Andrew Jackson was born poor and died wealthy. He was an adamant foe of paper money and a national bank. Like many American pioneers, his wealth came from stolen African American labor on stolen Indian land.
Now, his visage adorns or desecrates (depending on one’s point of view) the twenty-dollar Federal Reserve note, a form of currency he scorned drawn on an institution he did his best to destroy in the cradle. On top of that ironic pass, almost all of the people who have appeared on U.S. money to date are also white males.
Should Harriet Tubman, ex-slave conductor on the Underground Railroad, survive the controversy surrounding her selection and replace slave monger Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar Federal Reserve note, she will be the first black person on U.S. currency. There have been lots of Indians on the money… in a manner of speaking.
All stereotypes, all the time is still the fate of American Indians, and the honor of being put on U.S. legal tender has mostly been granted as a stereotype under an honorific label. This started with the only Indian to ever have his likeness on U.S. paper money, T?at?óka Í?ya?ke (Running Antelope), a Hunkpapa chief known for his oratorical skills as well as his bravery.
He represented his people in treaty councils at Ft. Peck, Ft. Rice and Ft. Laramie, and was a signer of the Treaty of 1868 that should have guaranteed a perpetual land base in territory traditional to the Great Sioux Nation. Running Antelope’s signing of the 1868 treaty represented a break with Sitting Bull, a rift that would not be healed until Sitting Bull returned from his flight to Canada and Running Antelope admitted he had erred in being too trusting of the settlers.
Few white people understood the political crosscurrents roiling the Great Sioux Nation then, so in the public imagination Running Antelope was the “good Indian” to Sitting Bull’s “bad Indian” long after the two chiefs had buried their disagreement. When the Treasury Department determined to place an Indian chief on the $5 Silver Certificate in the late 19th century, they sent artistic advance teams out to produce likenesses of “good Indians” to be forwarded to the Bureau of Engraving.
Running Antelope passed the idea of a central-casting Indian chief so well that collectors refer to those $5 Silver Certificates today as “chief notes.” However, those bills contained an outrageous cultural gaffe, and there are two stories of how it happened.
One story is that the headdress in the photos sent to the Bureau of Engraving was too tall and so had to be replaced in the engraving.
Another is that there was an effort to get the man to wear something that would appear more “authentically Indian” by the white man’s terms, but Running Antelope refused. So his headgear was switched out later at the Bureau of Engraving.
Whichever explanation is true, the only Indian ever to appear on U.S. paper money was a Hunkpapa leader shown in a Pawnee headdress. The Sioux and the Pawnee were enemies and this portrayal was considered back on Standing Rock to be a major disrespect to Running Antelope, who had by then walked on.
So it was that the Indian on the paper money turned into a public relations debacle and “chief notes” were not considered the great honor that is now claimed for them. The 1889 bills were printed up into the early 20th century; so a lot of them exist, but an uncirculated “chief note” can still set you back $3,000.
From 1915 to 1919, another Indian appeared on paper money, but only by his signature. Cherokee lawyer Houston B. Teehee, serving as Register of the Treasury, had his signature on all denominations of paper money in those years.
The only other Indian identified by name on U.S. currency is Sacagawea, on a dollar coin first minted in 2000 and still in circulation. The Sacagawea dollar has not been very popular, but neither has the Susan B. Anthony dollar. Americans are just not into dollar coins.
Is that “lots of Indians on the money?”
Of course not, but the other Indians, the ones on coins other than Sacagawea, were generic. The first one, claimed to be an “Indian princess,” appeared on 1854 and 1855 gold dollars. From 1856 on, the “princess” had a larger head, perhaps from being marketed as royalty.
A male generic Indian showed up on the ten dollar coin known as the golden eagle in the year Oklahoma became a state in violation of treaty commitments to the Five Tribes, 1907. Minting of that golden eagle continued until 1933. A year after the golden eagle came out with an Indian, generic Indians were engraved on the quarter-eagle ($2.50) and the half eagle ($5), which were minted until 1929.
Another generic Indian was posed on the “Indian head penny” from 1859 through 1909. It is not a wisecrack about blood quantum or tribal enrollment to say there were doubts about the head on the Indian head penny. The sources of the doubts are statements made by and about James B. Longacre, Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint between 1844 and 1869.
One claim with major currency at the time was that Longacre had put an Indian headdress on “Lady Liberty.” Another claim was that Longacre’s daughter was the model for the penny. Longacre himself wrote that the design came from a statue called Crouching Venus, a creation so old that it goes back to the Greek version, Aphrodite. Richard Stone, author of “A Guide Book of Flying Eagle and Indian Head Cents” concluded that the “Indian” was an amalgamation of Longacre’s daughter and Crouching Venus.
As in the debacle of the Pawnee headdress, the goal of the Treasury Department and probably Longacre was to portray the perfect Indian, noble and extinct.
The coin known as the Buffalo Nickel used two different engravings of an American bison on the reverse with the same generic male Indian on the obverse. That classic coin was minted between 1916 and 1938, and many are still in circulation.
Everyone agrees the Indian on the Buffalo Nickel was a design by James Earle Fraser. The Indian head is said to be a composite of Two Moons (Cheyenne) and Iron Tail (Lakota) and a third person whose identity is disputed. Suspects include John Big Tree (Seneca), Two Guns White Calf (Blackfoot), and Sam Resurrection (Choctaw).
A different generic Indian head was on the obverse of the 1921 Missouri Centennial half-dollar. The reverse was an Indian standing and holding a “peace pipe” with a settler. Another generic Indian—this time with a bow rather than a pipe—occupied the obverse of the Oregon Trail commemorative half dollar minted between 1926 and 1939 with a covered wagon on the reverse.
Another commemorative half dollar celebrating the bicentennial of Daniel Boone featured Boone with an anonymous Indian on the reverse and Boone without his trademark coonskin cap on the obverse. The Boone coin was minted between 1934 and 1938.
In 2001, the U.S. Mint produced a silver proof dollar coin that was identical to the Buffalo Nickel. It was a limited edition for collectors and was never put into general circulation, where it would have been in competition with Sacagawea. Minting that design as a collectible was a notable departure from public opinion at the time the Buffalo Nickel was first circulated. There was much grumbling that it was ugly.
Another foray into indigenous representation was in questionable taste, when the Mint put out a Hawaiian Sesquicentennial half-dollar coin in 1928 with a generic Native Hawaiian on the reverse and the place of honor on the obverse occupied by Captain James Cook, allegedly the first European discovered by the Native Hawaiians.
When Hawaii got its statehood quarter in 2008, it contained a representation of a real person—King Kamehahameha I, the first ruler of a united Hawaii and the only royalty to appear on a U.S. coin in general circulation.
All these attempts to represent indigenous people on U.S. money seem directed to honoring the memory of the mythical noble savage, doomed by the collision with civilization. A problem with using real Indians is the tradition of using persons with some political importance, and most famous Indians who fit that description were leaders in resistance to the encroachments of the settler state.
If Harriet Tubman becomes the first African American on the currency, white America will have given up its historical blinders enough to honor a black person whose political importance came from her resistance to slavery.
There will be named Indians on U.S. money when white America removes its historical blinders long enough to honor an Indian whose political importance was resistance to colonization.