The legend of Lone Star Dietz: Redskins namesake, coach — and possible impostor?

Here lies the celebrated Lone Star Dietz — in a donated cemetery plot, aside a back road, under a drooping evergreen. A simple marker, paid for by friends, bears only one word that hints at his legend: “Coach.”

Finally, we have found him, the Washington Redskins’ namesake. Dietz coached the inaugural Boston Redskins team 80 years ago, before it moved to Washington. He was a Sioux Indian, and the team was named in his honor, “out of respect for Native American heritage and tradition.”

Video

As a child, Barry Zientek of Reading, Pa., spent time with the Washington Redskins' namesake, Lone Star Dietz. He shares a bit of Dietz's celebrated - and controversial - history.

As a child, Barry Zientek of Reading, Pa., spent time with the Washington Redskins' namesake, Lone Star Dietz. He shares a bit of Dietz's celebrated - and controversial - history.

In this footage from 1916, "Lone Star" Dietz is named to the College Hall of Fame. (YouTube.com/WSUCougarAthletics)

That is what the team’s attorneys have said, anyway, in court filings battling an effort by Native Americans to cancel the Redskins trademark as disparaging — a campaign more than two decades old. Now the objections to the name are reaching an unprecedented volume, including Tuesday’s D.C. Council vote condemning the team name as “racist and derogatory.”

In the midst of this criticism, team owner Dan Snyder wrote a letter to
season-ticket holders last month in which he mentioned the team’s former Native American head coach and called the name “a badge of honor.”

But what if Coach Lone Star Dietz wasn’t an Indian?

That’s what some critics of the team’s name and some historians say. They call him an impostor, citing accounts that Dietz was a German American from Wisconsin who wanted to play football as an Indian to cash in on the fame accorded athletes such as Jim Thorpe, his good friend. Dietz also served jail time for dodging the draft during World War I because he falsely registered as an Indian.

On the other side, those who hold fast to Lone Star’s native heritage point out that he often spoke of being born on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota to an Oglala Sioux mother and a German father. He played on the famed Carlisle Indian Industrial School team, married a notable Indian artist and embraced the culture at a time of rampant prejudice against Native Americans.

In a 1912 literary magazine, he was quoted at length in a discussion of the cultural significance of Indian dress. He complained about traditions being defiled — such as, he said, “the grotesque use of colored chicken feathers upon the heads of women.”

“The costumes are generally even more ridiculous than the disorderly hopping and whooping,” he said. “The Indian has been pictured too much as a thing of the white man’s imagination.”

The Indian that Dietz presented — whose legacy is celebrated with Indian-head logos on all manner of merchandise — may well have been a thing of a white man’s imagination too. His own.

“The lies kept changing as needed,” says Linda M. Waggoner, an independent historian who has published articles debunking several of Dietz’s claims. As for the Redskins’ assertions about honoring Dietz?

“Phony baloney,” she says.

A half-century after his death, it seems that no one has decisively pinned down the heritage of William Henry “Lone Star” Dietz. This makes the Redskins’ flat-out assertions that the First Coach was an Indian even more problematic for some.

“The whole notion of playing Indian matters to me in part because when non-Indian people misappropriate Native American culture, they use all the old tropes,” says Phil Glover, a member of the Paiute tribe and plaintiff in the current trademark suit. “They are all rooted in the idea of the noble savage or the warrior fighting the lost cause.”

“He is still probably the most controversial coach the game has ever had,” says Tom Benjey, who authored a biography supportive of Dietz’s claims. “He’s been dead since 1964 and he’s still controversial.”

Dietz’s centrality to the name debate makes a fitting epitaph. He always was a great PR man — for himself.

Coaching around the country in the first half of the 20th century, mainly at colleges, Lone Star exploited his persona in such a way to suggest that he was a new sort of Indian, comfortable in the white world but reverential of his heritage.

He carried with him a trunk of press clippings. In some photos, Lone Star would solemnly pose in feathered headdresses and buckskins. He smoked the peace pipe.

But Coach Dietz also savored fine cigars, and at games he strutted in top hat and tails, carrying a cane.

A reporter once asked: Don’t you mind if people stare?

The coach is said to have quoted Lillian Russell, an actress of the day: “I don’t care what they say about me, just so they say something.”

Dietz spun stories all his life about being born on the Pine Ridge reservation to a mother named Julia One Star and a German father, a railroad surveyor who had joined the Sioux to avoid capture and death at the hands of a war party.

In fact, William Henry Dietz was born in 1884 in the village of Rice Lake, Wis., to white parents, according to his birth certificate and census records. And he would later put down Rice Lake as his birthplace on his marriage certificate (although he also listed Julia One Star as his mother).

Dietz’s father, W.W. Dietz, was the county sheriff. Both Dietz and his wife, Leanna, were of German heritage.

Townsfolk considered Lone Star’s claims to be “quite a joke,” as an investigative report in the draft-evasion case put it. “He was born here and has no Indian blood in him,” one of Leanna’s sisters said.

