Tim Giago: Political movement obscures role of Indians in history

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor", lithograph by Nathaniel Currier depicting the 1773 Boston Tea Party. Image from Library of Congress

Disguising themselves as Indians was an act of cowardice
Notes from Indian Country
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2016 Unity South Dakota

There are two words in the following paragraph that jump out at most students of Native American history, but are probably impervious to the ardent participants of the Tea Party movement.

The two words appeared in a New York Times article titled “The Founding Fathers Versus the Tea Party” by Ron Chernow. He wrote, “Like many popular insurgencies in American history, the Tea Party movement has attempted to enlist the founding fathers as fervent adherents to its cause. The very name invokes those disguised patriots who clambered aboard ship in Boston Harbor in December 1773 and dumped chests of tea into the water rather than submit to the hated tea tax. At Tea Party rallies, marchers brandish flags emblazoned with the Revolutionary slogan, ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ while George Washington impersonators and other folks in colonial garb mingle with the crowds.”

Of course the two words “disguised patriots” are used to conceal a fact of history or to revise history. I remember that as an elementary student at Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation we used a history book that sugar-coated, ignored or revised history as applied to Native Americans, but I vividly recall the picture in this book of patriots disguised as Indians as they dumped boxes of tea into Boston Harbor.

As Mr. Chernow was want to reveal, those disguised patriots were impersonating American Indians in hopes that the act of insurgency they had just committed would be blamed upon the Indians. They certainly were not dressed in the typical patriot outfit they usually wore and not a one of them was dressed as George Washington.

In Eyewitness to History.com George Hewes, a member of the band of “Indians” that boarded the ships that evening recalled the event. He said, “It was now evening and I immediately dressed myself in the costume of an Indian equipped with a small hatchet and I and my associates denominated the tomahawk, with which, and a club, after having painted my face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmith, I repaired to Griffin’s wharf where the ships lay that contained the tea. When I first appeared in the street after being disguised, I fell in with many dressed, equipped and painted as I was, and fell in with me and marched in order to the place of our destination.”

A Tea Party protest in Washington, D.C., in September 2009. Photo by Freedom Fan

Why in the world would these tea party patriots disguise themselves as Indians to carry out an act that was illegal at the time? Chernow writes, “The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution.”

If the Tea Party wants to “spruce up its historical bona fides,” its members should honor its real history by attending all of the Tea Party rallies dressed as American Indians and not as George Washington.

Thomas L. Friedman wrote, “The Tea Party that has gotten all the attention, the amorphous, self-generated protest against the growth in government and the deficit, is what I’d actually call the ‘Tea Kettle movement’ because all it’s doing is letting off steam.”

Attire appears to be an important element of the Tea Party routine and they proudly don the uniforms of the Revolution or drape themselves in the American flag or parade as Uncle Sam or George Washington. They dress in every costume of the early protestors except in that of the American Indians they impersonated, which in the minds of most Native Americans was an act of cowardice. This alone causes some to question their revision of history.

As Friedman wrote, “And how can you take seriously a movement that sat largely silent while the Bush administration launched two wars and a new entitlement, Medicare prescription drugs – while cutting taxes – but is now, suddenly, mad as hell about the deficit and won’t take it anymore from President Obama? Say what? Where were you folks for eight years?”

The American Indians of 1773 had every right to fear the consequences of that tea-dumping party that night in the Boston Harbor. An entire village of Indians that had converted to Christianity was massacred and burned alive by American patriots seeking revenge for the actions of a few renegade Indians. They were called the “Praying Indians” and they became prey to the patriots because they didn’t know one Indian from another and so they murdered the Indians that were available.

The Tea Partiers will continue to do their thing, but it concerns me that they are emulating a group of patriots who gained fame and notoriety by impersonating American Indians. At least they should be truthful about this act of deception.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the editor and publisher of Native Sun News. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. His weekly column won the H. L. Mencken Award in 1985. His book Children Left Behind was awarded the Bronze Medal by Independent Book Publishers. He was the first Native American ever inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at unitysodak1@vastbb.net

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