On the sidelines, the sad symbol of a sorry tradition

Chief Zee, unofficial mascot of the Washington Redskins, wept when Art Monk was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Chief Zee, unofficial mascot of the Washington Redskins, wept when Art Monk was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Preston Keres/the Washington Post)
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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Poor Chief Zee.

As the "unofficial" mascot for the Washington Redskins during the past 31 years, he has suffered more than enough. His leg was broken. An eye was nearly punched out by a Philadelphia Eagles fan. He lost to the Baltimore Ravens' "Poe" bird in last year's Most Fierce Mascot competition and, before that, was rejected for the Mascot Hall of Fame.

His tomahawk has been stolen, his big toe amputated, and now, at age 68, he can be seen trolling the sidelines for cheers in a motorized scooter.

In many ways, Chief Zee's travails mirror those of the team, now 2-4 after Sunday's loss to Kansas City. But while watching fiascos on a football field may be masochistic, watching Zee calcify into some cigar store Indian on the sidelines is downright sickening.

Surely a friend would tell Zee -- whose real name is Zema Williams -- to hang up the war bonnet and take a seat in the 21st century.

Times are changing.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to hear a lawsuit arguing that the "Redskins" trademark violates standards of decency. And the U.S. Senate passed a resolution this month recognizing "years of official depredations, ill-conceived policies, and the breaking of covenants by the federal government regarding Indian tribes." An apology was made for "the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on native peoples."

Washington could help make the proclamation more sincere by changing the team name -- and retiring Chief Zee. Set him up in a box seat with a plate of hot wings and a new tomahawk.

The embarrassment has lasted far too long. Having a black man hobbling around on national TV in an Indian costume trivializes both of America's original sins -- the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of indigenous peoples. At least get him out of the public eye.

Those who want to keep the team's racist name are quick to say it's honorific, a term of endearment that shows respect for Native Americans. And yet, inadvertently though it may be, Chief Zee stands as pitiful proof to the contrary. How can supporters of the name claim to care about indigenous peoples when they care so little for the Indian caricature of their own making?

The team didn't even give Zee season tickets until a few months ago -- after he underwent stomach surgery and it appeared that his days were numbered.

When medical bills came close to bankrupting Zee this month, a pub in Arlington County hosted a charity fundraiser for him. Some football players auctioned off a few items, and Zee was presented with a check at the end of the event.

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