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On the sidelines, the sad symbol of a sorry tradition

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.

That was nice. But Zee still isn't doing well, physically or financially. On Sunday, he was back on FedEx Field lethargically chopping with that plastic tomahawk. He seemed dispirited, even before the team lost and his cheerleading was drowned out by boos from the home team's fans.

Kansas City and Washington are the only teams in the NFL with names that evoke Native Americans, and only Washington features a human mascot. The Chiefs did away with their faux Indian in 1986. They now have KC Wolf (Dan Meers anonymously tucked inside a wolf costume).

The wolf is in the Mascot Hall of Fame. He also won acclaim in 2007 after tackling a spectator who had run onto the field during a game, holding him until security arrived and then flexing his muscles to the roar of the crowd. Because of his popularity and a group of fanatical supporters known as the "Wolfpack," a change in the team's name from the Chiefs to the Wolves is no longer unthinkable.

As for Washington, it's not as if the football team hasn't made changes that reflect a more enlightened society. When owner George Marshall moved the team from Boston to Washington in 1936, he refused to hire black players because he wanted to draw more fans from the racially segregated South.

It took years of protests -- and the threat of losing his lease at RFK Stadium -- but Marshall finally acquiesced and hired Bobby Mitchell in 1962. The original team song said: "Fight for Old Dixie." But that, too, led to protests and was eventually changed to: "Fight for Old D.C."

Now, an end to the team's disparagement of Native Americans appears on the horizon.

Asked about his plans for the future, Zema Williams told an interviewer recently, "I'm leaning towards retirement, but I'm going to wait until the Redskins win another Super Bowl."

Poor Chief Zee.

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