This time around, there will be no “Indians” at the Boston Tea Party.
On Dec. 16, 1773, some of the 100 to 150 colonists who boarded three ships and tossed their tea into the Boston Harbor disguised themselves as Native Americans. The 250th anniversary reenactment, though, won’t feature culturally appropriative costumes — even though such imagery remains in broad circulation today.
Historians agree that the disguises were partly intended to protect the colonists’ identities, since raiding the ships was an act of treason against the Crown. But experts say the costumes were also part of a broader tradition that had emerged in Colonial America of white colonists appropriating the imagery and sometimes costume of Native Americans in establishing their own non-British identity.
“There’s always been during this time period, the symbol of this Indigenous individual representing America,” said Evan O’Brien, creative manager at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. “But, of course ... the complexity is America [colonists] was both simultaneously holding it up on a pedestal and also basically standing on their throat.”
The Boston Tea Party was not the only time that a mob of colonists appropriated Indigenous costume and went on a rampage. In fact, a fourth ship of East India Company tea that was supposed to arrive in Boston — the William — instead encountered storms and ran aground off Cape Cod. There, a group of disguised colonists broke into a Provincetown warehouse to burn some of that shipment.
Eighteen months before the Tea Party, a group of Rhode Island colonists burned a Royal Navy ship called the Gaspee in protest of its attempt to enforce customs rules. Historians say at least some of those men either dressed as or called themselves Narragansett Indians.
In his 1999 book “Playing Indian,” Harvard professor Philip J. Deloria argues that by dressing as or using the names and symbols of Indians, colonists invoked a range of identities to create a new “American“ identity “that was both aboriginal and European and yet was also neither.”
From tea ships to sporting events
Historian J. L. Bell, who runs a historical website called Boston 1775, says the adoption of American Indian figures as “mascots” became easier for the colonists as the local Indigenous population declined due to slaughter, enslavement and being forced off their land.
“When you are actually trying to win wars with Natives, it’s much harder to make them into cigar store figures and sports mascots,” Bell said. “When the nation is totally subjugated — the people who were living there — you can have the Kansas City Chiefs.”
Ironically, the same weekend as the Tea Party anniversary, the Chiefs are coming to battle the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. They will display the arrowhead on their helmets and their fans may don offensive outfits and perform the “tomahawk chop.”
Elizabeth Solomon, an elder of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, said the whole notion of a mascot is generally to celebrate a mythical or extinct character.
“They are figures that are fantastical but don’t exist in the real world,” she said. “They are groups of people that were historical but no longer exist, like the Vikings or the Spartans. Or they are animals.”
She said Native Americans, who are very real and very alive, do not find it “honoring” to be included among that pantheon.
The idea of non-Native people brandishing Indigenous imagery as a sign of fierce independence is one of “the false narratives we tell ourselves over and over again,” Solomon said. “It simply replaces the true history of Colonial brutality against Indians with a mythical tale of peaceful coexistence. Nobody wants to think about the history of violence that exists with their country.”
“It’s OK for them to be Native. But it wasn’t OK for us to be Native.”Rhonda LeValdo, a citizen of the Acoma Pueblo and founder of Not in Our Honor
Cedric Woods, a professor at UMass Boston and a member of the North Carolina Lumbee tribe, adds that most Revolutionary history ignores that many Native Americans fought the British alongside white colonists, suffering grave losses.
“About half the Mashpee men who fought as part of the Revolution did not return home,” he said. But “what, if any, benefits have they received as a result of siding with those who wanted independence and freedom? Did they [American Indians] get that as well?”
And Rhonda LeValdo, a citizen of the Acoma Pueblo and founder of a Kansas City-based group called Not in Our Honor, said that any time white Americans have appropriated Native symbols or traditions, they ignore the painful fact that, for hundreds of years, American Indians were forbidden to display those symbols or traditions themselves.
“We weren’t even allowed to be Indian,” LeValdo said. “They even made our religion, our ceremonies against the law.” But now, for sports teams across the nation, “they want to think it’s OK for them to be Native. They want to bang the drum. They want to do the chop. They want to do this chant. And it’s OK for them to be Native. But it wasn’t OK for us to be Native.”
Remembering the Tea Party accurately
At the time of the Boston Tea Party, it was against the law for Indigenous people to step foot in the city without an escort. That law remained on the books, though not enforced, until 2005.
Boston’s commemoration of the Tea Party this weekend is taking some of that history into consideration. O’Brien says that while some people at the original Tea Party wore American Indian–inspired disguises, the 250th anniversary reenactment will not allow “any sort of insensitive or inappropriate costuming.”
While the museum doesn't want to replicate that symbolic appropriation during the reenactment, he said Saturday's event will still hint at that historical fact.
“We will have an homage to it. ... We will probably have a feather or two in a tri-corner hat as a symbolic thing,” O'Brien said.
There is no evidence that anyone on the original Tea Party adorned themselves in feathers, but the story has been embellished with additional layers of American Indian imagery over the centuries.
O'Brien said a lot of the artwork depicting the Tea Party was created decades after the event, and it began to include Native symbolism that would have been absurd in Massachusetts on a cold December night in 1773, like bare-chested "Natives" throwing tea into the harbor while wearing feathered headdresses that would have been associated with Western tribes.
“None of that was even worn by the Indigenous population of New England at the time,” he said. “None of that was accurate.”
Nevertheless, this is precisely the image that adorns the medallions the museum has been placing since 2018 at the grave sites of the Tea Party participants.
Asked why the museum is continuing to propagate this inaccurate image, O'Brien said it is “the most popular and often used artistic representation” of The Boston Tea Party. The image also features large celebratory crowds on the shore of Boston Harbor, which is historically correct.
“While the Indigenous disguises of the Sons of Liberty are definitely not accurate, we felt that using this historical image — created shortly after the first publication of the name ‘The Boston Tea Party’ — was the best course for the design,” he said.
But not the best course for the reenactment.