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Tenario, Ventura (Chief Little Wolf) (1911–1984)

by Barry York

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Ventura Tenario (‘Chief Little Wolf’) (1911-1984), professional wrestler and showman, was born on 25 November 1911 at Hoehne, Colorado, United States of America, second of four children of Porfirio (Joseph) Tenario, ‘half Navajo-half Spanish’, and his wife Soleila (Mary), née Senas, ‘a full-blooded Navajo Indian’. Tenario later claimed that the coyotes were howling when he was born and his mother turned to his father and said ‘look at our little loveto’ (little wolf). He and his siblings were raised in a straw-mud adobe, sleeping on a dirt floor that their mother ‘kept dustless and smooth’. Soleila’s death, when Ventura was around 12 years old, had a great impact, as did his father’s subsequent sale of the family ranch due to indebtedness.

As a young teenager, Tenario carried a bed-roll, ‘jumped rattlers’ and worked at a copper mine in Utah before joining a travelling carnival around 1926. He took on all comers in boxing and wrestling, developing notable cauliflower ears. Attracted to wrestling by a Sioux Indian wrestler named Ben Bolt, Tenario achieved his big break when he went to El Paso, Texas, and wrestled under the name ‘Little Wolf’ around 1929. He defeated an experienced Chinese-American grappler, Walter ‘Sneeze’ Ah Choo, earning the very large sum of $500.

Wrestling variously as Little Wolf, Ben or Benny Tenario, by 1935 he was ‘Chief Little Wolf’ and a contender for the US National Wrestling Association world heavyweight championship. In February he nearly claimed the title by default, when the legendary ‘Golden Greek’, Jim Londos, refused to turn up for a scheduled match against him. According to Tenario, the organisers offered him the title, but he refused to claim it without winning a bout. In July he challenged the new world champion Dan O’Mahoney (who had defeated Londos) in front of 12,000 people at New York’s Yankee Stadium. O’Mahoney was victorious, but Tenario’s success as a wrestler enabled him to buy a 500-acre (202-ha) ranch near Trinidad, Colorado, where he raised cattle and horses and grew sugar beet. He also owned a home in Glendale, California.

In 1937 Tenario came to Australia to wrestle for Stadiums Ltd, the first Native American to do so. He was now known as ‘Big Chief Little Wolf’. Tenario’s tough tactics, copper-toned skin, sparkling black eyes, bright flashing smile, loud gregarious personality and beautiful feathered headdress quickly made him a celebrity. His appearance and dynamic personality suited the theatrical aspects of professional wrestling. He returned again in 1939, 1940 and 1941 and, after a period of service in the US Army, toured annually from 1947 to 1952. He then settled permanently in Melbourne and combined wrestling with a tent-show that toured the country.

Tank-like in physique, Tenario weighed 244 pounds (111 kg) and was 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall with a 56-in. (142-cm) chest, 21-in. (53-cm) neck, and 42-in. (107-cm) waist. In Australia he met more than a hundred opponents in over a thousand contests, his bouts against the Texan cowboy ‘Dirty Dick’ Raines being the best remembered. He also took on Australian greats such as Leo Jensen, Bonnie Muir, Edward Scarf, Fred Atkins and Al Costello. When he retired from wrestling in November 1958, following a stroke, his name was synonymous with American catch-as-catch-can wrestling. The master of a submission leg-lock, the ‘Indian Death Lock’, Chief Little Wolf was inducted into New York’s Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1974.

Tenario thrived on, and possibly needed, the acceptance and adoration of others. He never declined requests for autographs, often signing them whimsically with ‘Here today gone tomorrow’, and happily posed for snapshots with admirers. A tireless worker for charities, he especially liked to visit the children’s wards of hospitals, performing Navajo dances and entertaining the young patients for hours without seeking any publicity. He possessed an enormous love for Australia and claimed in 1953 to have seen 75 per cent of the Australian people through his travelling show. A great self-promoter, he wore his head-feathers in public and had a caravan embossed with his portrait.

Married three times, Tenario came to Australia in 1937 with his first wife Irene, then in 1950 with his second wife, Dorothy Pratt, whom he had married in 1946. She had two children from a previous marriage. By 1952 he had married Australian-born Dona Corner, by whom he had a daughter, Markeeta. His decline was tragic and sad: a series of strokes paralysed half his body and he lived at the Mount Royal Special Hospital for the Aged, Parkville, from 1961 to 1980. A frail, physically twisted, wheel-chair-bound figure, he returned to the USA in 1980. Melbourne’s Age newspaper gave his departure front-page coverage, as he was still a much-loved and respected household name. Chief Little Wolf died on 13 November 1984 at Seattle, USA, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. York, ‘Big Chief Little Wolf’, Journal of Australian Studies, no 58, 1998, p 29
  • New York Times, 9 July 1935, p 36
  • Sporting Globe (Melbourne), 25 Aug 1937, p 14, 13 May 1953, p 16, 18 Sept 1974, p 36
  • Sports Novels (Sydney), July 1947, p 42, Dec 1948, p 20
  • People (Sydney), 8 Nov 1950, p 51
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Dec 1971, p 7
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 July 1980, p 1
  • private information.

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Citation details

Barry York, 'Tenario, Ventura (Chief Little Wolf) (1911–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tenario-ventura-chief-little-wolf-15813/text27012, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 6 December 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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