On any list of great Indian athletes in Montana, Don Wetzel Sr. certainly ranks near the top.
The Cut Bank native and enrolled Blackfeet earned many firsts in the mid-1960s as a three-time all-state basketball player and champion boxer, hurdler and high jumper.
Wetzel is widely considered the first Indian basketball player of statewide renown in Montana. He also was the first enrolled member of a Montana tribe to receive an NCAA Division I basketball scholarship and complete all four years of eligibility, earning team Most Valuable Player honors his senior season at the University of Montana.
A half-century after all his exploits, Wetzel's mission, along with his son Donnie Jr., is to keep Indian sports legends and stories alive through the creation in 2007 of the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. Today both Wetzels live in Helena, where Donnie is American Indian Youth Development Coordinator.
Before last week's Hall of Fame induction of 17 individuals and two basketball teams during a ceremony at Montana State Billings, the Wetzels sat for a one-on-one conversation with Lee Montana executive sports director and Billings Sports Talk host Jeff Welsch on ESPN 910 in Billings. Topics ranged from the Hall of Fame to life growing up on the reservation in the 1960s and the controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins nickname and logo, designed by Wetzel's father, Walter "Blackie" Wetzel.
JW: What were the origins of the Hall of Fame and what is its mission?
DON SR.: Well, I went to Lodge Grass and was on this Mean Streets TV show, and I spoke to the Lodge Grass students on issues I was concerned with — I spoke to every reservation in Montana after I lost Gary Cross Guns in Browning to a car accident. But in Lodge Grass I remember everybody getting interviewed and they said, 'What happens is champions go and win these titles and come home and within a short period of time people forget that.' Then I had kind of a dream. I hated to say the word failure when I was interviewed by NBC. I couldn't do it. So I talked to my father, Walter "Blackie" Wetzel, and said I'm thinking about an Indian Hall of Fame and of course he agreed. And in 2007 we got things started, thanks to Donnie.
JW: When you began, were you able to find the stories or were they lost to history?
DON SR.: They're still out there. What you have to do is just keep digging. I'm talking to anyone I can and when I do I start hearing these unbelievable stories. The first group in 2007 was Larry Pretty Weasel and Pete Conway. Maybe 40 people showed up and we just stuck with it. It’s been grasped onto by the Indian people. We’ve got mothers calling us in tears saying, 'I couldn’t believe this happened at this time. We were all kind of down and the Hall of Fame popped up.' It’s bringing people up. It’s been positive.
JW: Don, you played in the mid-60s. What was it like to be Native and play sports at the time?
DON SR.: “I remember signs in the '50s saying, 'No Indians or dogs allowed.' You had to break through that. Living on the rez outside of Cut Bank we didn't have nothing, but geez, I made a granary and a basket and shot six hours a day. So when I hit Catholic school in Cut Bank I really tore them up. I didn’t let BS bother me. There was something about champions. There’s an inner something that won’t let you quit. I couldn’t quit, and I don’t know where in heck I got that. I wasn’t a jock or anything. I just stayed focused and went to university. And as I've said before, I never ran into racial comments except in my own locker room. We just kind of blasted through that time. John Kennedy getting killed, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King … I couldn’t focus on the BS so I just kept moving.
JW: You weren't just a gym rat.
DON SR.: I'd get up at 5 or 4:30, feed the cows. We had no indoor plumbing – I didn’t have TV or nothing my first 18 years — and I’d crank up the tractor and go feed cows. I'd get on a bus and head to school and to church, then to the gym, where if I was missing from class they knew where to find me.
JW: You were the first Native athlete in Montana to play four years for a Division I school. What was the environment like being a college basketball player from the reservation?
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DON SR.: I've thought about that quite a bit. People don’t know, but I was rez kid, born on Seville Flat. I wanted to get out of there. I was focused and just blazed through that high school time and at the university. You had Vietnam going on and at the university we went through three head coaches in four years. I went to the old gym a lot and just stayed focused, but with the Vietnam War — people have to listen to classic rock and roll music to get this stuff — it was a difficult time losing friends over there.
