The year was 2017, the month was August. America was 241 year old, and totems of its racist previous were crumbling.

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One of the Northwest’s biggest tributes to Confederate soldiers — one 8-foot-high marble fountain set up in Helena, Montana, in 1916 — was about to come down, too. To protest the removal, a small group that Montanans rallied in ~ the fountain, waving signs and also flags: Confederate flags, but likewise the bright-yellow, unmistakable Gadsden flag, the Revolutionary battle banner through a coiled rattlesnake at its center atop the words “Don’t Tread top top Me.”

“Tyranny … she watching that unfold best here,” one guy told reporters.

That summer, Confederate monuments to be falling throughout the nation after a woman was eliminated by a white supremacist in ~ the hold together the appropriate rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Charlottesville demonstrators, too, waved banners: Confederate, Nazi and, again, the Gadsden flag. Afterward, the Montana state Legislature’s eight-person American Indian Caucus authored a letter urging remove of the Helena fountain. “Public residential or commercial property in Montana need to not be provided to promote Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism, separatism, or racism,” castle wrote.


According to the Helena protesters, removed the fountain supposed rewriting history. State Rep. Shane Morigeau, one of the letter’s authors, speak out versus that idea. Morigeau — a Democrat who is running for state auditor this year and also is one enrolled member the the Confederated Salish and Kootenai people — claims context is everything. “We understand what the Confederacy stand for and also what people who fly the Confederate flag — what the an interpretation is to them.”

But once the protesters waved the Gadsden flag, Morigeau found the message confusing. The shining yellow banner is no a Civil war symbol; rather, the forthright post read prefer a dare, a taunt — sort that a Colonial-era “Come at me, bro” — aimed in ~ the British during the American Revolution.

In recent years, however, the classic rattlesnake flag has involved mean something an extremely different. Few of the many violent and also vehemently anti-government figures in the West have recast the ready-to-strike rattlesnake as a warning against the American government itself. Still, part Montanans say they’re not prepared to cede the Gadsden flag come those who would use it as the brand-new logo for right-wing extremism.

For Jamar Galbreath, who works for Empower Montana, a nonprofit devoted to combating injustice, the Gadsden flag evokes other sinister: a 1846 Edgar Allen Poe story, “The Cask that Amontillado.” In it, a male pledges revenge on an additional man. When luring his victim toward his death, he speak of his family members coat the arms: a snake biting the foot that is stepping top top its body, through the Latin words Nemo me impune lacessit — “No one strikes me v impunity.”

“Every time I check out that flag, i think around that,” Galbreath said. “Who is crushing who?”

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A person displays a Gadsden flag during a Reopen Oregon rally outside of the State Capitol structure in Salem, Oregon, on may 2, 2020. Hundreds gathered in ~ the hours long occasion demanding Oregon reopen businesses throughout Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order.

THE YEAR was 2020, the month was April. America was 244 year old, and the struggle for manage over one American price of freedom was far from over.

From Olympia, Washington, come Lansing, Michigan, Gadsden flag-carrying protesters railed against COVID-19 stay-at-home order handed down by state governments. Ammon Bundy, son of the Nevada rancher, even sermonized around the flag in Emmett, Idaho, wherein he had gathered a team of civilization who reputed the virus harmless and also the restrictions tyrannical.

“On the Gadsden flag we have a snake, and it says, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ We’re gonna flip the around. What we desire to become, what we will become, we space going come be choose a den the rattlesnakes,” Bundy said. “We will be so venomous if our legal rights are also threatened one bit!”

The means the flag was being embraced by extremists reminded Morigeau, the Montana representative, of the struggle to remove the Confederate monument in Helena — as if the was one more chapter in the same book. Prefer that monument — put up long after the war’s end, far from any kind of Civil battle battlefield — the Gadsden flag has actually come to duty as one extremist dog whistle: “Things can take on new meaning. It deserve to be provided as a tool,” he said. “Some human being are trying to take it liberty and defiance come the extreme.”

“There’s a minute where we need to step up, too, and talk around the real history on this and also not allow these world … make it a symbol of hate,” the told me. “I could just go buy a cursed flag now and also put a sticker on my car thus conversation.”

Later the day, Morigeau texted me one Amazon attach for a $6.99 vinyl Gadsden flag sticker. “A good way to showcase your political views!” the summary read. Through the next week, he’d affixed it come the window of his pickup. He texted me a photo, together with a note: “I’m not going come let the Tea Party repurpose a flag and tread top top its universal meaning.”

In Montana, conversations about the flag often do come down to car decorations. In 2017, Montana became the only state in the West come offer occupants the choice to put a glowing yellow “Don’t Tread top top Me” specialty patent plate on their vehicle. Together of march 2020, virtually 2,800 Montanans had one.

“There’s a moment where we have to step up, too, and talk about the real background on this and also not allow these civilization … make it a symbol of hate.”

The plate was the production of a Billings nonprofit dubbed the 1776 Foundation, which is focused on upholding “traditional American values, historical civil liberties, the Montana Constitution and the constitution of the United claims of America.” The company — which did not respond to multiple requests because that comment indigenous High country News — earned $61,000 from the key in 2019 alone.

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The non-profit is the job-related of Jacob Eaton, a combat veteran and also campaign manager for Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte’s gubernatorial run. Eaton offered as the executive director of the Montana GOP till 2008, when he stepped under in a flurry of controversy after unsuccessfully an overwhelming the validity the 6,000 voter registrations — an especially of indigenous people and residents that liberal-leaning counties — in federal court. The state GOP donate off, however not prior to U.S. Ar Court referee Donald Molloy took a swing in ~ Eaton: “One deserve to imagine the mischief an immature political operative could inject right into an election cycle,” he wrote, “were the to usage the statutes, not for their intended purpose of protecting the verity of the people"s democracy, but rather to execute a tawdry politics ploy.”

Around the state, the Gadsden plates are perceived as a symbol loaded through conflicting message — even to those who know the emblem’s history.

A member of a proud army family, wilhelm “Bill” Snell Jr., who lives in Billings, Montana, and also is an enrolled crow tribal member, prospered up respecting the Gadsden flag. And even though his reverence for the flag is lifelong, Snell states he would certainly not fly one — or placed the plate on his car. “I think people would label me. And also I really don’t need that,” that said. “I would definitely fly some various other flags, including tribal flags, however that specific flag I most likely wouldn’t, just since of the misinterpretation that might bring to me and also my family.”

Still, his perspective toward the flag might aid explain that persistence, and also its ominous warning. “It demonstrates strength; it displayed authority,” Snell said. “To me, it suggests that totality philosophy that every little thing is good, but don’t mess v us in a poor way. … If you check out a nail, don’t action on it. Due to the fact that there"s a consequence. There’s constantly a consequence.”

Leah Sottile is a correspondent at High country News. She writes indigenous Portland, Oregon. Follow