “It needs to be said that an Indian from the state of Montana created that logo, and he did it the right way. It represents the Red Nation and it’s something to be proud of.”

To the embattled Washington football team, that quote was a godsend. Team president Bruce Allen cited Don Wetzel Sr.’s statement in a May 2014 letter defending the Redskins name to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The organization also began working to strengthen its association with the descendants of Blackie Wetzel by reaching out to Don Sr. and offering to arrange visits and recognition for him and other family members. 

For the next six years, many members of the Wetzel family seized the chance to pay homage to Blackie and see firsthand the logo he helped develop. They posed for pictures at FedEx field, often draped in team gear and showing off autographed footballs.

In at least one instance, the team even invited members of the Wetzel family onto the field during a game to honor them on the video board.

Bill and Justin Wetzel saw right through Snyder’s supposed generosity. They suspected the team owner’s newfound interest in his grandfather was more self-serving than it first seemed.

As the franchise encountered mounting pressure to change its name during the past decade, the organization frequently used its association with Blackie to its advantage. Team officials trumpeted that a man of indigenous descent created and approved their logo to defend the name against criticism.

“I always felt it was quite disgraceful that the team hid behind my grandfather's association with the logo as a way to justify keeping the team name,” Bill Wetzel said. 

“The name is clearly a racial slur. If you look in historical accounts from newspapers and other records you will see it continually used as a pejorative. Anybody still trying to argue that it isn't is like one of those World War II soldiers on an island still fighting a war that was already over with decades before.”

Bill Wetzel made it a point to never seek nor accept invitations to attend Washington football games. His brother Justin did the same. 

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“Dan Snyder and the organization used my grandfather’s story of developing the logo as a PR cover,” Justin Wetzel said. “That never sat well with me. I could see their intent and it wasn’t to educate. It was simply business for them.” 

Don Wetzel Jr. was skeptical of Snyder’s motives, too. He joked, “You don’t hear from folks unless they’re in hot water.” 

Whereas his cousins Justin and Bill refused to engage with the Washington football team, Don Jr. worked with the organization to educate its employees and fans about indigenous people. It was partially a result of Don Jr.’s efforts that stereotypical headdresses and war paint became less prevalent at FedEx Field and members of Blackfeet Nation received the chance to perform traditional music during games.

“Ninety-five percent of America knows nothing about our indigenous tribes and I always looked at that NFL platform as an opportunity to change that,” Don Jr. told Yahoo Sports. “There were little steps made. It was not as fast or as much as I wanted, but I also knew they were a business. They were not in the job of educating.” 

Donald Wetzel Sr., holds an autographed Washington Redskins football. Wetzel, a member of the Blackfeet nation, is proud of the Washington Redskins logo that his father Walter designed in the 1960s. (Larry Beckner/Getty Images)

Mixed emotions within the family

In the seven days since Washington announced plans to rebrand, the Wetzel family has been bombarded with interview requests.

Lance Wetzel, Blackie’s youngest son, did a TV interview in which he called the removal of the logo “disheartening” and lamented a lost educational opportunity. Bill and Don Jr. both wrote heartfelt first-person pieces for a Montana newspaper. One of the youngest of Blackie’s grandchildren, Kylee Wetzel, made a TikTok video highlighting her grandfather’s connection to the Redskins.

“As a Native American, I’m proud of the logo,” she said. “It brought attention to my people and our culture. And although the name may be offensive to some, I’m sad to see the logo go.”

Justin Wetzel for years declined interview requests about the Washington football team’s name, but he now feels that he can no longer stay silent. It angers him that the team’s purported support for Native Americans has turned out to be lip service. 

Particularly galling to Justin were recent reports that Snyder’s “Original Americans Foundation” had gone dark. The nonprofit organization got off to a splashy start in 2014, but experienced a steep decline in grants and donations to Native American causes thereafter and contributed nothing at all in 2019.  

“I get asked all the time now, ‘What would your grandfather think of the name change and the logo?’” Justin Wetzel said. “I can’t answer that question. I don’t think anyone can. But I can in full confidence tell you it would upset him that in 2019 zero dollars were distributed from this Original Americans Foundation. That would definitely upset him.”

Bill Wetzel was eager to abolish the family’s ties with the Washington football team, so it’s no surprise he experienced a “sense of relief” when the team announced its desire to rebrand. It’s Bill’s hope that the Wetzel family can now reclaim his grandfather’s legacy after years of the team usurping it for its own purposes. 

Of course, Bill is careful to point out he speaks only for himself. He knows that some of his elder family members feel differently about the logo than he does.

“If I felt any sadness it was for my dad, aunts and uncles and those in the family who had pride in it,” Bill Wetzel said. “My grandfather was a living legend. They all loved him, and were extremely proud of everything he did, so I understand how much these things mean to all of them.”

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