Senator wants Washington Commanders to pay tribute to an old logo that offends many Indigenous

After a half century of activism, many Native Americans thought a bitter debate over the capital’s football mascot was over two years ago when the team became the Washington Commanders.

The organization left behind the racist slur “redskins” as its name and retired the logo that was closely tied to that name: the profile of a Native man with long hair and two feathers.

Now, a white Republican U.S. senator from Montana is reviving the debate by blocking a bill funding the revitalization of the decrepit RFK Stadium for the Commanders, who have been playing miles away in Maryland. Sen. Steve Daines says he will block the legislation until the NFL and the Commanders honor the former logo in some form.

Daines declined Associated Press requests to explain his stance or respond to criticism from Indigenous people who say such efforts are rooted in racism.

The original logo was designed by a member of the Blackfeet Nation in the state of Montana. Some tribal members take pride in it and the legacy of the man who helped design it in the early ’70s — Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, a former Blackfeet Nation tribal chairman and former president of the National Congress of the American Indian, the country’s oldest Native American and Alaska Native advocacy organization.

Wetzel’s family says Daines and Wetzel’s son Don, who died last year at 74, formed a friendship that may be fueling the senator’s fight for the logo.

Indian Country is typically a bipartisan topic in Congress.

Daines sits on the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs and has worked with Democratic colleagues on clean-water access for tribal communities. He has supported the passage of a truth-and-healing commission to investigate the history of Indian boarding schools, a bill carried by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Daines has also used the policy area to take jabs at the Biden administration and was one of the fiercest opponents to the nomination of Deb Haaland, the first Native American to run the Department of the Interior.

He accused her of being hostile to the energy and natural-resource extraction industries and said she would use the appointment to “negatively impact the Montana way of life.” In May, he blocked the nomination of the woman who wanted to be the first Native American federal district court judge in Montana. Daines said the Biden administration did not consult with his office about the nomination, a claim the White House disputes.

Daines said in a prepared statement that he would hold up the stadium legislation until representatives of the Washington Commanders and the NFL show that they’re working with the Wetzel family and leaders of the Blackfeet Nation to find a way to “honor the history of the logo and heritage of our tribal nations and to rededicate the organization as an advocate for Indian Country.”

For many Indigenous peoples, the team’s original name and logo represent an ugly history of racial discrimination and violence, as well as modern-day battles over ethical representation of Native Americans in popular culture. The National Congress of the American Indian, the organization that Walter Wetzel once led, has fought since 1968 to remove mascots like that one. Numerous psychological studies have shown the harmful impacts that Native American mascots have on children.

Founded in Boston in 1932, the football team had a Native American man as its mascot, but after moving to Washington D.C. in 1937, the logo was changed to a spear, later an “R” adorned with two feathers.

Walter Wetzel had been working for the Department of Labor to address housing and employment disparities in Indian Country and worked closely with President John F. Kennedy, and was friends with him and Robert Kennedy. Wetzel worked with the football team to redesign its logo. He felt that, if the team was going to have a Native American-themed mascot, it should at least be a representative image, said his grandson Ryan Wetzel.

Walter Wetzel suggested a profile of a former Blackfeet chief, John Two Guns White Calf. A likeness of that image would be used from the 1972 season until it was retired in 2020.

“I understand the controversy of the name, I get it,” Ryan Wetzel said. “I come from a family that is divided with the name. But the logo, how can we still keep that and use that moving forward?”

Ryan Wetzel said that in his final years his father Don had an amputated leg but still showed up regularly on Capitol Hill to find support for preserving the logo, and Daines took ahold of that cause. Daines reached out to Ryan Wetzel after his father died last year to see if he could help revive the effort to restore the logo in some way.

A spokesperson for Daines said talks with the Washington Commanders on a way to honor the Wetzel family are ongoing and productive. In his statements during a May committee hearing on the RFK stadium bill, Daines suggested that the logo could be revitalized to sell merchandise, and a portion of the profits could go toward issues like the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

But Native American advocates and researchers say use of the old logo is an inappropriate and harmful path to achieving justice and equity for Indigenous peoples. No matter how the image was chosen, it cannot be separated from the racial slur it once promoted, said Crystal Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation and the founder and CEO of IllumiNative, a nonprofit that works to increase the visibility of Native Americans. She called the former logo a “dog-whistle” to the team’s former name.

“The science underscores the detrimental impact these images have on Indigenous peoples,” said Dr. Stephanie Fryberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and one of the country’s leading experts on the topic.

Fryberg, who is a member of the Tulalip Tribe in Washington State, said the use of these mascots leads to heightened rates of depression, self-harm, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation, particularly among children.

“The continued use of these racist images prevents Native Americans from existing and being honored within contemporary social contexts,” she said.

In Montana, some Blackfeet Nation council members wonder why so little of the millions of dollars the football team generated off the image of White Calf and designed by a former Blackfeet Nation chairman never made it back to the Blackfeet people.

Decades ago, the football team donated a couple of vans to help transport Blackfeet elders to a nearby VA facility, said Blackfeet Nation Councilman Everett Armstrong, but he was unaware of any other resources or revenues that had been shared with the tribe. A spokesperson for the Washington Commanders was unable to provide any other examples but said the team is in talks with the Wetzel family.

There are strong feelings about the logo and its legacy on the reservation, said Armstrong. But one group feels left out of the discussion entirely: the descendants of White Calf.

They were not consulted in the 1970’s about the use of his image and have never been asked about it since, said Armstrong, a descendant of White Calf himself.

“They’d like a seat at the table,” he said.


Brewer is an Oklahoma City-based member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.

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