My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

December 13, 2023: Boston Tea Party Studying: Playing Indian

[This coming weekend marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Colonial America, the Boston Tea Party. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that important moment, leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a great deal!]

On how the Tea Party connects to a frustrating American tradition, and one other (if still fraught) layer.

In this post as part of a June 2014 series on summer camp contexts, I highlighted an influential work of AmericanStudies scholarship that I first encountered in grad school and to which I’ve returned quite a bit since: Philip Deloria’s Playing Indian (1998). I’ll be following up on many of that post’s ideas today, so in lieu of a full first paragraph here will ask you to check out that one (at the first hyperlink above) and then come on back.

Welcome back! It’s impossible to know for sure when the first European Americans “played Indian,” dressed up as Native Americans, but there’s no doubt that a relatively early example was the many Boston Tea Party participants who donned Mohawk or Narragansett costumes before taking part in the protest. In the summer camp examples of playing Indian that I considered in that prior post, one consistent and main motivation behind this deeply troubling collective action seems to be to tap into something more primal or natural than one’s everyday identity, a concept which at the very least stereotypes Native Americans as those things if it doesn’t directly reflect images of “savages” (as it far too often does, of course). And it seems quite clear to me that the Boston Tea Party participants who dressed up were likewise expressing that stereotyping perspective, linking themselves to what foundational Massachusetts Puritan William Bradford called “wild lands and wild men.”

On the other hand, historical actions and events always have multiple contexts, and in this case it is important to note that the Sons of Liberty had been donning Native American costumers for nearly a decade by the time of the Tea Party. That post cites a chapter from Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy (1991) by historians Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen in which the authors argue that the Sons used these costumes to represent their authentically American identity, in overt opposition to that of the English colonial power against which they were rebelling. That’s a convincing take, and one that of course reflects an evolving Revolutionary-era argument that the Tea Party both embodied and helped further. Yet even then, I would say that this example of playing Indian connects to a concept like the “noble savage,” a more flattering stereotype of Native Americans that nonetheless consistently imagines them as part of a vanished past rather than a coexisting and complex present. A present itself embodied by a famous participant at another Boston protest: Crispus Attucks.

Next Tea Party post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Tea Party takes you’d share?

No comments:

Post a Comment