July 30, 2009

$5 Indian Head gold coin

The National Collector's Mint is making commemorative copies of a short-lived US gold coin. This has stirred some outrage on the Racialicious blog.

Here's the story:

1929 $5 Indian Head Gold PieceToday history is being made! The National Collector's Mint announces the private reproduction minting of the last $5 Indian Head Gold Piece ever minted by the U.S. Government. The U.S. has never struck another $5 Gold Piece for circulation. So, our non-legal tender proof is a classic collectible. With its historic importance, scarce population and unique design, it's no wonder that one of the original 1929 $5 Gold Indians recently sold for $34,100!

When President Theodore Roosevelt called for a new $5 gold coin design in 1908, few imagined the daring, innovative masterpiece that designer Bela Lyon Pratt would ultimately produce. Unlike every other U.S. coin design, Pratt's “Indian Head” is incuse--meaning that the sculpted Indian is sunken into the surface of the coin, rather than being raised above it. Indian Head $5 gold pieces were minted annually from 1908 to 1915, when production was suspended for over a decade. When it was finally resumed in 1929, no one expected that this coin would be the last $5 gold coin ever issued for circulation by the U.S. Government. But in October 1929, the unthinkable happened. The Stock Market crashed, plunging the U.S. economy into a deep depression. Production of $5 gold coins ceased, never to resume, making the 1929 $5 Gold Indian one of the rarest and most desirable coins of its kind.

Now, you can reserve your own copy of the 1929 $5 Gold Indian. It's the rare 1929 $5 Indian Head gold piece recreated as a privately minted 24 KT Pure Gold Plated Proof. Designer Bela Lyon Pratt's portrait of a strong Indian brave in war bonnet is incused into the gleaming obverse, along with 13 stars and the motto LIBERTY. On the reverse, the gleaming majestic eagle grasps an olive branch, symbolizing peace, against a frosted field.
Comment:  Let's note a few things before we get to the Racialicious comments.

1) A private company is making this "collectible" item, not the US government.

2) It's a copy of a real 1929 coin, not something someone invented recently to stereotype Indians.

3) The Plains chief on the original coin is stereotypical, but so are a million other images of Plains chiefs in our society. I don't consider this "offensive" unless someone is using the chief to misrepresent other Indians, which isn't the case here.

What they're saying on Racialicious

Some comments from Racialicious:[T]he fetishization nearly always involves a man with a feather headdress, because all indigenous peoples of North America wear and wore those!I wouldn't call this an example of "fetishization," since the 1929 coin is a real historical item that people are interested in. I wouldn't have chosen this coin to reproduce, but private mints exist to cater to collectors. Should people stop collecting coins because our currency honors too many dead white men and not enough people of color?[T]he fact that the word “liberty” is on the coin proves even more that Native history is constantly being ignored and altered in favor of White America’s version of history.I think the word "Liberty" appears on all our coins by law or custom. I'm pretty sure it wasn't intended as an ironic comment on the Indians' lack of freedom in 1929.

Moreover, Americans have frequently used the Indian as a symbol of liberty throughout the country's history. This symbolism became increasingly wrongheaded and ironic as time went on, since Americans increasingly denied Indians their freedom. But originally Indians were freer than their Euro-American counterparts, so the symbolism has some validity.

Indian head = scalping?Even worse--when I saw this for the first time saying “get an Indian head” it reminded me immediately of scalping, and the price to get a “real Indian head.”The obverse side of a coin is called the "head" side because it usually has a head on it. In the past people have referred to "Lincoln Head," "Mercury Head," and Liberty Head" coins, among others. This coin's Indian head has nothing to do with scalping or beheading an Indian to collect a bounty.[A]lso, notice the coin is gold…. right, cuz the first nation people got liberty with gold…oh yeah and pursuit of happiness and LIFE too……or not.You could claim that making the coin gold was intended to be a statement about how the US took the Indians' gold and forced them into a gold-based economy. But you'd be foolish to do so. Again, there's no connection between the type of metal used and the person displayed.

I wonder if this commenter would feel better if the coin were made of silver, nickel, or copper. Would that be less of an anti-Indian statement? I don't see how. You could turn the complaint around and say, "The white man gets gold while the Indian gets copper...how unfair is that?"


Sure, the original coin's image is stereotypical. It also looks a bit crude. The buffalo nickel and Sacagawea dollar have superior designs. If the US were going to reissue the $5 Indian Head coin, I'd say no.

But if a private collector wants to buy a copy from a private company, is it really worth discussing? I don't think so. You may think I get outraged about every little Native stereotype, but this replica of a coin doesn't bother me.

For more on the subject, see Buffalo Dollars Benefit NMAI and The Indian Head Penny.

P.S. See my comments on the original thread if you're interested.


Anonymous said...

Seriously, the overly insensitivities among some fellow indians is really getting annoying. And personally speaking, I don't find this rare collectors item--offensive. There's nothing offensive about it. I always believed that the plains head indian on the coin was a paid tribute to them. I didn't think it meant every indian tribe in the U.S. But for them. I mean, that is how I saw it. Since plains indians(me being one of them) whose Chiefs are famous for the head dress and no other tribe. I didn't care what the white thinks. But the coin looked pretty cool and nothing offensive.


Terence Towles Canote said...

I don't consider it offensive either. To me it is simply a historical coin that is being reproduced. To me, there is a lot worse stuff out there that we need to get upset over than the reproduction of an old coin!

Rob said...

The people I quoted weren't Indians, for the most part. Just well-intentioned people of color and the like.

Americans such as Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows paid tribute to actual Plains Indians and chiefs. Since then, we've mostly been paying tribute to the stereotypes, not the reality.

Unknown said...

I think the $5 gold piece is a step up from the Indian-head Penny with a white girl wearing an imitation headdress, or the Indian princess gold dollars (http://www.coinfacts.com/gold_dollars/indian_princess_gold_dollars.html) which...well, I'm not sure what that one is supposed to be depicting. I'm white and a fan of obsolete American currency, so I'm trying to sort which of my feelings are legitimate and which are knee-jerk NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO MY PRIVILEGE. They're correct about it only representing certain Plains Indians, and it would be cool if the new re-designed 2009 pennies actually showcased all of America's indigenous people instead of this weird Lincoln thing they're doing-- with log cabins! That's not even real!

Rob said...

The US government is showcasing different aspects of Native culture on the reverse of the Sacagawea dollar, Paige. Is that what you're talking about?

Unknown said...

I'd forgotten about the Sacajawea dollars-- I was ranting about the Lincoln centennial pennies and the old Indian Princess $1 coins 1854-1889 with the bizarro design.

Rob said...

We could put Mankato, where Lincoln ordered 38 Dakota Sioux prisoners to be hanged, on the back of the cent. But some Americans might not go for that.


Stephen said...

Ah yes good ol' war mongering racist Abe, who laughed when Sherman told him about his atrocities, oh yeah and don't believe a word of his rags to riches story, it's a complete myth.

dmarks said...

I don't buy the "war mongering" line about Lincoln. And he ended up making great progress on race.

Rob said...

You might want to brush up on your history, Stephen. Lincoln had no "rags to riches" story because he was never rich.