After 35 years, is it time for Chief Zee to go?

Chief Zee, unofficial mascot of the Washington Redskins

"2013 marks Chief Zee's 35th Year as the complete embodiment of what it means to be a WASHINGTON REDSKINS fan. His passion, loyalty and dedication to the team is only eclipsed by his love of all the other fans of the Redskins. If we are the living breathing entity that gives life to FedEx Field, then Chief Zee, for as long as I can remember, is the heart and soul of us Fanatics!

We are in the process of organizing a celebration to take place at FedEx Field on September 9, 2013, the opening game of the 2013 Redskins season at lot E-43, the location of The ExtremeSkins Tailgate. "

That's the message by Capt Kaos, a member of Extremeskins, the Washington Redskins fan message board.  Capt Kaos' message, "A great big THANK YOU to Chief Zee" describes his effort to raise $5,000.00 of "much needed funds" to present to Chief on the opening night of the 2013 NFL season. That post links fans to the online GoGetFunding project page that you can see here.

Hog Heaven is a staunch defender of use of the "Washington Redskins" brand, logo and trademark, but I wince whenever I see Chief Zee now. Is a black man wearing a feather headband a racist image?

Bad aim

Perpetual Native American nag Susan Harjo wages her campaign against the Redskins to make a point that doesn't involve the Redskins.

Ms. Harjo wrote the following in an ESPN chat session captured on ESPN.com.   

"The Native American parties to our lawsuit are the ones who are doing something about the big issues, and this is one of them, because it is contextual, atmospheric — it affects federal Indian law because, for one thing, policymakers don't make good policy for cartoons or for people who are used for others' sport."

Excuse me? Federal law? Harjo thinks her nuisance suits will lead to change in federal law and policy that will improve the condition of Native Americans.

"Child, please." ~ Chad Ochocinco Johnson

The Washington Redskins football team is not an arm of the U.S. government, which did indeed wage a genocidal campaign against Native Americans in the conquest of its portion of the continent. That campaign was as applauded at the time by Americans as Redskins fans today applaud the football team.

Redskins fans are not applauding anything the U.S. Army did. Our chiefs are not Red Cloud and Crazy Horse (great men, both). Redskins' chiefs are Sammy Baugh, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Theismann, RGIII … and Chief Zee.

The Washington Redskins did not exist when those offenses occurred. Harjo's lawsuit is badly aimed.  

The race-based slur is "injun," not redskin. The brand is "Washington Redskins," two words, capital "R," plural. While that may seem small to you, it's huge when it comes to branding. Pro-Football, Inc., the Redskins' parent company, defined the brand as professional football entertainment. In my entire baby boomer life, I have never heard the term "Redskins" used in any way other than in reference to sports teams.

Bad strategy

Ms. Harjo hopes that by waging the trademark campaign against the Washington Redskins, she might raise American consciousness about the condition of her people. Yet, every time she brings a new case, all anyone talks about is the team's logo.

I don't get it, but I do get the point that fans of sports teams affect some aspect of the brand in a cartoonish way to show their love and loyalty to the team. If we are mocking anyone, it's ourselves and it's in good fun.

Thirty-five years ago, when Chief Zee, got his start, I saw anyone in blackface as offensive. Today, with vast improvement in the conditions for African-Americans, I merely object to it as bad taste. Blackface is not about me.

There has not been an equivalent improvement in conditions for Native Americans, which may be Harjo's unclearly made point. I am African-American, so I empathize with her offense at Chief Zee's redface image. That does not solve Ms. Harjo's problem.

There are two issues. The first is that the 'Skins do not have a mascot. They do not own the Chief Zee character.

The Washington Redskins do not dress in Indian clothes

Chief Zee is the creation of D.C. resident Zema Williams who first attended games in costume in the Jack Pardee era. Through good times and bad, Chief Zee has been the face of fans.

For a long while, the Chief was a fixture on TV broadcasts of Redskins games, especially Redskins-Cowboys contests where Williams staged wrestling matches with Wilford "Crazy Ray" Jones who, like Williams, was the unofficial mascot of the Dallas Cowboys.

Over time, Williams and Jones became great friends and great theater. They worked out a deal where the hometown mascot would appear to win the fight between them. Broadcasters always showed it to the delight of both Redskins and Cowboys fans. They became legendary fixtures of the rivalry. Williams attended Jones' 2007 funeral in full regalia.

Mr. Williams is not as flush with cash as Mr. Snyder is. There is no percentage in suing him because of his outfit. Instead, Harjo targets the Redskins who haven't affected such a get up since the days of Lone Star Dietz, head coach of the Boston Redskins in 1933. Suing Williams would make Harjo seem a bully.

First Amendment rights

The second issue is that winning the case does nothing for Ms. Harjo's cause. As already noted, all everyone talks about is the team name and not the conditions of Native Americans. Daniel Snyder has said the team name will not change regardless of what happens to his trademark rights. Winning the case will not affect Mr. Williams' first amendment right to express himself as Chief Zee. The U.S. patent and Trademark office cannot force that change regardless of Harjo's wishes.

Moving on

Chief Zee is part of the theater of NFL games, but fans may have moved on from 20th-Century cartoon characters. The Hoggetts, those cross-dressing men with pig noses, represented Joe Gibbs-era fans as much as the Chief. The Hoggetts retired at the end of last season.

Other fan characters like SuperSkin Defender, play on the Redskins logo, but not the cultural symbols of Native Americans.

Hog Heaven gladly contributed to the fund for Chief Zee. His time may have passed, however. Susan Harjo did that.     

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Anthony Brown

About Anthony Brown

Lifelong Redskins fan and blogger about football and life since 2004. Joined MVN's Hog Heaven blog in 2005 and then moved Redskins Hog Heaven to Bolguin Network. Believes that the course of a season is pre-ordained by management decisions made during the offseason. Can occasionally be found on the This Given Sunday blog and he does guest posts.

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