Daines advocates that Washington Commanders ‘make it right’ with Wetzel family

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines advocates for the NFL and Washington Commanders to honor Blackie Wetzel's push the team use a Native American in its logo years earlier. (Provided by Daines' office.)

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana is asking the National Football League and Washington Commanders football team to honor the legacy of a member of the Blackfeet Nation by paying tribute to the team’s former logo depicting an Indian chief.

In 1971, Blackie Wetzel urged the coach of the then-Washington “Redskins” to use a logo that represented Indian Country, Daines said Wednesday in testimony at a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Daines, a Republican, said Wetzel did so knowing then-Coach George Herbert Allen admired and supported Native Americans. As a result, he said, Allen adopted a design that’s based on a profile of Chief Two Guns White Calf.

“As Blackie Wetzel said in 2002, ‘It made us all so proud to have an Indian on a big-time team,” Daines said in prepared remarks.

Wetzel served as chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe and president of the National Congress of American Indians, and his descendants have advocated for his work to be recognized.

“My grandfather’s logo has been a part of the NFL for nearly 50 years,” said Ryan Wetzel in a letter provided by Daines’ office. “To put that into perspective, in the 100 years of the National Football League’s existence, my grandfather’s logo has been a part of it for nearly half the time.

“For half a century, the proud face of a Blackfeet Native American warrior was honored in representation of the Red Nation.”

In his testimony, Daines said he has no interest in calling for a return of the “increasingly controversial” former team name. The name was dropped in 2020 and is considered racist.

However, he said the image of the chief, on a helmet he received from former players and placed at his table during testimony, is not a caricature but a depiction of “pride and strength,” of “courage and honor.”

Daines made the pitch at the National Parks Subcommittee hearing to examine the 2025 National Park Service budget and related bills. House Resolution 4984 would transfer jurisdiction of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus from the National Park Service to the District of Columbia in part to develop a new stadium.

“Specifically, my goal is for the Washington Commanders to honor the pride, the history and the heritage of the Blackfeet Tribe, who are my constituents in Montana, for the tribe’s contributions to the team’s legacy,” Daines said.

In a phone call after the hearing, the only state senator from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation said she understands the show of respect for her tribal elders, and she knows Blackie Wetzel wanted wide recognition for Indians.

“He wanted us to be there, to be on the national arena, let’s say, and that was good for its time,” said Sen. Susan Webber.

However, Webber, a Browning Democrat, also said the non-Indian and sports communities disrespected the portrayal with caricatures like the “tomahawk chop,” and the representation became derogatory.

As Webber sees it, the quest to honor the logo is a political gesture that doesn’t support real needs on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation: “We’re a poor community. We’re a third world country.”

On the reservation, she said, people will get their teeth pulled when they have a toothache instead of getting a crown or other fix. She said Medicaid expansion was the first time Indians were able to access preventive health care and children could get orthodontist work.

However, Webber said Daines has consistently opposed Medicaid expansion and the Affordable Care Act: “Those are the types of things that really, really would support the Indian community.”

Additionally, she said Daines was absent at last year’s highway dedication to the late Chief Earl Old Person; Webber noted U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, attended and participates in many events on the reservation, and U.S. House Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican, also attended the dedication.

Old Person, who died in 2021, was the longest-serving elected tribal leader in the country.

In an email, a spokesperson from Daines’ office said the senator meets several times a year with tribal council members in Washington, D.C., including twice this year so far, and he met with them in Browning in 2016.

At the hearing, Daines said acknowledging the history of the logo could take many different forms: “It might result in restoring the logo with a new team name that is supported by tribal leaders and will bring unity across communities.

“It could also be telling the story of the logo’s connection to the Wetzel family and honoring the Native communities it represents. … It could be resuming merchandise sales featuring the logo and maybe using a portion of the proceeds to bring awareness to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and other tribal causes.”

The Washington Post said Daines could hold up the bill on his own with his demands of the football team. The Washington Commanders could not be reached for comment through a form on its website, but Ryan Wetzel said the team talked with him about the effort earlier this week.

“We did have a good conversation,” Wetzel said in a phone call Wednesday. “It’s the first of many. The hope is to somehow make sure that my grandfather’s, Blackie Wetzel’s, legacy continues on, and the NFL and the Commanders’ organization honor that.”

As Wetzel sees it, Daines’ support for his grandfather is one of many issues the senator has backed that uplift Native Americans, including his support for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People’s movement.

Wetzel said the Washington Commanders’ representatives didn’t give him a timeline for action, but he believes they would like to move sooner rather than later. He said the move is exciting for all Montanans, who are “like a big family.”

“This is a victory of our people out here in the greatest state in the nation,” Wetzel said. “It really is. It’s going to be an exciting turn of events, and my hope is that we can honor the Blackfeet Nation, my grandfather, and the people of Montana that have been supporting us along the way.”

The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council was in a closed session Wednesday afternoon and not immediately available to comment on whether councilors had taken up a resolution.

More support, history

In a letter of support also provided by Daines’ office, Jean Bearcrane of the Montana Native Women’s Coalition said Native people consider elders to be tribal treasures, and they know their historical leaders love their descendants.

“It would have been an unspeakable terror for those leaders to know that many, many of their descendants would have been targeted with acts resulting from MMIP,” said the letter from Bearcrane, executive director. “I have no doubt that Chief Two Guns White Calf would have done anything at all to prevent those acts, including the use of his portrait.”

According to the Native Heritage Project, Chief Two Guns White Calf advocated on behalf of his people “in particular regarding the government’s unmet treaty agreements.” In the early 20th century, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to collect money owed to Indians.

The commissioner of Indian affairs told him to go home and wait for a check, but Two Guns refused to leave until he either died fighting, as his father had done, or received the money, according to the Native Heritage Project, a Native American genealogy and history project.

“Commissioner (John) Collier relented the next day and called the Chief to his office and handed him the check due the Blackfeet Indians,” the story said.

Ryan Wetzel - Letter to Commanders MT NATIVE WOMEN'S COALITION

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