“Back then, the players would call me and say, ‘You want to do this, you want to do that,’ and they would get me paid on their appearances. But the new players, it don’t make no difference. That’s all right. I ain’t got no problem with that.”
He shows you a small gold ring with a three-millimeter black-and-white face inside it. “That’s my Mama’s mama, a full-blooded Seminole Indian,” says Williams, adding that she died when he was 3 years old. He can’t find any documented proof but says he is looking into it. (“I heard that,” Derrick says, a tad skeptical. “I don’t know about that, though.”)
Williams is told his predicament now does have similarities to the man known as the last wild Indian.
“Who’s that, Geronimo?”
No, his name was Ishi. Starving after his tribe and family had been killed, he emerged from the Northern California wilderness in 1911 to a modern culture he could not fathom or adapt to. Within five years, his immune system failed, and he died of tuberculosis.
Chief Zee is dying, too. Zema Williams just doesn’t know it. And as you spend time with this warm, old man who hugs you and tells you “God Bless You” after every exchange on the phone or in person, you don’t have the heart to tell him to his face.
“One little Indian, two little Indian, three little Indians,” he hums, chuckling. “I’m a dying breed, all right — the last person representing a team where you can actually see my face. The rest of ’em is all cartoon characters.”
He has to go back to Veteran’s Hospital for his cataract Wednesday. As long as he can see through one eye, he will be there Monday night.
“I feel like I’ll know when it’s time,” Zema Williams says. “I’m not changing. I can’t. I came in this way. I’m going out this way.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.