When a couple new to Needham attended the town’s annual Fourth of July parade for the first time this year, they were shocked to see Fred Muzi, retired owner of Muzi Ford, dressed in a feather headdress with his skin painted red, riding bareback on a horse.
“We enjoyed the parade a lot, but when our 4-year-old daughter turned to us and asked why that man had paint all over him, we felt really uncomfortable,” said Emily Rothman, who moved to Needham five months ago with her husband, Greg Banks.
Their concerns — expressed in a letter to a local newspaper and a phone call to a tribal chief on Cape Cod — have renewed an off-and-on debate within town over whether the half-century parade staple should continue.
“We do know this is a tradition many people in Needham enjoy and find harmless, and it does seem like Mr. Muzi has the best intention,” said Rothman. “However, when people paint their skin to look like individuals of another race for entertainment purposes, it’s off base.”
Muzi, 79, said he has been dressing up to ride in the parade every year since 1957. He said he admires Native American culture, and he bought his Indian-made costume at Garden of the Gods National Park in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I try to be authentic as possible,” Muzi said in an interview. “If the crowd didn’t like me, I certainly wouldn’t be there.”
Muzi said he has heard complaints from townspeople in the form of letters to the local paper three times before, but he said each letter was followed by dozens defending him. The Needham Exchange Club asks him back to the parade every year, he added.
John Bulian, chairman of the Needham Board of Selectmen, declined to comment and said the parade is under the purview of the Exchange Club. The president of the Needham Exchange Club did not respond to phone calls requesting comment.
“Mr. Muzi has been in our parade for a long time,” said Cindy Chasten, Exchange Club tri-chair of the Fourth of July event, emphasizing that she is not a spokesperson for the organization. “He has always been welcome in our parade and a popular guy with our crowd.”
After this year’s parade, Rothman and Banks wrote a letter expressing their concerns to The Needham Times. The newspaper has since posted two letters on its website defending Muzi, along with one letter and an opinion column opposing his parade role
Rothman also contacted Linda Morceau, chief of the Chappiquiddic tribe based in Cape Cod.
“There are no good reasons for someone that is not Native American to dress up as though they are Native American,” said Morceau, a substance abuse and family councilor at Peaceful Gathering Place in Wareham. “The only group of people that are still open season for being made fun of that way are Native Americans. We need to step up and say this is offensive.”
Morceau compared Muzi’s costume, which she says makes fun of her sacred dress, to putting on blackface.
“If you want to honor the Native American, you bring in a Native American,” she said. “You don’t bring in a white person, put on a black face, and say you’re honoring African Americans.”
Muzi said he and other Needham residents have brought up the issue with two Native Americans he knows, an Army buddy from New Mexico and a former chief of the Wampanoag tribe on Cape Cod. Both approved of Muzi’s appearance in the parade, and the Army buddy even offered to accompany him someday, Muzi said.
“People just don’t understand,” said Carole Carroll, a Needham resident who wrote a letter supporting Muzi’s appearance. “I wouldn’t want Fred to change anything; this is what he has done for so many years.”
Carroll, 77, said Muzi was the year ahead of her in high school, and he would not try to offend anyone.
“Fred’s a wonderful person,” Carroll said in an interview. “If these people are upset about it, they don’t have to come to the parade.”
Michael Siegel, a Natick resident who worked to abolish the Redmen mascot in his town, contends Muzi’s parade costume violates anti-discrimination laws. Needham officials should put an end to it, he said in an interview.
“The fact that something is tradition doesn’t mean it’s something we want to continue,” said Siegel, who wrote the opinion piece for the Needham Times. “One of the main arguments southern states used to defend slavery was, ‘This is a tradition.’”
In 2007, the Natick School Committee voted to dump the Redmen name, and logo bearing the profile in silhouette of a Native American, and choose another town mascot in time for the 2008 football season.
In early 2008, a grassroots group wanting to keep the old nickname gathered enough signatures to get a nonbinding question on the March 2008 ballot asking the committee to reconsider its decision.
It passed by a 2-to-1 margin, but the School Committee maintained its position and banished the old name, though it can still be seen on bumper stickers and unofficial sports gear around town.
Katrina Ballard can be reached at email@example.com.