It’s an act also not selling like it used to. People are backing away from Chief Zee these days.
He once made $1,500 for a two-hour personal appearance in Richmond with Bruce Smith and Art Monk. Now it’s down to Greene Turtle in Olney on game day for “a few dollars and dinner.”
“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.
Should Redskins Mascot Chief Zee Know Better Because He's Black?
In yesterday'sWashington Post,a story appeared about Chief Zee, the African-American Redskins fan who has been the team's semi-official mascot for 35 years. The profile was written by Mike Wise, a clear advocate of changing the Washington team's name and a thorn in the side of the fans who are dead-set against the change.
The profile wasn't kind to Chief Zee, whose real name is Zema Williams. Here are some of the zingers from Wise:
• "[Chief Zee's] one-man, self-anointed tribe is nearing extinction."
• "In some ways, it’s as if Archie Bunker or Amos and Andy were hurled forward in time, not sure what to make of all these hypersensitive, politically correct folk who want them gone."
• "Trying to enlighten him is like trying to enlighten your half-cocked, old-head uncle who uses racial epithets at Thanksgiving dinner. At some point, you either let him eat or kick him out."
• "Chief Zee is dying ... Zema Williams just doesn’t know it."
• "[Redskins owner Dan] Snyder and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have grandfathered in Chief Zee, tone-deaf to the caricaturing of an ethnic minority."
It's that last one (we've listed them out of order) that brings up a touchy issue. Wise's story is rife with remarks that could be taken as playing on stereotypes of black Americans. On the ever-lively Washington Post comments section below the story, Zee's defenders are calling the article a racially-charged hit piece on a "sick old man" (Williams is undergoing cataract surgery) whose intention has always been to "make people smile." Zee's critics counter that one ethnic minority parodying another (Zee freely uses the word Injun) is old-timey minstrelsy times two.
We recommend reading the entire piece ("Chief Zee, the Redskins, and the Setting Sun"), which is well-written -- is Wise cruelly mocking a 72-year-old man and even playing the race card? Or should Zema Williams know better than to put on the redface becausehe is black, and is his treatment by Wise turnabout and fair play?