HELENA — When Lance Wetzel attended a Washington Redskins game in 2018, he made sure to walk down to the field.
As he looked at the midfield logo, he was reminded of his father.
“It was emotional,” Wetzel reminisced. “It brought me back to all the times we watched the Redskins play. It’s his logo.”
Wetzel’s father, Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation and was eventually was elected president of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington DC. He was instrumental in the Redskins’ franchise’s logo change from an “R” to the current depiction of a Native American.
But now, the Wetzel family’s connection to the franchise is slipping away.
The Washington Redskins are in the process of rebranding, dropping any Native American depiction or name in light of recent events.
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FedEx threatened to pull its name from the Washington Redskins’ home stadium in Landover, Maryland if the name redskins isn’t changed, ending a $205 million naming right deal with six years remaining on the current contract. Other major sponsors, such as Nike and PepsiCo, have also pressured the team.
Following an extensive review, multiple news outlets such as ESPN and CBS Sports have stated that a name change will happen over the next few days and the team will drop all Native American themes or imagery.
“It’s disheartening,” said Lance Wetzel, who resides in Helena and is an assistant basketball coach for Helena High. “I wish they really would have considered at least sticking with the imagery. It’s a depiction of a real Native American. It’s not a cartoon type character like the (MLB’s) Cleveland Indians.”
Lance Wetzel said that he has had very minimal contact with the Washington Redskins other than a discussion to inform him of the name change.
“As a kid growing up and being a Redskins fan, I’ve always seen that logo,” Lance Wetzel said. “Everyone I’ve been in contact with on the reservation has been positive (about the logo’s depiction). They think that’s my team because it’s a Native American.”
Lance Wetzel’s cousin, Donnie Wetzel, who resides in Montana City, said he is happy to see the name go but he would like to see the imagery preserved.
“It’s a connection I have with my grandfather,” Donnie Wetzel said.
While the term ‘redskins’ has been controversial with Native Americans protesting at NFL games all over the country and even during the 1992 Super Bowl in Minnesota, the Wetzels agree that the name should be dropped because of the changes happening in today’s society, but not because they feel there is any negative connotation associated with the term.
“When I heard the term redskins growing up, never did I associate it with anything derogatory, and I don’t think (the NFL’s Washington Redskins) used it in that way,” Lance Wetzel said. “My dad was born on the reservation and never once did I hear him say anything negative about the name.”
Donnie Wetzel said his problem with the general term redskins is that it tries to group all Native Americans together as one group.
“Every tribe is unique, even with their own specific languages,”l said. “They have their own cultures and ceremonies. You can’t categorize all the folks in European countries as white people. There are Britains, there are Germans, but people seem to do that with (Native Americans). ”
The Washington Redskins is not the only professional sports franchise with Native American themes attached, but members of the Wetzel family said the franchise has at least made an attempt to educate its fans.
Over the past few years, the Washington Redskins have brought in Blackfeet tribal hand drum, Blackfeet singers and shared that imagery with the fans.
“As you continue to educate people about our tribe and they get a taste of what the beauty of our people is about, they start to look at things differently,” Donnie Wetzel said. “The logo was just one example. Most people still think the Blackfeet people live in teepees and live off the land. I just hope the efforts our people have taken on fighting the name - I hope they take the same enthusiasm and unity to get our government to fulfill the treaty obligations for our tribes.”
Jake Wetzel, one of the younger Wetzel family members, is currently pursuing his master’s degree in social work from the University of Montana.
Much like his uncles, he recognizes that times are different than when the logo was introduced in 1972, but he knows a lot of native people who take pride in wearing the logo.
“It truly shows who my people are,” he said. “It would be really sad to see it go because the NFL is such a big platform and that gives the blackfeet tribe recognition.”
The Washington Redskins name and logo that features a blackfeet warrior inside a circle with two feathers has probably seen its last NFL game.
But, no matter what the franchise changes its name to, the Wetzels are proud that the blackfeet tribe was honored for almost 40 years.
“It depicted Native Americans in a different way,” Lance Wetzel said. “It gave them a face because the Native American population is very low compared to other races. They are the forgotten race when you look at it nationally.”
Lance Wetzel will still be fan. He will follow the players and turn on NFL Sunday Ticket to watch Washington.
But it won’t be the Redskins.
“I won’t ever have those same feelings I had ever again,” Lance Wetzel said. “It won’t be the same.”
The Washington Redskins franchise could not be reached for comment.