The year was 2017, the month to be August. America was 241 year old, and totems that its racist past were crumbling.

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

“Tyranny … you’re watching it unfold right here,” one man told reporters.

That summer, Confederate monuments to be falling throughout the nation after a woman was killed by a white supremacist in ~ the hold together the ideal 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 writer a letter urging removal of the Helena fountain. “Public residential or commercial property in Montana need to not be used to encourage Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism, separatism, or racism,” lock wrote.


According come the Helena protesters, removing the fountain meant rewriting history. State Rep. Shane Morigeau, one of the letter’s authors, speak out against that idea. Morigeau — a Democrat who is to run for state auditor this year and is one enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and also Kootenai people — states context is everything. “We recognize what the Confederacy was standing for and also what human being who fly the Confederate flag — what the an interpretation is to them.”

But as soon as the protesters waved the Gadsden flag, Morigeau discovered the message confusing. The glowing yellow banner is no a Civil battle symbol; rather, the forthright message read prefer a dare, a taunt — sort that a Colonial-era “Come at me, bro” — aimed in ~ the British throughout the American Revolution.

In current years, however, the standard rattlesnake flag has pertained to mean something very different. Few of the most violent and also vehemently anti-government figures in the West have recast the ready-to-strike rattlesnake as a warning against the American federal government itself. Still, some Montanans to speak they’re not prepared to cede the Gadsden flag come those who would usage it together the brand-new logo because that right-wing extremism.

For Jamar Galbreath, who works because that Empower Montana, a nonprofit dedicated to combating injustice, the Gadsden flag evokes something sinister: a 1846 Edgar Allen Poe story, “The Cask the Amontillado.” In it, a guy pledges revenge on one more man. When luring his victim toward his death, he speak of his family members coat the arms: a line biting the foot the is stepping on its body, through the Latin indigenous Nemo me impune lacessit — “No one strikes me with impunity.”

“Every time I watch that flag, i think about 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 hrs long occasion demanding Oregon reopen businesses throughout Gov. Kate Brown’s stay-at-home order.

THE YEAR was 2020, the month was April. America to be 244 year old, and the battle for regulate over an American prize of flexibility was far from over.

From Olympia, Washington, to Lansing, Michigan, Gadsden flag-carrying protesters railed against COVID-19 stay-at-home assignment handed down by state governments. Ammon Bundy, boy of the Nevada rancher, even sermonized around the flag in Emmett, Idaho, whereby he had actually gathered a group of people who considered the virus harmless and also the restrictions tyrannical.

“On the Gadsden flag we have a snake, and also it says, ‘Don’t tread ~ above me.’ We’re gonna flip that around. What we want to become, what we will become, we room going come be favor a den that rattlesnakes,” Bundy said. “We will be therefore venomous if our rights are even threatened one bit!”

The method the flag to be being embraced by extremists reminded Morigeau, the Montana representative, the the struggle to remove the Confederate monument in Helena — as if it was one more chapter in the exact same book. Prefer that monument — put up long ~ the war’s end, much from any kind of Civil war battlefield — the Gadsden flag has actually come to duty as one extremist dog whistle: “Things deserve to take on brand-new meaning. It have the right to be offered as a tool,” the said. “Some civilization are trying to take it liberty and also defiance to the extreme.”

“There’s a minute where we need to step up, too, and also talk about the real background on this and also not allow these world … do it a price of hate,” that told me. “I can just walk buy a cursed flag now and also put a sticker on mine car because of this conversation.”

Later the day, Morigeau texted me an Amazon connect for a $6.99 vinyl Gadsden flag sticker. “A great way come showcase your political views!” the description read. Through the following week, that affixed it come the home window of his pickup. That texted me a photo, along with a note: “I’m no going come let the Tea Party repurpose a flag and tread top top its universal meaning.”

In Montana, conversations around the flag often do come down to vehicle decorations. In 2017, Montana became the just state in the West to offer residents the option to put a shining yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” specialty patent plate on your vehicle. As of in march 2020, practically 2,800 Montanans had one.

“There’s a moment where we need to step up, too, and talk about the real history on this and also not let these people … make it a prize of hate.”

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

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The nonprofit is the job-related of Jacob Eaton, a combat veteran and also campaign manager because that Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte’s gubernatorial run. Eaton offered as the executive, management director the the Montana GOP till 2008, once he stepped under in a flurry of conflict after unsuccessfully daunting the validity the 6,000 voter registrations — specifically of indigenous people and residents of liberal-leaning counties — in commonwealth court. The state GOP backed off, but not prior to U.S. Ar Court referee Donald Molloy took a swing in ~ Eaton: “One can imagine the mischief an immature political operative can inject right into an choice cycle,” the wrote, “were that to use the statutes, not for your intended purpose of protecting the truth of the people"s democracy, yet rather to execute a tawdry political ploy.”

Around the state, the Gadsden key are perceived as a symbol loaded v conflicting messages — even come those who recognize the emblem’s history.

A member that a proud army family, william “Bill” Snell Jr., who lives in Billings, Montana, and is an enrolled crow tribal member, prospered up respecting the Gadsden flag. And also even though his reverence for the flag is lifelong, Snell says he would certainly not paris one — or placed the key on his car. “I think civilization would brand me. And also I yes, really don’t need that,” that said. “I would absolutely fly some other flags, including tribal flags, yet that details flag I more than likely wouldn’t, just due to the fact that of the misinterpretation that might carry to me and my family.”

Still, his mindset toward the flag might help explain that is persistence, and its ominous warning. “It demonstrates strength; it demonstrates authority,” Snell said. “To me, it shows that totality philosophy that everything is good, yet don’t mess v us in a poor way. … If you see a nail, don’t step on it. Due to the fact that there"s a consequence. There’s always a consequence.”

Leah Sottile is a correspondent at High nation News. She writes native Portland, Oregon. Follow