According to newspaper accounts at the time and his own court testimony, he finished schooling in Rice Lake — where the dark-haired Dietz later said classmates mocked him for looking like an Indian — and attended Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., in 1902-03. He studied art and played football. He stood just under 6 feet tall and was solidly built, about 175 pounds.

He made money selling cartoons to newspapers and also produced finely detailed line illustrations. He landed work as an artist at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, assigned to the Indian Educational Exhibit.

That summer, a brief article in The Washington Post ran under the headline “Striking Things Seen at the World’s Fair.” These wonders included “live beavers from Canada,” “one of the largest oranges ever grown” and “a life-size representation of a Sioux brave on the warpath, worked in different grains.”

“William Dietz, a full-blooded Sioux, is the artist,” The Post reported.

At the fair, Dietz got to know Indians and absorb their culture. There, he later said, he discovered more about his roots at Pine Ridge, including having a sister named Sally Eagle Horse and an uncle named One Star who supposedly bestowed the name Lone Star upon his nephew.

Dietz’s claims about his Sioux origins were accepted and repeated for decades by researchers and credulous reporters.

I was one of them. Ninety years after The Post first took note of Dietz and his artistry at the 1904 World’s Fair, I wrote about him. “His father was German, his mother Sioux,” I said in a story about how the Redskins got their name.

At the time, my understanding of Dietz’s heritage was based on the available scholarship and a number of interviews. Indians I talked to did not raise questions about his self-proclaimed Sioux identity.

But years later, research by Waggoner and Benjey brought to light substantial new evidence about Dietz’s past. Waggoner found holes in his origin story while researching a book on Dietz’s first wife, the Winnebago Indian artist Angel De Cora. Benjey, who lives near Carlisle, became fascinated by Dietz and self-published the book “Keep A-Goin’,” which largely celebrates Dietz’s accomplishments.

The new material doesn’t just burnish the legend of Lone Star Dietz. It also exhumes a scandalous chapter of the storied coach’s career.

The most reliable narrative of Dietz’s life can be derived from his football career, and that really starts in south-central Pennsylvania at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School — a federal facility that was part of the government’s push to “civilize” the Indian by vanquishing Indian culture and reeducating the race.

When Dietz, then 23, enrolled in the school in 1907 he represented himself as one-quarter Sioux. (He said his mother Julia One Star was half-Indian.) Eventually he became a football team standout, playing with Thorpe under the coaching of another legend: Glenn “Pop” Warner.

Indian impostors were not unheard-of at Carlisle, particularly once it gained renown as a football school, according to Sally Jenkins, a Post sports columnist whose book “The Real All Americans” focused on the school’s glory years. “It was a destination for financially strapped but ambitious kids looking for a free education and a path to a job,” she says.

In 1912 coach Warner took on Dietz as an assistant. Warner would become Dietz’s longtime supporter, recommending him for jobs at the high and low points of his peripatetic career.

Nearly as important as any gridiron victories, Dietz’s artistic pursuits also flourished and he became an assistant instructor at the Carlisle school. He married De Cora, his teacher, who was 14 years his elder.

“William is becoming famous,” reported the Carlisle Sentinel newspaper. “He teaches at the school and is a good specimen of the educated Red Man.”

In 1915, Lone Star left Carlisle for his first coaching job — at State College of Washington, a small agricultural school in Pullman, Wash., that is now Washington State University. He found instant success.

Dietz’s team went undefeated and ended up at the Tournament of Roses, on New Year’s Day 1916, to represent the West against Rhode Island’s Brown University.

Washington State won, 14-0, and in Pullman hundreds of students and businessmen marched through town. They donned Indian costumes and hoisted a large sign: “Lone Star! Lone Star! . . . How we love you! Oh, you Sioux!”

Dietz stayed in Pullman until 1918, when the United States was embroiled in the war in Europe. His wife never left the East, and he divorced her on grounds of abandonment. She died the next year in the great flu epidemic.

Dietz, meanwhile, was trying to break into the movie business as an actor and producer. He said the movies portrayed Indians only as murderous savages, never focusing on “his poetry, romance, religion and the human side.”

He also was coaching a football squad of U.S. Marines at Mare Island, Calif., and later said he was prepared to join the Corps and deploy with the team if necessary. Yet he filed a draft form seeking exemption as a noncitizen Indian. It reached the attention of the press.

In the charged, patriotic environment, newspapers started raising questions about whether the beloved coach was a “slacker,” the term of the day for draft dodger. Dietz proclaimed it a frame-up.

Federal agents began investigating, and he was indicted in early 1919. The scandal reverberated nationally. The government built a strong case, but Dietz — known for pulling surprise plays on the field — had some in store.

Before his trial, Dietz returned to Wisconsin and spent a few months with his mother and grandmother. (His father was dead.) The Bureau of Investigation — a precursor of the FBI — dispatched an agent to interview all three. The visit is recounted in reports, now publicly available, that were filed by the investigators.

“Is this lady your real mother?” the agent, Charles Rukes, asked Dietz, indicating Leanna Lewis. (She had since remarried.)

“I always considered her my mother, but she’s not my real mother,” Dietz replied.

“Is Mr. Dietz your son?” Rukes asked Lewis.

“He certainly must be; I raised him,” she answered.

