Native Americans Have Appeared on American Money
for Over 300 Years
By Mel Wacks
The first seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony featured an American Indian holding an arrow in his right hand and a bow in his other hand. Coming out of his mouth are the words "Come over and help us," emphasizing the missionary and commercial intentions of the original colonists. This seal was used until 1686, shortly after the charter was annulled, and again from 1689-1692. This seal also appeared on a 5 Shillings note from the Massachusetts Colony, issued in 1690.
Native Americans first appeared on coins in 1787-- on copper half cents and cents issued by Massachusetts and cents issued by New York.
A so-called Indian Princess appeared on U.S. Gold Dollars and Three Dollar gold pieces issued starting in 1854. However, the portrait was actually based on a Roman marble in a Philadelphia museum, with the addition of an Indian headdress that was supposed to emphasize “national character.” This same “Indian Princess” later appeared on the “Indian Head” cents issued from 1858 through 1909, though with a somewhat different style of headdress
In 1899, artist G. F. C. Smillie created a magnificent portrait of Sioux Chief Ta-to-ka-inyanka (“Running Antelope”) that appeared on Five Dollar Silver Certificates. This portrayal caused ill will among Indians because it depicted Chief Running Antelope, head of the Hunkpapa Sioux, wearing a Pawnee headdress. Smillie had taken artistic license because the original Sioux headdress with a single feather was not considered imposing enough for the engraving.
And finally, in 1908, a real Native American was portrayed on a United States coin for the first time.
Boston sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt produced a handsome design of a Native American that was used on both the Five Dollar and Two-and-a-Half Dollar gold coins beginning in 1908. Unfortunately, the identity of the chief who posed for Pratt remains unknown.
For the 1913 “Buffalo Nickel,” Sculptor James Earle Fraser made a composite portrait of three chiefs—Iron Tail, Two Moons and John Big Tree. Iron Tail was a Miniconjou Sioux chief, who had faced Custer at Little Big Horn.
Wasee Maza, Lakota Tribe (Sioux) 1857-1955 (aka Iron Tail or Iron Hail) later changed his name to Dewey Beard. He was the last survivor of both the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, and the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. Buffalo Bill was quoted as saying "Iron Tail is the finest man I have ever known, bar none."
Two Moons (1842-1917) was a chief of the Cheyenne tribe, and he too had participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Chief John Big Tree (1877 – 1967), born Isaac Johnny John, was a member of the Seneca Nation; he claimed that his profile was used to create that portion of the portrait from the top of the forehead to the upper lip.
Even though it was an American bison that was depicted, the coins have been universally known as “Buffalo Nickels.” The so-called buffalo was modeled after old Black Diamond, living in the Central Park Zoo in New York City.
The United States issued commemorative coins from 1892 through 1954, and Native Americans appeared on half dollars commemorating events taking place across America: the 1921 Missouri Centennial, the 1926-1939 Oregon Trail Memorial, the 1934-8 Daniel Boone Bicentennial, the 1935-9 Arkansas Centennial, the 1936 Providence, Rhode Island Tercentenary, and the 1936 Long Island Tercentenary.
Daniel Boone Bicentennial
A new series of United States commemorative coins was launched in 1982, and only one event has featured Native Americans—the 2007 Jamestown 400th Anniversary silver dollar and five dollar gold coin—the only United States gold coin featuring an American Indian.
In 2006, the Buffalo Nickel designs were revived and appeared again on 1 oz. pure gold coins.
Finally--for the first time--a female Native America made an appearance on a U.S. coin. Sacagawea dollars began being minted in 2000 in accordance with the United States $1 Coin Act of 1997 and the recommendation of the Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee that the obverse of the new dollar coin bear a design of a Native American woman, inspired by Sacagawea.
Sacagawea, a member of the Shoshone Tribe, acted as a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition. She is depicted on the coin carrying her son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. The coin's artist, Glenna Goodacre, used a 22-year-old Shoshone woman named Randy'L He-dow Teton as the model for the young Sacagawea.
In 2002, at the same time that the Sacagawea coins were being issued by the millions by the United States Mint, Native Americans themselves issued coins. The Sovereign Nation of the Shawnee Tribe (Oklahoma), recognized by the United States under the Shawnee Tribe Status Act of 2000, issued these historic first coins honoring Chiefs Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa “The Prophet.”
Every year since, new Shawnee coins have been issued which have honored Chiefs Cornstalk, Black Hoof, Blue Jacket and Cheeseekau.
Thus, Native Americans have made an indelible impression on America’s money over the past 300 years, just as they have made an indelible impression on our continent since time immemorial.
Click here for further information about Native American coins issued by The Sovereign Nation of the Shawnee Tribe.