Is it ever okay to use Native American logos in sports?
With the recent name change for the #WashingtonRedskins, I took the time to sit down with the grandson of the logo's designer, Donnie Wetzel, a member of the Blackfeet tribal nation, to talk Native American representation in sports. Below is a transcript out our full conversation.
Kamran Rosen: Hi, welcome back to "Let's Talk About Race', the show where we like to do away with yelling and headlines in favor of having in-depth discussions on the nuance of race in this country.
So the next two episodes are both going to be on the topic of Native Americans, given the current exposure coming out of the recent name change for The Washington Football Team, I really wanted to get some perspectives from Native Americans themselves on the use of mascottiong in American sports, both in logos and in names. And I actually came across the grandson of the man who designed the logo for the team in the 70s, who was a member of the Blackfeet tribal nation.
I'm honored to get a chance to hear his perspective. However, I also want to be conscious of the diversity of both people and opinions within the umbrella term, Native American, as well as to not overshadow many issues that Native Americans face, by only focusing on a sports team name change.
For this reason, I decided to have a broader conversation on issues that tribal nations face in a conversation with the president of the National Congress of American Indians, Ms. Fawn Sharp, whose interview will air in the next episode.
With that context, I'd like to present to you my next guest, Donnie Wetzel, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Nation and grandson, to Blackfeet leader and activist Walter 'Blackie' Wetzel, the designer of the Two Guns White Calf logo that was recently retired alongside the Redskins name for The Washington Football team.
Donnie, thanks so much for joining us today.
Donnie Wetzel: Yeah, thanks for inviting me.
Kamran Rosen: So I actually learned through your cousin, I was reading a piece about Walter Blackie Wetzel. And from my understanding of it, your grandfather actually designed the logo, the logo of the Two Gunns, White Calf, and he actually presented it to the team, is that correct?
Donnie Wetzel: Yes. In the nineteen seventies, early seventies. Seventy one.
Kamran Rosen: Sure. Can you just give us a little bit of backstory there, like how that came to be?
Donnie Wetzel: My grandfather was a high impact tribal leader at the national level as well as the within our own Blackfeet Nation in Montana. And over the years he had built some pretty strong relationships with various folks within the United States government, from John F. Kennedy to to Mike Mansfield to many others. And I think as he started to move away from that and then early 70s, you know, the civil rights movement and things like that happening oftentimes our American Indians are not even involved in those discussions too much. And he took the opportunity to approach the Washington Football team's front office.
Donnie Wetzel: And what I've heard is he had relationships throughout D.C. that kind of led him to be able to do such a thing. And he brought in the imagery that is on the helmet and said, you know, take the 'R" off and put this on. It's a strong Blackfeet warrior.
Kamran Rosen: Yeah. And so the logo is your grandfather itself or it's a different individual?
Donnie Wetzel: You know, the logo is of Chief Two Guns White Calf, which is a Blackfeet chief, the son of our last war chief from the eighteen hundreds that his father, Two Guns White Calf's father, actually died in Washington, DC in 1983, fighting with the federal government to fulfill treaty obligations and dealing with land issues.
Kamran Rosen: And from my understanding, the Redskins name existed long before the logo. I think it was goes all the way back to the 30s. And then the logo you said was presented was in 71 It seems your family and I don't know how much you are able to speak on the Blackfeet tribe or actually a little bit sad to see the logo go. And it seems that separate from the name, is that correct?
Donnie Wetzel: Yeah, it just depends on who you talk to. But I think I think the overall feel of that logo, you know, the term was around. I think that team name has been around for 80 plus years. And and of course, the word changes over time. But it used to just kind of lump all of our all of our tribal nations up into one. And that's that's not right. Every tribe is very unique and have their own languages and cultures. And so that is a Blackfeet on there. So many of our our folks in Indian country and in the Blackfeet Nation pretty much understand that. And they you know, they can have their thoughts on it. And it's all good. You know, everyone has their opinion and it isn't anything that we want to separate. But I think for the most part, it was always understood that's a Blackfeet chief on the helmet.
Kamran Rosen: So I'm trying to distinguish in general between we have we have team names, right? We have the Chiefs, the Blackhawks, the Redskins, no longer. Then we have logos themselves and then we. Have kind of, let's see, like celebrations or crowd chants, you know, like the Braves kind of do the Tomahawk, the Chiefs have kind of the war chant. So going through those different layers, are all of those kind of the same, or are some of those —— Are all those offensive or some of them not?
Donnie Wetzel: Yeah, I could talk a long time on this.
We started to work with the Washington Football team about five, six years ago. The thing that really bothers me is those chants and people in headdresses and face paint because those are very honorable and sacred items within tribes. And so the idea was to educate. Why not use the NFL platform to educate folks in our country? Which is about ninety eight percent–—I think two percent is indigenous to this land. But to educate those folks on this is why you don't use face paint. This is why you don't wear a headdress and you sure don't chant and do the -- it's called like the 'John Wayne tomahawk chop' that that those old TV series and movies had all that stuff. That really is disturbing.