JW: How did you get through it?
DON SR.: We were coming from a pretty tough era there, and I had people saying I wasn’t going to make it. I think you set your goals, and that’s what I did. Tribal members supported me and I thought, 'Geez, I can’t let these people down.' Now you're finding if kids quit, a lot of them will go home because they’re kind of accepted. The families accepted them, they were lonesome, all this stuff. I didn’t have much of a girlfriend, and a lot of them leave because of girlfriends. It's just something you have to fight through.
JW: Were you tempted to go home?
DON SR.: Oh yeah, darn right I was. l was tempted to go back and work on the oil rigs. I got the Cut Bank feeling, and Browning was right there. It was tough. But I had a dream to get through college and come back and help my reservation. I kept that dream and kept firing at it like a maniac.
JW: Switching topics, your father, Blackie Wetzel, designed the current logo for the Washington Redskins, and you have a unique take on the nickname's controversy.
DON SR.: Walter "Blackie" Wetzel was an outstanding athlete at Browning High School on Blackfeet Reservation ... and a tribal chairman. The day President Kennedy was killed (1963) my dad I believe was on his way to Portland to meet him. So one day he was walking off the field in Washington, D.C., and happened to look over at one of the Redskins players and they had an arrow on the helmet then. He finds an all-pro linebacker and says, 'If you’re going to represent the Indian people, you’ve got the wrong logo. If you’re going to represent the red nation, do it right.' The guy set him up with (owner) Jack Kent Cooke. So Blackie says, I don’t think you have the right logo. Kent Cooke looks at him and says, 'All right, bring me what you think.' So they got six reservations across the nation to submit artistry and did it right. (Coach) George Allen was there and the one they picked up was Blackie's, which was painted by a Blackfeet artist. Boom, George Allen said, 'This is the one I want. This is a warrior, this is a strong damn presence.' So that’s how that happened.
JW: The Redskins nickname is not offensive to you. Why?
DON SR. It’s just like everything else in Montana, you have to study stuff. When I used to speak at schools, you’d ask, 'How many reservations are in Montana? Kids didn’t know that. How many tribes? Kids didn’t know that. When you study stuff you know the Redskins name came from Carlisle (Indian School in Pennsylvania), from Jim Thorpe, and my cousin Sampson Bird, and an Indian coach. They said, 'Why don’t we be the Carlisle Redskins?' Now, Jim Thorpe is the greatest athlete in the history of the nation and I honor that. I know I’m going to catch flak, but some pretty powerful Indian athletes were involved in that. (North Dakota) Fighting Sioux or (Florida State) Seminoles, I know of people in Indian country are kind of proud of that. We didn’t mind it. And we've got a lot of Montana ties to that logo.
JW: Are any of the Indian nicknames or mascots offensive?
DONNIE JR.: I kind of go a little bit of a different way with all these things. Chief Wahoo (Cleveland Indians mascot) is very offensive I think. In the work I'm doing right now with students and diverse groups across Montana, I've been interested in talking with youth because when America was created it was categorized in colors. No other place in the world categorizes in black, white, red and these things. You go to Europe and they say, 'I’m German, I’m Irish.' And our tribal nations are like that. I’m Blackfeet, Pikani; I’m Crow, Apsaalooke. That’s a tough discussion. I think the movement is coming around where people are starting to look at where they come from and their roots.
JW: What is it about basketball that is so appealing to the tribes?
DONNIE JR.: I think there’s an equal playing field. You don’t need infrastructure, you don’t need money, you don’t need a lot of things. You just need drive. And it's such a team sport. In Indian country there is not a lot of individuality; you do everything for people. You come together for a unified goal, and that’s basketball. Our people are strong and connected, and basketball is the epitome of that. It’s so powerful.