Fraser for a time was an apprentice to Irish-born sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the fellow who convinced President Theodore Roosevelt the country needed new designs for its $10 and $20 gold pieces. Saint-Gaudens’s gold coins were striking, but because the artist insisted on high relief, they did not stack well, so that eventually the mint altered his designs. The original buffalo nickel also would have technical design problems, especially in relation to vending machines, stemming from Fraser’s artistic specifications.
It was Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeagh, a Roosevelt appointee, who commissioned Fraser, Saint-Gaudens’s protégé, to design the buffalo nickel. Not only the buffalo on the coin but also the Indian head on the other side was the object of controversy. Fraser said he made up the profile as a composite of three models: a Cheyenne named Two Moons, a Sioux (Dakota, Lakota?) named Iron Tail, and a third one he could not remember.
Subsequently a Seneca named Big Tree presented himself to the public as the unknown model. This seemed plausible, since Fraser then recalled using an Indian of that name, but it turns out that the Seneca Big Tree, like several other pretenders, was a fraud. Fraser finally recalled that his Big Tree was a Kiowa.