During the conversation, Lewis “wept bitterly,” the agent said. The grandmother also cried, and tears came to Dietz’s eyes, too.

They attributed their tears, the agent wrote, to a “certain secret which would be humiliating to the whole family if disclosed.”

Before Rukes left, Dietz presented the agent with a gift: a photograph of Lone Star in Indian dress, representing “The Great Spirit.”

In June 1919, according to newspaper accounts, the Spokane federal courthouse overflowed with reporters and spectators as the prosecution set out to prove that William Henry Dietz was “a white person born in Barron County, Wisconsin,” and a citizen of the United States who qualified for service. It called witnesses from the Pine Ridge reservation who said there was a real One Star — as the name Lone Star also can be translated — but it wasn’t Dietz.

His name was James One Star. He had attended the Carlisle school, but several years before Dietz. Then he disappeared. In letters to Sally Eagle Horse, James’s sister, Dietz attempted to convince Sally that he was her long-lost brother James. But Dietz never visited her on the reservation.

On the trial’s first day, when Eagle Horse saw Dietz, she declared he could not be her brother — he looked nothing like James One Star.

Testifying in his own defense, Dietz talked about the night he lurked outside his parents’ bedroom door as a boy and heard them talking about his Indian blood. He said his father later confirmed he was Sioux and told him his true name was Lone Star.

But the star defense witness was Dietz’s mother.

Leanna Lewis testified tearfully that she did deliver a child on Aug. 17, 1884, the day Dietz used as his date of birth. But it was stillborn.

Hoping to comfort his devastated wife, W.W. Dietz offered to bring her “another child,” she said, to replace the one that died. Her husband confessed that he had taken an Indian mistress and they’d just had an infant boy, she said.

“I felt that the child would be a bond between us,” Lewis said, “and consented.”

W.W. Dietz went off to fetch the baby and returned after “four or five days,” she said. No visitors were admitted until he returned.

Two neighbors rebutted her account, one saying she had visited the mother and infant the day after delivery, to bring baby clothes. Another said she visited two or three days later and saw mother and child.

And the local newspaper carried an item saying that the day after the birth of his son, W.W. Dietz was spotted handing out cigars at his home.

Amid the welter of conflicting testimony, the judge said the case boiled down to whether Dietz believed he was an Indian. If so, then he had answered the questions on the draft form in good faith and should be acquitted. If deceitful, then guilty.

The jury was hung. The government re-indicted Dietz, who pleaded no contest. He said he could not afford to call witnesses in his defense. He was convicted of filing a false declaration and sentenced to light punishment: 30 days in the county jail.

His reputation suffered somewhat, but he never lacked for coaching work over the next 27 years. His two .500 seasons with the Boston Redskins were his only stints in professional football.

As for the origin of the Redskins’ name, the team’s story has not wavered: Team owner George Preston Marshall, a Washington laundry magnate who bought the Boston Braves football team, wanted to distinguish that young club from the baseball Braves and chose the name Redskins to honor the head coach, Dietz.

Dietz had recruited several Indian players to the team. Snyder, in his letter to fans last month, said the Redskins name honored not just Dietz, but those men as well.

Their hiring completed the Indian motif cultivated by Marshall, who was as great a showman as Dietz. Some players wore red war paint. The team owner was known as “the Big Chief.” He liked to appear in huge feathered headdresses.

It has become harder to find living connections to Dietz. One is Barry Zientek, a retired manufacturing manager who lives just outside Reading, a faded industrial city in southeastern Pennsylvania.

“All I know is that he sure told me he was an American Indian, and he was darn proud of it,” says Zientek, 61. He never played football for Dietz — he wasn’t yet born when the coach retired — but Dietz was a regular visitor in the Zientek household in the 1950s and ’60s.

The aging football icon came to Reading for his last coaching job: He spent six years at Albright College, a small Methodist school, before World War II shut down the football program.

Eventually, Dietz slipped into poverty. He and his second wife, Doris, a former society editor, lived in public housing. They came every week for dinner at the invitation of Barry’s parents. Barry’s father, Leon, a physician, provided free medical care to Dietz.

To Barry, who was 12 or 13 at the time, the man he called Coach was a physically imposing figure who also possessed mythic stature. Like many kids of the era, Barry grew up on TV Westerns.

“Wow,” he recalls thinking, “a real American Indian.”

Barry wondered what life was like in those days. “We were very poor and hungry a lot,” Dietz said about his days on the reservation.

Zientek lives in a comfortable suburban split-level home. On this day, he has propped a treasured possession against a couch for me to see: a large self-portrait of Lone Star Dietz in tribal dress, boldly painted with accents in primary colors.

His mother, who executed Doris Dietz’s estate, received the oil painting as a gift and it has been passed down.

He turns the canvas over. On the back, Dietz had written the title in flowing script: “The Warrior.”

Then Barry Zientek mentions something about the Coach he hadn’t said before: “He was very proud that the Redskins were named after him.”

And looking at that painting of the warrior — which captures Lone Star Dietz exactly as he saw himself — something occurs to Barry.

“How about the Washington Warriors? That’d be pretty cool, huh?”

 
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