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When is an Indian not an Indian? June 8, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, back today to talk about some of the little-known but fascinating facts of U.S. coinage. (Earlier posts on the subject include “Big bucks and silver dollars,” “Don’t accept any wooden nickels,” “Forget wooden nickels—go for the gold!” and “Can a penny be saved?”) Today, let’s look at the history of Native Americans on our coins.

First, think about it: How many U.S. coins can you think of with Indians on them?

You probably remember seeing an Indian on the front of the buffalo nickel. And you might remember seeing an Indian head penny. These were the designs immediately preceding the arrival of Thomas Jefferson on the nickel and Abraham Lincoln on the cent. The Indian and buffalo graced the nickel for 25 years, from 1913 through 1938. The Indian and wreath design was used on the cent for 50 years, from 1859 through 1909, when Lincoln took over. 

These aren’t the only coins that used Indians on the front. The next most famous was the spectacular $10 gold piece designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who is considered the greatest of all American coinage designers. But Saint-Gaudens wasn’t the only designer who thought a golden Indian looked good. Bela Lyon Pratt used a stern Indian chief on both his $5 and $2.50 gold pieces. James B. Longacre, designer of the Indian head penny, also used several Indian portraits on $1 and $3 gold coins. And let’s not forget our modern “golden dollar”—alas, not gold at all but golden in appearance—featuring Sacagawea, which has been minted every year from 2000 to the present.  

Native Americans have also figured prominently on another type of coin. Called commemoratives, these coins were struck to commemorate specific people or occasions and were made for the collector market rather than for circulation. Four commemorative silver dollars feature Indian motifs. The first, the Oregon Trail Memorial, shows a chief at full length on the front with an ox-drawn covered wagon on the back. Designed by James E. Fraser, who also created the buffalo nickel, and his wife, Laura, this is probably the best-loved of all commemoratives. It was released repeatedly, in 1926, 1928, 1933, 1934, and every year from 1936 through 1939. In 2001, Fraser’s buffalo nickel design was also released as a silver dollar. The Daniel Boone bicentennial silver dollar, released from 1935 through 1938, showed Boone standing with a chief on the reverse. And the Arkansas centennial silver dollar, released from 1935 through 1939, showed a chief on the front alongside Lady Liberty.

By now, you might be thinking that the answer to my title question—“When is an Indian not an Indian?”—must be “When it’s a coin.” But the reality is much more interesting. The truth is that few of the famous Indian coins actually showed Native Americans.

James Longacre used his young daughter as a model for the “Indians” on his penny and gold pieces. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who considered himself to be creating a portrait of Lady Liberty in an Indian headdress rather than portraying an actual Native American on his $10 gold piece, also used a young Caucasian woman as his model. (If you look closely, you’ll see that their features are very delicate, more Alice in Wonderland than Sitting Bull or Chief Joseph.)

Even James Earle Fraser, who did use Native Americans as models for his famous nickel, created a composite portrait of three chiefs, Iron Tail, Two Moons, and John Big Tree, rather than sculpting from a single model. But at least the portrait on the nickel looks like both a Native American and a man! (Ironically, the buffalo on the reverse was modeled from a single bison, Black Diamond, a famous specimen then on display at the Central Park Zoo.) The first person to use a real Native American rather than a white model on a coin was actually Bela Pratt, whose then-daring and controversial gold coins portray an Indian brave modeled on a photograph. Unfortunately, his identity is unknown.

I think it’s fun to collect these Indian-themed coins. But I also think it’s high time we honored some famous Native American leaders with a series of coins of their own. I’d be thrilled to see a series featuring Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo, Cochise, Chief Joseph, Black Elk, Powhatan, Red Cloud, and so on. Perhaps now that the State Quarters series is about to run its course, we could do a Native American series instead. (You folks at the U.S. Mint, are you listening?!) What do you think? Sure beats a bunch of girls in eagle-feather headdresses!      



1. Cinj - June 9, 2008

Good point, they ARE an important part of our history, aren’t they?

How is it that you know so much about coins anyway? I casually collect coins, but I don’t know much about their history or anything and they’re only the cheap ones that I can afford or stumble across floating around in coin circulation.

Thanks, Cinj! I’m no coin expert by any means, but I love reading as much as collecting, so I always buy books and magazines about my collections. After awhile, I guess at least a few things sink in! Incidentally, do you have any buffalo nickels or Indian head pennies in your collection? You probably won’t find any in circulation–at least, I never have!–but as long as you don’t mind if they’re a bit beat up, you can still find them for a couple of dollars (or less) at flea markets.

2. Lin - June 9, 2008

Interesting post! My grandmother was Cherokee so I’ve always had more than a casual interest in Native American history and it’s important to remember our past.

How true! And what an incredibly rich legacy the Cherokee have given you, and all of us, Lin. Some of my most cherished books are The Cherokee Full Circle and Medicine of the Cherokee, both by J.T. Garrett and his son, Michael Tlanutsa Garrett, and J.T. Garrett’s The Cherokee Herbal and Meditations with the Cherokee. If you don’t have them, go on over to Amazon and check ’em out! They’re all wonderful.

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