Research Shows That Coach Who Was Inspiration For Redskins’ Name Might Have Fabricated Part-Indian Lineage

By Childs Walker
Updated: August 30, 2005

WASHINGTON — 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 façade 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.

Dietz, who was already claiming Indian lineage, provided illustrations for exhibits at the fair. Waggoner said One Star must have told his nephew’s tale to the young man.

All accounts agree that Dietz enrolled at Pennsylvania’s Carlisle School in 1907.

He eloped with Carlisle art instructor Angel DeCora the same year, and the two emerged as role models for the Indian community. Dietz often spoke with authority of what it meant to be Indian.

“Of all things the Indian has been, he has been, first of all, an artist,” he told Miller. “He lived with nature, he loved the wild things about him, the mountains, prairies, rivers, forests and all the wild creatures.”

He spoke disdainfully of whites depicting Indian culture. “The costumes are generally even more ridiculous than the disorderly hopping and whooping,” he said.

Dietz’s proclamations about the true nature of Indians were ironic, Waggoner said, because they coincided with his snatching James One Star’s identity.

Sioux heritage in doubt By the time Dietz surfaced at Carlisle, she says, he was telling the origin story in which his German father was captured by a Sioux war party in the Dakotas. The coach said his father endeared himself to the Sioux chief, Red Cloud, married an Indian woman and had two half-Indian children.

But Waggoner writes that such Sioux activity was long over by the time Dietz was born in 1884. Census records and a birth certificate show that Dietz lived in Rice Lake from infancy and never lived in the Dakotas, she said. His father was a village marshal, not an engineer.

Waggoner also says Dietz began claiming James One Star’s family as his own in the Carlisle years, listing Julia One Star as his mother.

Meanwhile, his fame spread. Though records show Dietz played football as early as 1907, he didn’t emerge as a star blocker until 1909. In 1911, he helped clear space for the great Thorpe, who made Carlisle a household name among sports fans.

At a smidge under 6 feet and 175 pounds, Dietz could hardly play cornerback, much less tackle, in the modern game. But in his day, his broad shoulders, long arms and thick hands made him a formidable specimen.

Employing Warner’s innovative offense, the backwater school with a mere 250 male students upended powerhouse squads like Harvard and Army.

“This was nowhere,” Benjey said, staring out at the Carlisle field where Dietz and Thorpe learned the single wing. “But it became the birthplace of modern football.”

If opposing teams could not slow Carlisle, the government did, cutting funding for the school’s athletic teams in 1914 and closing the school altogether in 1918.

Dietz didn’t stick around for the decline.

Wash. State success In 1915, he moved cross-country to coach Washington State, an agricultural school in tiny Pullman that hadn’t had a winning season in five years. But Dietz installed Warner’s vaunted offense and led his team to an upset over Brown in the 1916 Rose Bowl.

“Lone Star! Lone Star! Yip. Yip. You! How we love you! Oh, you Sioux,” the townspeople chanted as Dietz and his players paraded through Pullman.

Another undefeated season followed in 1917. Dietz’s three Washington State teams went a combined 17-2-1 and outscored their opponents by a combined 451–38.

“He took the players he found when he arrived and ran roughshod over the competition,” Benjey said.

“Of course, you heard nothing but admiration from those guys,” said Dick Fry, a former sports information director at Washington State who interviewed some of Dietz’s players. “He turned the team around so quickly.”

But Dietz’s 1920 conviction for draft evasion ended his tenure in Pullman and eliminated his chances of coaching at a high-profile school, Benjey said.

In Benjey’s version of the trial story, Dietz was eating at a Spokane restaurant when a fellow diner, J.C. Argell, scolded him for using too much sugar, a rationed product at the time. The men exchanged angry words.

After World War I broke out, Argell became head of the local draft board. He checked out Dietz, who had registered as a “non-citizen Indian.”

Armed with a Portland Oregonian story that said Dietz wasn’t really Indian, Argell had the coach indicted for draft evasion. Dietz tried to defend himself using records from the Carlisle school and his adopted mother’s testimony. But when a film company he had financed went belly up (the film, amazingly enough, was called Fool’s Gold), he had to give up the court fight and plead no contest.

This despite the fact he had been training for the Marines when indicted, Benjey said.

“He ran into a Spokane redneck,” said Washington State’s Fry. “What happened to him was totally unjustified.”

But in Waggoner’s telling, the trial exposed Dietz as a fraud.

James One Star’s sister testified at the trial that Dietz was not her brother. So did others from the Pine Ridge Reservation, his alleged birthplace.

Dietz’s mother, by contrast, said he was part Indian, the progeny of her German husband and an Indian woman. Dietz said her account was accurate.

The trial ended in a hung jury, but Dietz then faced a revised charge and, after pleading no contest, he was sentenced to 30 days in Spokane County jail in 1920.

The trial seemed to show that Dietz was not James One Star, as he had intimated, but not even Waggoner is sure what it says about his actual lineage.

Flamboyant to the end Dietz never stopped maintaining he was Indian. The coach spent the next two decades taking second- and third-tier jobs, from Louisiana Tech to the University of Wyoming to the Redskins, a struggling franchise in a pro league that hadn’t yet attained widespread popularity.

He remained flamboyant as coach of the Redskins, wearing a feathered headdress and a beaded war shirt to promote the franchise. But his teams went only 11-11-2 in 1933 and ’34.

Dietz’s last coaching tenure, at Pennsylvania’s Albright College, ended in 1942.

The name “Lone Star” is inscribed on his tombstone in Reading, Pa., where he died in 1964, clutching a poem penned by his old coach, Warner: When the game is pretty tough Don’t you ever holler ’nuff Show the world you have the stuff, Keep-a-goin A tidy sentiment, but few aspects of Dietz’s story come so neatly wrapped.

“Anything you read about Dietz is probably half off,” Benjey said. “Every day, it seems, I learn something new about him, and often, the truth makes the story even more interesting.”

On that, he and Waggoner agree.

“The fact is, this doubt makes him all the more fascinating,” she said. “That’s really the hook, that you can’t figure out what was going on. Who was this guy?”