Growing up in front of our television screens, we witnessed a parade of kayfabe Native characters and paradoxically viewed many Natives who were never billed as such, unlike Billy Two Rivers.
What can you say when two of the best-known “Native” performers were from Brooklyn and Bagdhad, respectively? Here we are referring, of course, to Chief Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf.
Billy Two Rivers –
War Chief Of The Mat
In the territory of my youth, there was a talent named Johnny War Eagle out of the Red Lake Reserve in Oklahoma. War Eagle spoke no English, doing all his interviews in French. We all know how much of a French hub the Sooner State is.
For every rule, there’s an exception. Billy Two Rivers is a bona fide Native and a man with many riveting stories to be told both inside and outside the squared circle. Billy Two Rivers came into this world on May 5th, 1935, in the town of Kahnawake, situated on the South Shore of Montreal. His athletic prowess was first noticed playing Lacrosse as a teenager.
The man who saw unlimited potential in Two Rivers was a Native Wrestler by the name of Don Eagle. His birth name was Carl Bell, and he also was a native of Kahnawake. Eagle became a legal guardian to Two Rivers at the age of sixteen. The game plan was to move to Columbus, Ohio, to break him in the wrestling game.
A freak injury suffered by Eagle at the hands of Québecois Hans Schmidt (kayfabe German) left Eagle on the sidelines for close to a year, which allowed him ample time to train his protegé.
Two Rivers had his first match in Detroit in 1953. And made an instant splash for all the wrong reasons. While attempting to leap over the ropes so as not to ruffle his ceremonial headdress, things failed to go as planned. He spoke about this as a feature on the APTN website dated April 7th, 2019 –
“My first time out there, my knees are knocking. So I went; I got up on the apron on the ring. I grabbed the top two ropes and vaulted. I was so nervous, and as I was clearing it, my toe caught the top rope.
Did you ever see a chicken fall into the ring? There I was on the mat on a pile of feathers. Well, I never lived that down for about ten years.”
Early on in his career, Two Rivers performed extensively in the Midwest and had a notable feud with Wild Bull Curry. The latter drew tremendous heel heat at that time. While not a huge man, Curry was frightening-looking and made Bruiser Brody look like circa 1978 Bob Backlund.
Billy Two Rivers would also tag with his mentor Don Eagle, primarily from 1956-1959. The duo faced such foes as Boris Malenko, Fritz Von Erich, and Ray Stevens. Championship gold came to Two Rivers in 1959 while joining forces with George Becker. They captured the NWA Southern tag team championship at that time. The same year turned out to be a watershed year for Two Rivers.
The Lucky Flip
He sought a change of scenery and was torn between wrestling for Stu Hart or crossing the pond and moving to the U.K. He settled this dilemma with a coin toss. It turned out to be one lucky flip.
The waters were bluer on the other side of the Atlantic. Two Rivers became a pop culture icon in jolly old England. In the early 1960s, television was growing in popularity, while broadcasters yearned to fill their schedules with accessible content.
Professional wrestling became the perfect fit. It is interesting to note that, at the time, entire families would like all clusters in the living room and watch one show. Try getting your older sister today to sit with you to watch Luther attempt to dissect Kipp Gunn.
Western movies were all the rage at the time. And Two Rivers captured the hearts of his viewing audience with his attire and Tomahawk chops. He was hailed as a good wrestler but a first-rate showman. Give the people what they want, as we say.
His notoriety even led to a song being released about him in 1998 by the band The Dogs D’Amour. Two Rivers also toured Europe and had an interesting exchange with a fan in Hamburg. The spectator in question called Two Rivers out for wearing Huron boots and a Blood Lake headdress while being of Mohawk lineage. The wrestler replied thusly (quoted by ATPN April 9, 2019) –
“I am a native North American Indian…I am an ambassador and represent people all over the country.”
After a tremendous run overseas, Two Rivers returned to North America in 1965. He retired in 1977 at the age of 42, with many projects in mind outside of the wrestling world. It is worth mentioning that throughout the first half of the 70s, he was a fixture on the Montreal-based Grand Prix Wrestling promotion run by Paul Vachon.
Two Rivers was a tag team specialist fighting alongside Johnny War Eagle. The pair won the tag belts in 1971 and were always in the upper echelons of the division.
Greater callings arose once his wrestling career came to an end. Upon the suggestion of his daughter, Two Rivers answered a call to become active in Mohawk affairs. He climbed the ranks and was named Council Chief to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake.
In the summer of 1990, he was instrumental in helping to put an end to what is referred to as the Oka Crisis. Two Rivers was involved in the negotiating process that put an end to a tense and lamentable chapter in our history.
The crisis itself lasted seventy-eight days, from July 11th until September 26th. At the heart of the matter was a decision by the city of Oka to build a golf course on a sacred burial ground. It had been used for centuries as such. When pleas were not heard, and no compromises were offered, there was a blockade that was erected in peaceful protest.
The protestors also blocked access to the Mercier Bridge. One of four bridges that link Montreal to its South Shore suburbs. The tensions were very palpable during the crisis, especially with the presence of the army and the Quebec Provincial Police.
While having traveled the world, Billy Two Rivers pointed out that the vilest racism he had ever witnessed was in his own backyard. When vigilantes sought to introduce their own brand of justice by pelting elders, children, and women with rocks at about the midpoint of the affair.
Again talking to APTN on April 9, 2019, Two Rivers said –
“There were fellows going out to the different businesses and saying come on out and let’s stop these Indians. The people, they didn’t care.”
Two Rivers contributed to the negotiation process that brought an end to this uncomfortable chapter. As the great mediator, Alan J. Gold, stated, “You know you have a good deal when at the end of the process, neither side is happy.”
He also took on projects outside of Native affairs and appeared in a few movies as well as the series Mohawk Girls. Two Rivers appeared as himself in the CBC docudrama series Indian Summer.
In the summer of 2017, Two Rivers was back in the news. When Irish icon Van Morrison used his image without his permission on a record entitled Roll With The Punches. This was nothing close to a wonderful night for a moon dance. Two Rivers sued, and the issue was settled out of court in no time. Triumph in compromise yet again.
While retiring at the young age of 42, Billy Two Rivers could have stayed on the scene for a longer time. But he felt his energies were better suited to what he felt were more pressing causes. At 85, he is still politically active. And we wish him a meaningful and fruitful quest as his journies carry on.
We have a lot to learn from him. In particular, in the realms of living boldly and standing up for what is just. These decisions are not always easy. But one cannot walk on eggshells to complete a journey on the road to fulfillment.