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Identity, argues many scholars, is shaped by cultural, legal, and social influences. They argue we are not born with an identity; rather, it is a game that we play - a game of expectations and influences. It has an unwritten rulebook, and everyone plays differently.
The 1924-26 University of Wyoming Cowboy football coach Lone Star Dietz is a lesson in the complexities of Native American identity—or any identity, for that matter.
Henry “Lone Star” Dietz’ identity began with football. He first learned football at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School under Coach Pop Warner from 1909-1912. Carlisle was a federal Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania meant to assimilate Native Americans into white culture. One of the 20th century’s most celebrated athletes, Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox Nation), was team captain. Dietz went on to coach at Washington State, Purdue, Louisiana Tech, Wyoming, and Haskell, as well as the Boston Redskins Football shaped the rest of Dietz’s life.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the horrors of Carlisle and the many other boarding schools, the Carlisle Indians football team created modern football. Coach Warner saw the running prowess of the young men and applied this to the game of football. He had the team take a crouching start—the first use of the three-point stance. The Carlisle team turned football into a running game. They invented other moves such as the body block, single and double wing-back formations, the hand-off fake, and spiral passing. The team pummeled the likes of Cornell, Penn, and Harvard. Carlisle emphasized the importance of team sports as a means to introduce discipline into the minds and bodies of the Native students.
Instead, the Native students found a vehicle to express resistance and their cultures within the confines of the game. They shaped the modern game of football, but their contributions are largely forgotten. While the Carlisle Indian football team were meant to assimilate through sport and discipline, they exercised agency to shape their own football identity. Dietz identified himself as a quarter Sioux. Julia One Star, his mother, was half Sioux and his father was German. He took the name “Lone Star” from an uncle of the same name who traveled as a performer in Wild West Shows. In 1919 Dietz, was put on trial for evading the WWI draft. Native Americans were not legally identified as United States citizens until 1924. Dietz registered as a “Non-Native Citizen” to avoid the draft. He was charged with faking his Indigenous heritage and spent a month in jail. Dietz’ identity (or according to some, his persona) was defined by laws of blood quantum and citizenship.
Dietz was a successful coach, but he had many other identities. His college teams won 105 games and lost 60. A 1924 Laramie Boomerang article said of the UW coach, Dietz is “enough a believer in psychology to assert that he will install in the minds of his players the theory that one can make a man believe anything of himself if he wants to.” Besides being a successful coach, he was also an accomplished commercial artist, Hollywood actor, fashionable dresser, and breeder of Russian wolfhounds. Although he often donned Native regalia and headdress, he identified as his own man.
Dietz was multifaceted, but he was reduced to caricature. He is said to be the “inspiration” for the Washington Redskins. In 1933, Dietz began coaching professional football for the Boston Braves, which later became the Boston Redskins and then the Washington Redskins. Public controversy about the pejorative name and image began as early as the 1990s with protest first from Native American, followed by Native American allies. In defending the racist mascot, the franchise justified itself as paying homage to its past Native coach. It was not until the George Floyd protests and riots that major sponsors like Nike, FedEx, and PepsiCo put pressure on the franchise. The death of a man lead to the death of a mascot. It is only recently that the team became the Washington Commanders.
Despite his achievements, Dietz died a poor and forgotten man. A 2013 a Washington Post article, “The Legend of Lone Star Dietz: Redskins namesake, coach—and possible imposter?” opened dramatically at Dietz’s final resting place. “Here lies the celebrated Lone Star Dietz — in a donated cemetery plot, aside a back road, under a drooping evergreen. A simple marker, paid for by friends, bears only one word that hints at his legend: ‘Coach’.” It is striking that of all of the things that could have been put on his epitaph, only one word was used to identify him.
Lone Star Dietz still coaches us in understanding one’s complicated relationship with society.