And it was always interesting to me is the Washington NFL team started to incorporate actual Blackfeet singing with their hand drums and and in regalia. And everyone was still really upset. And I understand the name, the name was what was the focal point. But then to watch the Super Bowl and the Kansas City Chiefs, they have a big tokenized drum that they pound and they do that tomahawk chop and the chant and it just that just turned me sour on everything.
And it was always interesting to me that there wasn't a lot of kickback from that. But the name, with the football team and Washington was the focal point. But that other stuff was allowed. And that does not belong in any of this. And I think as you start to educate folks, they'll realize why that is.
Kamran Rosen: I know it might be difficult to do in a brief conversational setting like this, but would you be able to give kind of a quick summary on what the chant means in the headdress and their significance to your tribe?
Donnie Wetzel: Yeah, you know, with our tribe...And of course, everyone is different. There's five hundred and seventy four now, five hundred seventy four federally recognized tribes. And our tribes are not a race. They're nations within a nation, they're sovereign and they have the treaty obligations with the United States government.
So each tribe is very different and unique in their in their ceremonies, in their respect. Within our tribe, and I'll do the best, there's others that know where more than me... But, you know, you earn a headdress and it's through deeds, acts to better your people, to better yourself. It's.. It's an honor. And I'd always compare it to, you know, a soldier or a general and all of the medals that they have on their uniform. People wouldn't just go out and buy a uniform and have fake medals put on their walk around saying they're a decorated veteran. It's the exact same thing when it comes to a headdress. You just don't go put that thing on and act like, well, here I am.
And so it was more like, how do you educate people on that? I was thinking the analogy of a veteran, a decorated veteran, would be excellent. And I sent that information into the Washington Football team. It just I never seen it go anywhere.
And then with.. With the face paint. That's has deep meaning, but it's a very sacred thing to use face paint. You know, there's deep meaning behind all of it, and it's in various situations
The chant? That has nothing to do with us at all. That was a Hollywood version of how they seen our people and many of our tribes——and I'll use an example of one of my brothers from Lakota——The beat of the drum is the heartbeat of us. And so it's that beat is to represent our heart in a lot of ways. And again, it's different with every tribe. But those songs are very sacred.
They mean so many things of strength and power and it is very disrespectful of them doing that tomahawk chop chant. And so again, I tried to take the avenue is people don't know what they don't know. So how can we be better at educating them.
And I do feel once people understand some of this stuff, they will react responsibly and respectfully.
Kamran Rosen: Yeah, it's actually pretty interesting, You use the example of veteran given that's such a big topic of conversation right now in NFL with the kneeling. This is a league that promotes itself as being very pro-military, pro-veterans. So, you know, people aren't kneeling for the flag, there's a very big out roar. But if you're seeing a similar kind of disrespect is happening to you with using headdresses that were earned as kind of just like, you know, ornaments costumes, it's it's a similar offense and it doesn't seem to be getting their attention.
Donnie Wetzel: Yes. Yeah.
Kamran Rosen: Um, I mean, for me, I have to be honest, I I feel a little bit of, I guess, guilt for not looking more into it as well, because it shouldn't be that hard really to do the quick research to figure out what it means. So I apologize for not doing my research sooner, but I do really appreciate you taking the time to explain it to me as well as the people who are listening.
So looking at how widespread that is, as far as talking about high school teams, college teams, you know, professional teams across multiple different sports, baseball, hockey, everywhere.
So would you see that of the Native American mascots and rituals, everything associated with Native Americans and sports, should that be removed? Should it be done respectfully? What would you say is the way to move forward?
Donnie Wetzel: I think it should be handled respectfully. Again, it comes down to that concept that we have very unique tribal nations. And I always equate it to, you know, what if we generalized Europeans, like white Europeans, Europeans is just white people. And you walk around with that generalization. No, there's British, there's Irish, there's German. And within each one of those, there's a language, a culture and a process of how they live and how they are who they are with histories behind it.
And so I think in that conversation here in America, if you have a mascot or a name of a tribe, it's usually in the vicinity of the school, go out and meet with that tribe, get to understand with them. And that's what I understood the Florida State Seminoles have done. They've met with the tribe. They've understood the direction and the honor of the tribe. And so they okayed it.
And I think that if things are done in that way with the with an educational directive that, 'Hey, let's have our tribal people there'.
We had a name change out here in Montana. And it was from the youth. It was non-native school and they were called the Redskins.
They felt, the youth felt uncomfortable when a local tribal school came and played. So the youth decided, 'Yeah, we don't like this'. So they changed themselves to the Rams.
