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Born to Be Wild, Ph.D.

How an Anthropologist Rode with a Tribe of Outlaw Bikers

A Conversation with Daniel “Coyote” Wolf

by Dick Teresi

The Story

On the evening of March 12, 1976, Daniel “Coyote” Wolf found himself in the parking lot of the Kingsway Motor Inn in south Edmonton, Alberta. He was nursing a swollen, black-and-blue right hand, injured the previous evening during karate practice, and was wondering how it was going to hold up in the imminent battle. He stood shoulder to shoulder with 22 members of the Rebels, the reigning outlaw motorcycle club of the Edmonton area, awaiting the onslaught of 40 members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. The Airborne, Canada’s elite paratroop fighting force, was there to expand its social territory to the Kingsway Motor Inn, for many years the Rebels’ club bar. To lose the bar to the Airborne would be a blow to the prestige of the Rebels MC that could send a message of vulnerability to rival clubs.

There was much at stake for Wolf in that parking lot: his physical well being, the territorial primacy of the Rebels, and, most important, his PhD dissertation.

Today Daniel R. Wolf is psychological anthropologist who has worked at the University of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, among other gigs; he is the only anthropologist ever to choose an outlaw motorcycle club as the topic of his doctoral study. In fact, Coyote — the name given to him by his Rebel brothers because he wore a coyote pelt over his helmet — was the first outsider of any sort to infiltrate an outlaw bike club. Police in the United States and Canada have never been able to get inside any of North America’s 900 outlaw clubs, which by definition are any clubs not registered with the American Motorcycle Association or Canadian Motorcycle Association. When Wolf outlined his plans to one intelligence officer, he was warned, “We’ve had two or three informants killed, found tied to trees up north with bullet holes in them.”

Outlaw clubs developed in the post-World War II era, when returning veterans, dissatisfied with pull-the-handle jobs in a newly bland society, sought the freedom and sensation afforded by being part of a large group of virile men on roaring, speeding Harley-Davidsons. The most famous outlaw clubs are the Hells Angels, Bandidos, and the Pagans. But other colorful groups have included the Galloping Gooses, Booze Fighters, Satan’s Sinners, and the Winos.

Wolf joined the Rebels MC (Motorcycle Club) of Edmonton while a doctoral graduate student in anthropology at the University of Alberta in the mid-1970s. Just as other PhD candidates itched to study Maori tribesmen, Wolf’s love of motorcycles and his personal background drew him to the “Harley tribe.” Brought up on the streets of a lower-class neighborhood, Wolf saw his best friend with whom he’d broken into abandoned buildings as a kid, sent to prison for grand auto theft, then shot down in an attempted armed robbery. “Rather than be crushed like that, I worked in meat-packing plants for thirteen hours a day and put myself through university. I also bought myself a British-made Norton motorcycle. I rode it in anger. For me it became a show of contempt and a way of defying the privileged middle class that had put me down, and kept my parents ‘in their place’.”

Wolf traded in the Norton for a 1955 Harley-Davidson panhead and then a ’72 Electraglide — a Harley is de rigueur among outlaw bikers — and set off to join Caveman, Blues, Tiny, Wee Albert, Slim, Whimpy, Voodoo, Indian, Armand, Crash, Big Mike, Smooth Ed, Snake, Dale the Butcher, Saint, Terrible Tom, and the other members of the Edmonton Rebels. His resulting dissertation was the first of its kind. The biker subculture had been ethnographically unexplored, and Wolf eventually turned it into a popular book, The Rebels (University of Toronto Press), that reads like a cross between Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Lionel Tiger’s Men in Groups.

A sampling of outlaw club consitutions gives a pretty good picture of biker life itself. For example: Hells Angels bylaw No. 3 states: “No explosives of any kind will be thrown into the fire where there is one or more Hells Angels in the area. Fine: Ass-whipping and/or subject to California [bike club] President’s decision.” Yet Wolf found that outlaw society did not respect overt violence or brawn over brains. In fact, he saw some bikers rejected by the Rebels because they were too quick with their fists. Which is not to say fighting skills are irrelevant, which brings us back to the battle at Kingsway Motor Inn.

Despite being outnumbered 40 to 23, the Rebels prevailed over the Airborne. The paratroopers came with nunchaku (karate sticks), a steel bar attached to a chain, a blackjack, a baseball bat, and more. A few Rebels had chains and tire irons, but most were unarmed. One wielded an old motorcycle battery. But the Rebels attacked together, “with the viciousness of cornered animals,” in Wolf/Coyote’s words. The Airborne, soldiers trained in unarmed combat, weaponry, and riot control, dispersed when they saw a number of their fellows being beaten. Said Wolf: “They had not yet endured and shared enough to cement those ties of comradeship that result in members presuming, and acting upon, a principle of self-sacrifice. The Airborne may have been the finest in discipline, but they had not yet learned to look out for each other under fire” — thus proving brotherhood is powerful.

Wolf was interviewed on Prince Edward Island by Dick Teresi, a science writer and editor of VQ, a magazine for Harley-Davidson aficionados. Says Teresi: “I interviewed Wolf on the lawn of Dalvay-by-the-Sea, a sumptuous inn overlooking the four-star beaches on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The ambience was significantly altered by the thousands of tiny turds at our feet, the result of a flock of extravagantly truculent geese who honked and fought hither and yon across the inn’s lawn. As the geese acted out a primordial Lorenzian tableau of aggression and territoriality, Wolf and I talked about turf wars, motorcycles, outlaw alienation and pride, biker mamas and ol’ ladies, club colors and patch-pullings, and an emotional togetherness among males unheard of in the straight world.”

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