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Courage and honor: Wetzel family carries on struggle to bring Washington chief logo home to Blackfeet Nation

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Posted at 12:53 PM, Jun 26, 2024

BILLINGS — At the end of his earthly life, Don Wetzel Sr. wasn't about to let go of his desire to honor his family — in particular his father, the late Walter "Blackie" Wetzel — by bringing the old Washington Redskins logo back to the Blackfeet Nation.

Wetzel, a legendary Cut Bank and University of Montana athlete, Browning coach and co-founder of the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, had made it his quest to see the rights and trademark of the logo depicting Blackfeet chief John Two Guns White Calf, which Blackie Wetzel designed and gifted to the Washington NFL franchise in the early 1970s, brought home after the team had it retired in 2020 and eventually rebranded as the Commanders in 2022.

Ryan Wetzel - Washington Redskins logo
Ryan Wetzel, left, and his cousin Lance stand with the old Washington Redskins logo at FedEx Field in 2018.

Don Wetzel, who passed away in early 2023 at the age of 74, never saw that mission become reality. Now this well-publicized burden has fallen on the rest of the family, including his son Ryan, to see it through.

"Dad was passing away, literally on his death bed, and we had a healthy talk," Ryan Wetzel told MTN Sports last week before speaking at a symposium for the annual Montana Football Hall of Fame inductions.

"He was making peace with things, and he said, 'Ryan, whatever you do, just keep doing your best for grandpa. We need to honor him.' And I said, 'You're absolutely right, dad. And don't worry about it.'"

"And so there's this drive that has been passed down from my dad to me, and I do need to see something that is going to honor my grandfather, my family and the Blackfeet Nation and every other tribe out there. But what does that look like?"

At the very least, the relationship between the Wetzel family and the new Washington Commanders ownership, led by private equity investor Josh Harris, is on better terms that it was under previous owner Dan Snyder.

During the Snyder era, the Wetzels struggled to negotiate an acceptable resolution. Don Wetzel's goal was to retain the rights to the chief logo and use it to champion Native American causes. Ryan Wetzel said his dad never truly got that opportunity.

When the name went from Redskins to Commanders, the organization seemed to simply disavow the logo, though it remains a huge part of the team's history. It's an even bigger part of the Wetzels'.

"That really broke his heart, because he felt like he wasn't being heard," Ryan Wetzel said.

He added: "We're still having the conversation. Where does this stand? We would like to have the rights to the logo, create some type of foundation in the name of my grandfather. Take a percentage of the sales and allocate that to Native communities.

"If we were to somehow get that logo out there again, I think that's doable. It's just a matter of the NFL and the Commanders saying, 'Sure, let's do it.'"

Ryan Wetzel
Ryan Wetzel smiles during the Montana Football Hall of Fame induction banquet at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center on Saturday, June 22, 2024.

Though talks continue, the cause is now being advocated by those with clout on Capitol Hill, including U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.).

Daines recently raised awareness to the Wetzels' intentions at a meeting of the Senate National Parks Subcommittee in Washington D.C.. On the meeting's agenda was H.R. 4984, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium Campus Revitalization Act, a bill that would transfer administration of the still-standing stadium from the Park Service to the District itself.

RFK Stadium was the home of the Washington football club from 1961-96.

Daines used this to highlight the Wetzels' fight, saying the chief logo "was inspired and envisioned by (Blackie) Wetzel as a tribute to Native Americans. It is not a caricature. It is a depiction of pride and strength. Of courage and honor.

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

"(L)et me be clear, I am not calling for the return of the former team name which has become increasingly controversial, especially in Indian Country. But the logo itself remains a point of pride for many in Indian country and specifically the Wetzel family. The failure to properly honor the pride and history embodied by the iconic logo must be made right by both the new team ownership and the NFL."

Ryan Wetzel watched Daines' speech and knew his father would have been happy to see action being taken in the corridors of power in Washington.

Before he died, Don Wetzel Sr. had met with Daines and other representatives from Montana in D.C. His message was heard.

"When Daines gave me a personal call on my cell phone with his personal cell phone, I knew it was business," Ryan Wetzel said. "He said, 'This is about righting a wrong, Ryan. The NFL and the Commanders need to hear your story, and they are.'"

Steve Daines
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) speaks during a Senate National Parks Subcommittee meeting in May in Washington, D.C.

With new ownership leading the Commanders, and with at least some action being taken in D.C., Ryan Wetzel says he and his family have renewed hope that an agreement can be reached in some capacity for the logo to be used to honor his grandfather Blackie and the Blackfeet Tribe, and to generate attention and potential funds for causes important to Native peoples.

"I want to see something that's long-lasting," Wetzel said. "I need to make sure that I keep communication alive with the Commanders, and it's been really positive and healthy, and just keep developing some type of long-term game plan to help our Native people somehow, some way.

"The NFL is a big platform, and I think that they do enough in certain areas for impoverished communities, but I don't think they do enough for Native communities, and this could be a great, great avenue for that, and to do it through my grandfather's vision. That's the effort — to make that happen."