Heritage built on half-truth?

Redskins: Research shows that William `Lone Star' Dietz, the coach who was the inspiration for the NFL club's nickname, might have fabricated his part-Indian lineage.

Pro Football

August 30, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

It's a story accepted as gospel in Washington Redskins history.

In the early 1930s, when the franchise still called Boston home, owner George Preston Marshall had to drop the moniker "Braves" after leaving the stadium he shared with the town's moribund Braves baseball franchise.

So, seeking to honor his part-Sioux coach, William "Lone Star" Dietz, he re-christened his team the Redskins. Three years later, Marshall moved the club to Washington, and the rest is history.

Or so the story went until last year, when California multicultural studies professor Linda Waggoner began sniffing around Dietz's biography.

After examining correspondence, census and court records, Waggoner concluded Dietz was a white man who began taking on an Indian identity as a teenager and ultimately seized the past of a vanished Lakota tribesman and made it his own.

Her research first appeared last year in Indian Country Today, a newspaper targeted to American Indians.

The alleged deceit would come to haunt Dietz in 1920, when the coach was convicted of misrepresenting his identity on military draft documents.

"I think down at his base, he was an actor," said Waggoner, who stumbled upon the coach's story while studying Dietz's wife and the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska. "He was a very talented person, and he found ways to be loved and admired, and part of it was to create this persona."

So is it possible that the name that has drawn so much ire from Indian activists over the years is built on a faM-gade created by a white man?

It depends on how you look at it, said Tom Benjey, a Pennsylvania computer consultant and sometime college professor who has spent five years crisscrossing the country in pursuit of Dietz's true story.

Benjey doesn't dispute much of Waggoner's research, but he says there are enough gaps in the coach's biography that his true lineage may never be known. What seems clearer, Benjey says, is Dietz and those around him believed he was Indian.

"I don't think there's really any doubt that he was convinced," Benjey said. "White people at that time had no reason to take on an Indian identity. He would've had a whole lot easier life if he didn't."

No one disputes that Marshall thought Dietz was an Indian when naming the Redskins.

"To me, the central point with the naming issue is that Marshall thought he was Indian," Benjey says. "Whether he was or not, maybe that doesn't matter so much."

Redskins spokesman Karl Swanson said questions about Dietz's lineage are news to him, though the team has spent years deflecting political controversies around the name.

"My thought would be that as the coach of the team, he did play a role in the naming, and, at the time, we had every reason to believe he was Native American," Swanson said. "That's what little we know."

The club appeared to have fought off Indian activists' challenges to its trademark of the name. But the U.S. Court of Appeals gave the challenge new life in July when it said a lower court should give the matter another look.

Indian team names have been in the news since the NCAA ruled earlier this month that teams could not display Indian mascots in its postseason tournaments.

One man, two stories

Dietz's story is exciting enough without questions about its authenticity. He blocked for Jim Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian School, learned the single-wing offense at the knee of Glenn "Pop" Warner and coached Washington State to an improbable Rose Bowl victory. And that was just the football stuff.

He also illustrated newspapers, magazines and books, married a famous Indian artist, acted in silent films, wrote plays, raised prized Russian wolfhounds, sang on glee-club tours and endured a trial that disgraced his name.

He was a dandy, as likely to be photographed in a stovepipe hat and tails as in football gear.

The first written version of Dietz's origin appeared in 1912, penned by Carlisle publicist Hugh Miller. It was a tale later codified by John C. Ewers, a Smithsonian Institute ethnologist and noted Indian scholar.

In this telling, Dietz was born on a reservation in the Dakotas, the son of a German railroad engineer and a Sioux woman. His father then moved to Rice Lake, Wis., where the elder Dietz married a white woman.

Dietz was raised believing he was white. When he learned of his Indian origins, Miller writes, he ran away to the Rosebud Reservation, where he lived with an uncle named One Star. From there, he went to the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma and later to Carlisle.

But the legend of "Lone Star" covers only a part of his story, according to Waggoner.

Her version begins in the western Dakotas, with an Oglala boy named James One Star, who was born in 1872 and disappeared after military service in the early 1890s. James One Star was close to his uncle, known simply as One Star.

One Star, the uncle, attended the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, where Waggoner says he met a young artist, none other than William Dietz.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.