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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 659

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This is the grave of William “Lone Star” Dietz.

Born in Rice Lake, Wisconsin in 1884 (the date on the grave is evidently wrong), Dietz was a white man. His father was a county sheriff and was white. His mother was also white. The reason this matters is that by the time Dietz was about 20, he started passing as Native. He went to Macalester College for a couple of years, playing football there in 1902 and 1903. but dropped out. In 1904, he is listed by name in a Washington Post, about all the wonderful Indian stuff one can see at the St. Louis World’s Fair. It described the art by the “full-blooded Sioux.” The history of whites passing as people of color is a strange one, but we know it happens somewhat frequently. The most recent famed case of this was the infamous Rachel Dolezal, who rose to civil rights movement leadership in Spokane claiming she was Black when she was not.

Of course with so much mixed blood in the United States, it isn’t always that hard for a white to pass as a person of color if they are really committed to it. And Dietz was. He attended Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma claiming to be one-quarter Dakota. He then went to Carlisle Indian School, where Dietz was a skilled football player on the same teams as Jim Thorpe. He was a good offensive tackle, playing from 1909-12. At least as early as 1912, he was speaking publicly about how stereotypical it was for Native women to be posing with features in their heads and in traditional costumes for whites, even though there are pictures of Dietz doing the same thing. No one is really sure why Dietz decided to pass as Indian. Some have speculated that the media coverage of Indian football teams may have been the reason and that he wanted to tap into that. Well, he certainly did while playing with Thorpe, who was a good friend, at least during those years. And evidently, because Carlisle was free, it was not unknown for white kids to claim Native heritage for the free education and change to play football. While at Carlisle, he married his art teacher, the famed Winnebago artist Angel De Cora who was 14 years older than he. Dietz then got a job teaching at Carlisle.

In 1915, Dietz was hired as the head football coach at Washington State University. It’s surprising that they would hire an “Indian” at that time and I’m not sure how that happened, especially since he hadn’t coached before. He coached there until 1917, winning the first ever Rose Bowl in 1916, defeating Brown. Pullman’s residents held a parade where the white people dressed in stereotypical Indian clothing and “Lone Star! Lone Star! . . . How we love you! Oh, you Sioux!”

By this time, his passing as Native was causing him problems. Former neighbors of his from Wisconsin heard about this due to the publicity from his successful coaching and told the media that he was German all the way. But still, a camp of Marines hired him to coach their football team in 1918. He already moved to Los Angeles, hoping to break into the movies as a “real Indian” for westerns. This was an era where lots of military bases had football teams that competed at a sort of college level. He did well, going 10-1.

But by this time, the U.S. was in World War I. Dietz registered for the draft as “Non-Citizen Indian.” Worse, he actually stole the identity of a Lakota man named James One Star to do so. One Star had disappeared in Cuba in 1894 and wasn’t around to say anything. He had picked up the name from One Star’s relative who was in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at the St. Louis World’s Fair. It wasn’t exactly called identity theft at this point, but it was illegal and he was charged by the government when they realized what he was up to. He was tried in Spokane in 1919. One Star’s sister came to the trial and testified that she had never seen this guy in her life. Others came out from Wisconsin to say they had witnessed his birth. But Dietz’s mother, trying to save her son from prison, lied to the jury, saying she had actually had a stillbirth and that her husband had acquired a Native baby to take its place. The judge, befuddled, told the jury that what mattered here was whether Dietz believed he was Native. The jury had no idea what to do and it was a hung jury. But the government immediately charged him again and he plead no contest and spent 30 days in the Spokane jail.

Despite this history, Dietz would actually have a very long college football coaching career. This despite the fact that for the rest of his life, he presented himself as “Lone Star” Dietz, the son of W.W. and Juila One Star of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Purdue hired him in 1921, but they fired him after a season for recruiting violations (some things never change in college football). He got a job at Louisiana Tech in 1922 and coached there for two years, as well as taking over the baseball team in 1923. He then coached at Wyoming from 1924-26 and Haskell Indian School from 1929-32.

In 1933, the owner of the Boston Braves, an NFL team owned by George Preston Marshall, hired Dietz to take over as coach. Marshall wanted to rename the team to get away from the baseball team it shared the name with. With Dietz on board, Marshall renamed the “Redskins” in honor of their “Real Indian” coach. It moved to Washington in 1937. Yes, that’s right, the Washington Redskins are named after a white man cosplaying as an Indian. Dietz recruited some Native American players to the team as well.

This remained core to the culture of the Washington Racists for a very long time. In 1988, the National Congress of American Indians attempted to meet with owner Jack Kent Cooke about this, but he refused. To this day, Daniel Snyder recognizes Dietz as an “Indian athlete.” In 2013, Snyder defended the name in a letter to season ticket holders by citing Dietz’s “heritage.” In 2004, Indian Country Today Media Network ran a series of articles going over all of this, but it made no difference to the football team, a bastion of racism from its beginning to the present. Phil Glover, a Paiute who has been a leader in trying to get the team’s name changed, has said of Dietz:

The whole notion of playing Indian matters to me in part because when non-Indian people misappropriate Native American culture, they use all the old tropes. They are all rooted in the idea of the noble savage or the warrior fighting the lost cause.

And given the logo the team used until just last week, one can see exactly how Dietz played into this for his own benefit.

Dietz coached the Redskins for two years, going 11-11-2. He got his last coaching job in 1937, with Albright College, where he stayed until 1942. His overall college record is 103-59-7, which is pretty good. In fact, in 2012, he was inducted into College Football Hall of Fame.

Dietz’s last years were not great. He divorced his first wife in 1918, claiming she had abandoned him (after she discovered he wasn’t Native, I’ll bet she did!) and she died of the Spanish Flu the next year. Then he married a local white journalist named Doris Pottlitzer. But they had no money after his coaching career ended. He tried to sell his paintings later in life and had minor success at times, but not enough to really break even. Dietz died of cancer in poverty in 1964. They were so poor that his former teammates had to pitch in for this modest grave.

William “Lone Star” Dietz is buried in Scharzwald Cemetery, Jacksonwald, Pennsylvania.

This grave visit was funded by LGM readers and if this bizarre tale isn’t a good reason to fund this series, I don’t know what it is. If you want this series to visit other whites who passed as Native, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Iron Eyes Cody, in fact an Italian-American named Espera DeCorti, is in Los Angeles and Asa Earl Carter, the former Klan leader who later passed himself as Forrest Carter, a Cherokee, and wrote the famous fraud book The Education of Little Tree, is in DeArmanville, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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