Billings, Mont. – On the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 9, hundreds of Natives from across Montana gathered at Petro Theatre at Montana State University Billings to celebrate the legacy of Montana Indian athletes, specifically those who were previously inducted into the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame but were only provided a certificate.
The event was officially tabbed as an “Inductee Celebration and Awards Ceremony (2007-2014)” and inductees were honored with a plaque and, for those inductees in attendance (or their families), with a moment on the Petro stage to bask in an extra slice of glory. The organization, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, was founded by the late Don Wetzel, Sr. (who passed away in March), a former standout Montana Grizzly basketball player and Blackfeet member known as “Flying Eagle,” and began inductions in 2007.
Carrying the torch is his son, Donnie Wetzel Jr., who shared the stage with the official master of ceremonies Gayle Skunkcap. Skunkcap, a familiar voice in the northern plains pow-wow circuit, humorously observed that this event “was one of the best turnouts and we have food now."
The ceremony began with an invocation by 1972 Lodge Grass High School graduate Larry Blacksmith and coincided with Native-themed high school basketball tournaments at the First Interstate Arena and Lockwood High School, along with the second match-up in the “Rimrock Rivalry” between the MSU-Billings and Rocky Mountain College men’s and women’s basketball games – this time played at Alterowitz Gymnasium. The Black Whistle drum group then took stage to perform a flag song and victory song.
Congratulatory video clips from Montana’s U.S. Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester were shown. Skunkcap then asked if there were any tribal leaders in attendance, and after a few moments a tribal councilwoman stood up, thereby avoiding a shutout. There were no dignitaries from the State of Montana present.
Altogether, there were seven rodeo athletes honored, five runners, four football players, four coaches, two multi-sport athletes, and 20 basketball players – perhaps reflecting the unrivaled popularity of hoops in Indian country.
Additionally, there were four teams recognized, the 1967 Saint Labre boys basketball State class C champion team and 1977 State class B champion team, along with the 1904 Fort Shaw Indian School’s “world basketball championship” team and the 1975 National Indian Activities Association men’s basketball champion team.
Basketball, indeed, reigns supreme on and near Montana’s Indian reservations, especially at Crow. A large contingent of the family of late Crow basketball legend Larry Pretty Weasel's (induction class of 2007) family accepted the plaque in his memory, and several other Crow basketball legends, Elvis Old Bull (2008) Jonathan Takes Enemy (2008), Sam Horn (2007), Luke Spotted Bear (2008), Gordon Real Bird, Sr. (2009) and Tom Yarlott (2014), were also honored. Other notable local inductees included dual-sport (football, basketball) Rocky Mountain College standout Kenny Big Back (Northern Cheyenne, 2014), along with rodeo legends Glenn Fritzler and Del Fritzler (Crow, 2009).
Wetzel announced to those in attendance that nominations are actively being solicited by the hall of fame, but also reminded that there is a review process and “that we all know the older we get, the better we were."
Wetzel also noted that the organization’s website would be soon be featuring storytelling video clips. The hall of fame ceremony was videorecorded and will be made available on the website, along with highlights on the official Facebook page.
Following the presentations, much of the crowd migrated to the nearby Glacier Room for visiting and food – the quintessential Native pastime. Notably, prior to handing out the induction plaques, Wetzel explained that he had each plaque custom made by a Montanan who was apparently a heavy cigar smoker as Wetzel joked that the plaques would smell strongly of cigar smoke.
Perhaps it is fitting that these awards, given to the most successful of Montana’s Native athletes who attained high levels of success despite almost uniformly facing obstacles and challenge, would be infused with tobacco smoke.