So it's it's at a youth level. There's such great strength because they are so accepting and diverse and they really want to know more about each other. And we're living in a society, as you can see, the you know, the older generation is battling this newer generation of acceptance and things are changing in that way. So I think if if a school district, there's somebody uses mascots, they have to clear it with a local tribe and also understanding that there is no general Indian, there is no general.
So, yeah, I believe that through education you can really make a difference. And there's things that our tribal nations understand that I believe much of America needs to know. And it's our connected in a holistic and relational way of living and way of life that is starting to come back. They took a good shot at wiping it out, but our tribes are resilient and I think it's a great opportunity to learn more about that. What does that mean?
Donnie Wetzel: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's generally what I've been trying to do with this podcast, is just learn more and have conversations with people directly instead of through proxies. So it's definitely very encouraging to hear you say to go out and speak directly with the tribes, get their approval.
The last question I would ask is your... You've said and this is something I've heard before, which is that we generalize Native Americans, American Indians, there's a few different names, depending on what level of government or how you're referencing. But they are many different tribes, I think over 500. So for if someone is generalizing that term, you know, how should someone go about doing that respectfully? Can you give our listeners an idea of how they can kind of respectfully speak about Native Americans as a whole as opposed to a specific tribe? Or would you how would you like that to be done?
Donnie Wetzel: I would suggest that people just ask if they're in you in a conversation. I think that the legal term is American Indians, which is which is crazy because they named America, even though our indigenous people are here ten thousand some years before that. That's why I laugh at Native American, you know, I mean, we were here before that name even came up.
So so I guess the term is American Indians. And there's also different kind of ideas of how that came to be with a Columbus story. I choose to say that when he met and seen the beauty of these these people on this continent, he said 'en dios', which meant in God, these people were in God, I'd taken that myself and taken ownership of that because Ind'n is also a term that's used.
But but when you're in a certain situation, you could ask who you're talking with, "What tribe are you from?"
And like, you know, up here-- again, going back to back to that analogy with Europeans, if I was to call an Irishman, a Brit, he's going to punch me in the face. No difference between calling Chippewa Cree or a Blackfeet someone else. You know, you're going to get into a scuffle, because we're all unique and we're all very strong in our beliefs and our strength and our heritage.
So it's best to just ask and what a way to learn, you know, well, where did that come from? What is what is this what is your name mean?
You know, because we are Ampskapi Piikani, and we're part of the Blackfoot Confederation, which is Piegan and Siksika Nations and Kaini. So they just put a border between us that separated us, between Canada and us. But we were... Our Blackfeet nations, traditional lands, was enormous. And it was, it was beyond measure.
And so we even have our own distinct names within us. But we are the Niitsitapi people. Niitsitapi, which means 'real humans'. But we are, we have different bands even within our own selves. So what an opportunity for somebody to ask and learn that history. It's still living. It's still all here and it's really coming back.
Kamran Rosen: And that's great. The last thing I'd ask you're being asked to have these conversations speak directly with the people in the tribes. What is the best way for people to do that? If they're unfamiliar, should should they research in a website for a tribe? Are there, does each tribe have its own representative group What's the best way to go about learning?
Donnie Wetzel: That I might struggle with sharing any concrete wisdom with? I've grown up around so many of my fellow tribal members of all these nations, usually in the basketball circuit.
Kamran Rosen: You're a big basketball player?
Donnie Wetzel: Yeah, yeah. And basketball is king in Ind'n country.
But I think that, you know, it depends on the situation. But yeah, I'm sure you could call and just be humble, you know, put any entitlement or any preconceived notions aside. Come in humbly and respectfully and apologize, if you make a mistake. Just keep it to that level that 'Hey, I want to learn. I want to be respectful'.
You know, every tribal nation you go on, you know, you go on the federal government website, you go on NCAI, they have connections there.
And what we try to do out here in the state of Montana is I try to link our school systems that are non-native directly with our tribal nations. I can do it very easily at a youth level because they're more accepting. So we're even getting that down to the nuts and bolts of how can we be better at sharing the wisdom and the educational streams that we have within our nations.
Kamran Rosen: That's great. And I'm very excited to see that be part of the curriculum. I know that to the extent that it was part of my curriculum, at public school in Massachusetts, it was definitely from an early age, kind of gave me respect for both how the tribes have helped us continuously through American history, as well as all the broken promises, you know, the Trail of Tears. That was something that we learned very early on.
So I'm very excited to have that be even more part of our curriculum and to have people asking questions and learning more.
Donnie, I really appreciate your time. Really appreciate your wisdom today.
Donnie Wetzel: Yeah. And this is this is where it starts. It's always interesting that it came from a football team. But look at this great conversation we're having.
Kamran Rosen: Yeah, it should have come sooner, but we'll take the silver linings when we see them.
For listeners interested in learning more about the tribal nations of Montana. You can read the Essential Understanding Regarding Montana Indians on our website, letstalkaboutrace.net