HELENA - Walter "Blackie" Wetzel, 88, died on Saturday, Nov. 8, 2003.
Blackie was born to William and Henrietta (Veileaux) Wetzel on June 27, 1915, near Cut Bank Creek on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. In 1922, he experienced a major setback due to the death of his mother. During the most trying period in his life, Blackie was sent to Haskell Institute, Lawrence, Kan.
Being lonesome for home prompted him and two other Native American students to catch locomotives back to Montana in the middle of winter. After several tries, they made it back to the Big Sky Country. Blackie managed to overcome the barriers and became a star athlete in nearly all sports. Blackie had completed his senior year at Shelby High School and went on to the University of Montana, where he lettered in three sports and completed four years of study.
While attending the university, Blackie was taught by Mike Mansfield, who became his mentor and one of his closest friends. Mansfield and Blackie together were given the Distinguished Alumnus Award at the University of Montana in 1990; from this, an engraved brick with Blackie's name was placed in the oval at the university.
In 1938, he married Doris L. Barlow and they raised nine children - Marlene, Bill, Helen, Walt, Don, Mike, Sharon, Christine and Lance. On March 23, 1988, his beloved wife, Doris, the strong force of his life, passed away.
Blackie was also an outstanding boxer and had the notion to try the professional circuit. While attending Haskell, he had boxed a tri-state champion and won the bout. But his father quickly changed the young warrior's mind and convinced him to stay in school. Blackie's boxing career reached an intramural apex when a 6 feet 3 inch tall, handsome and muscular student named George Letz, from Conrad, challenged him. Blackie gave up about six inches in height and more than that in reach. It was a very knock-down, drag-out battle, but Blackie managed to pull it off. He recalled hitting his opponent with a twisting jab that split his lip. The young defeated student later changed his name to George Montgomery, and went on to be a Hollywood celebrity and star. They remained great friends for years. Blackie pointed it out to his sons the still-visible scar on the actor's lip.
Other special interests and items which highlighted his life were being a drummer for a jazz band, dancing with movie actress Donna Reed and being the Medicine Man in the movie, "Grey Eagle," which was filmed in the Helena area. Blackie was also very proud of being the force behind the Indian Chief logo of the Washington Redskins pro football team. Blackie and his Washington Redskins' cap were inseparable.
At the beginning of World War II, Blackie was studying drafting in Helena. He later applied for detail at Mather Army Air Base in Sacramento, Calif. He was hired by the Air Corps as a property and supply clerk, 840th Special Air Depot at Mather. He expressed an interest in being a pilot and took a series of testing for men with pilot potential. Blackie passed all of the tests and was ready to enroll for pilots training. An unfortunate health issue kept him from attaining this goal.
When Blackie returned to the Blackfeet Nation, he developed a strong interest in tribal politics, which would provide him the opportunity to serve his people. He began running for council in 1948, which continued until 1964. Chief White Calf gave him a right of passage of the chieftainship of the Blackfeet Nation and named him "Siks-a-num," "Blackfeet man or man of the Blackfeet people." "Siks-a-num" served as chairman of the Blackfeet Nation and was also elected president of the National Congress of American Indians in 1961. His exploits within the government circles allowed him to make contacts with many great leaders of our country. One of them, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whom Blackie named "High Eagle," became a personal friend of Blackie's.
Blackie learned the power of prayer at a young age, spent several hours a day praying for all his family, extended family and friends. Our greatest gift will be to carry on this tradition of prayer.
Blackie was preceded in death by his wife Doris; daughter, Helen; son-in-law, Manuel White; and granddaughter Susan. His five sons, Bill, Walt, Don, Mike and Lance; three daughters, Marlene, Christine and Sharon; 26 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren survive him.
Visitation will begin Tuesday, Nov. 11, at noon, at Retz Funeral Home. A Vigil service will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, at the Cathedral of St. Helena. A Rosary service will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 12, at the Glacier Homes Community Center in Browning. Mass of Christian Burial will be 2 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13, at the Little Flower Parish in Browning. Interment will follow at Willow Creek Cemetery.
Memorials in Blackie's name may be sent to PO Box 5293, Helena, MT 59604.