Donald Wetzel Sr. knew what the Washington Redskins meant to his father. But it wasn’t until he stepped onto the team’s Virginia training grounds a few weeks ago that he learned what his father meant to the Redskins.
During a visit arranged by the franchise, he was shown a bronze statue of the team’s Indian head logo that he was told normally sits in owner Daniel Snyder’s office. On it were these words: “Walter S. Wetzel will forever be a part of the Redskins family because of his work in getting this logo put on the helmets.”
“It was just breathtaking to see that,” said Wetzel, 66. His late father, the former chairman of the Blackfeet Nation, would have been proud, he said. “He loved every part of the Redskins.”
The decision last month by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to strip the NFL team of six trademark registrations came down to a fundamental question: Was the word “Redskins” disparaging to a “substantial” number of American Indians when those marks were issued between 1967 and 1990?
Two of the three judges found there was enough evidence to determine it was, writing in their decision that based on the membership of the National Congress of American Indians, which has long fought to change the name, “at a minimum, approximately thirty percent of Native Americans found the term to be offensive” during the relevant time frame.
But even before the ruling, which the team plans to appeal, the relationship between the United States’ 5.2 million Native Americans and the word “redskin” has been central to the long-running debate over the team’s moniker.
Both those who adamantly defend it and those who passionately fight against it have based their arguments on what the word means to those it affects most. Team officials have consistently pointed to a decade-old poll that found nine out of 10 Native Americans weren’t offended by the name. Meanwhile, a growing number of opponents, including civil rights groups, religious organizations and Native American leaders, describe it as a slur that hurts an already vulnerable population.
The reality is that it can be a complicated and divisive issue even within a Native American family. Conversations with two of Walter “Blackie” Wetzel’s descendants show that despite the family’s historical ties to the team, sentiments among relatives on the subject run strongly in different directions.
Donald Wetzel and his nephew Bill Wetzel agree on this: By the time Blackie Wetzel met with team executives and persuaded them to drop the “R” logo for the profile of an Indian warrior, he was a well-respected Native American leader who had spent much of his life working toward the betterment of his community.
But ask about the word “redskin,” and the two men diverge.
For one Wetzel, the name is a point of pride, intertwined with the family’s history. And for the other, it is an indefensible racial slur that needs to go.
After the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board issued its June 18 ruling, Bill Wetzel, 39, wrote on his Twitter account: “& now cue Dan Snyder & Bruce Allen bringing up my grandfather creating the logo to defend the racial slur of a name.”
He had seen team executives use similar tactics before. As criticism against the franchise has mounted in the past year, team officials have showcased Native Americans standing by their side. At one game in November, the team honored four Navajo code talkers and released a video that featured one of the war heroes saying, “Hail to the Redskins!” The team also sent out a series of e-mails titled “Community Voices” that contained quotes from fans with indigenous backgrounds.
More recently, a week and a half before a religious group was scheduled to vote on a boycott of the team — one that was later unanimously approved — the team’s chief financial officer had Donald Wetzel Sr., his son Donald Wetzel Jr. and his brother Mike Wetzel talk to a top minister of the United Church of Christ.
“Right now, anybody still fighting for it, they’re on the wrong side of history,” Bill Wetzel said of the team’s name. Two of the most vocal opponents of the name are the Oneida Indian Nation and the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Native American organization that represents tribes across the country.
“The best you can say is many indigenous people and tribes are either indifferent or apathetic to it, but that’s not the same as being for it,” Wetzel said. “And even those people who are for it wouldn’t allow anybody to come up to them or their children and address them by that name. They’d be liars if they said so.”
Wetzel, a writer and the curator for an indigenous reading series in Tucson, said he has remained mostly quiet on the issue, knowing it’s a sensitive matter for his family. But even if it causes rifts with his relatives, he said he is speaking up now because “you don’t want to go down in history with your name synonymous with a racial slur.”
His grandfather, he said, deserves better than that.
Blackie Wetzel was once president of the National Congress of American Indians and worked toward getting housing and job training for Native Americans. Photos from the 1960s show him with President John F. Kennedy, whom he counted as a friend.
Bill Wetzel said he is proud of his grandfather’s legacy but that he worries he will become “a pawn” in the name controversy. The logo and the name are two separate issues, he said, but he believes the time has come for both to go. When his grandfather followed the team, he said there weren’t studies that showed the harmful psychological effects of using Native Americans as mascots. There are now.
“We are in a different world now,” Wetzel said. “What was acceptable in my grandfather’s time, given what we know now, is simply not acceptable anymore.”
Donald Wetzel Sr. said his recent trip to the team’s headquarters in Loudoun County was a first for him. The team flew him, his son and his brother in, he said, to speak about Blackie Wetzel’s legacy.
“We just went out there to honor our dad,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we did.”
Wetzel said they discussed the logo with team officials during a meeting and spoke one-on-one with some of the players. During a conversation with Robert Griffin III, Wetzel said the quarterback told him that every time he looks at the image on his helmet it fires him up, and that he was glad to now know where it came from.
In a 2002 interview with The Washington Post, Blackie Wetzel said he had taken pictures of Indians in full headdress to the Redskins’ office and told officials he’d like to see one on the helmet. Within weeks, the new logo was chosen and appeared on helmets in 1972. “It made us all so proud to have an Indian on a big-time team,” he said at the time. “It’s only a small group of radicals who oppose those names. Indians are proud of Indians.”
Donald Wetzel, who was a star basketball player in college and later served as an educator and a superintendent, said Native Americans remain proud of the logo to this day.
“I’ve never heard anything negative about the logo or the name from the tribal members I have run into,” said Wetzel, who lives in Montana. When he used to play sports, one nickname did bother him, he said. “If they called me ‘Chief,’ now that got to me. But if they had said ‘Redskin,’ I would have said, ‘You’re damn right.’ ”
Wetzel said that during his time as superintendent, he saw the many problems Native American youths face and that his son currently works to combat the high suicide and substance-abuse rates among young people on reservations.
Instead of spending money to run anti-Redskins ads during the NBA Finals, he said those funds from a California tribe could have been used to fix fields and buy uniforms for children who couldn’t afford them otherwise. The team, he said, has already committed to helping through the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, which was created in March.
“That Snyder, he has a really good heart,” Wetzel said.
Wetzel is not surprised by the divide among the Native American community — or his family — on the issue. The tribes in Montana all carry different cultures and traditions, and so it’s inevitable that views would vary among the United States’ nearly 600 federally recognized tribes, he said. He described his nephew as a “smart kid” who has “developed a different attitude toward things.”
The one thing Wetzel said is not debatable: His father would have wanted him to visit the team, one he remained loyal to until his death in 2003.
A year earlier, the two were watching television when the Redskins came on the screen. Wetzel said his father’s voice was faint, but he could hear him say, “They still have that on their helmets.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this story.