By Rick Heredia
At least one newspaper, the National Labor Tribune, believed Black Diamond had been dealt a great injustice. “The buffalo which served as a model for the nickel coin has been put to death,” it said. “Republics are notoriously ungrateful.”
The occasion for the nickel’s debut was the groundbreaking for the National American Indian Memorial, the dream/scheme (and it turns out, pipe dream) of Rodman Wanamaker, scion of the Wanamaker department store chain. Plans called for the memorial to have a colossal bronze statue of an Indian, 60 feet high on a 70-foot base, one arm raised, two fingers forming a V, greeting ships carrying immigrants and others arriving in New York. A museum and a warrior on horseback were also part of the design. The statue and all the rest were to be erected at Fort Wadsworth on New York’s Staten Island, just south of the Statue of Liberty. Staten Island, named for the Dutch parliament, the Staten-General, originally belonged to Lenape Indians, who repulsed the Dutch three times before the invaders were able to establish a settlement there.
Now, in 1913, the island was being invaded again. On a cold, bleak, wet day, just after noon, the fort’s batteries fired a 21-gun salute announcing the arrival of President William Howard Taft. Waiting to greet Taft were members of his cabinet, New York’s governor, New York City’s mayor, naval and military detachments and officers, including Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles, who had taken part in many of the U.S. Army’s campaigns against Plains Indians, had forced the surrender of Chief Joseph and spent exhausting months in the field chasing Geronimo.
On hand, too, patiently waiting in the mist, were more than 30 Plains Indian leaders and warriors, many of whom who had fought Miles and the U.S. Army. They were dressed in beaded buckskin and wore eagle feather headdresses. They included Plenty Coups, Drags The Wolf, Crane In The Sky, Little Wolf, Black Wolf, Wooden Leg, Red Arrow, Hollow Horn Bear and Two Moons.
Speaking at a press conference held when the citizenship expedition returned to New York in December 1913, Henry Roe Cloud, Winnebago, a Yale graduate known for his speaking skills, asked the question that must have been on the minds of many Indian leaders of the day. “Today, the American Indian finds himself in the midst of a great, complex civilization, and it is a national question whether this complex civilization will bear him down or be the means of his salvation,” Roe Cloud said, as quoted in The New York Times.
Once the nickel went into circulation, it was hammered. Critics complained that it lacked the grace and beauty of previous coins, including its predecessor, the Liberty nickel. But after 25 years, that coin had run its course, and treasury officials wanted to change the design. The New York Times said the new nickel was a “striking example of what a coin intended for wide circulation…should not be.” It said the coin was not pleasing to look at when shiny and new and “will be an abomination when it is old and dull.” One Times reader, H.P. Nitsua, said, “The new nickel is certainly a travesty on artistic effect,” and called the Indian’s feathers “barbaric headgear.”
The New York Sun called it an ugly coin.
The National Indian Memorial never did get built at Fort Wadsworth. Wanamaker couldn’t come up with the money and soon enough, World War I grabbed the headlines. But the Indian head—or buffalo—nickel, outlived its critics to become one of the most admired coins the U.S. ever produced. Many have called it beautiful, and it has become iconic. In the early 1970s, an image of the nickel, Indian head showing, appeared on a protest poster that read the only Indian America ever cared about.
It has been incorporated into many types of jewelry, from earrings to belts. It adorns T-shirts, jackets and other clothing and is the logo for coin shops and other businesses. It has been made into guitar picks and used to decorate the bolt-action rifles and rifle slings. The image has been tattooed onto backs and shoulders. One artist, Peter Rocha, created a striking four-foot-by-four-foot image of the nickel in Fairfield, California using more than 9,500 jellybeans provided by Jelly Belly (see Rocha’s work at JellyBelly.com).
Many of the nickels are sold on eBay. The American Numismatic Association displayed Black Diamond’s mounted head at its 1985 convention, writes author David Lange in his book, The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels. The ANA, headquartered in Colorado Springs, will celebrate 100th anniversary of the nickel during National Coin Week, April 21 to 27. Its theme will be Buffalo Nickel Centennial: Black Diamond Shines Again.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the nickel’s popularity and endurance has come from the U.S. Mint, which resurrected the nickel in the form of the $50 American Buffalo gold bullion coin. When it was first sold in 2006, the mint’s price was $800. As of January 2013, the cost was $960.
Let's discuss these items.
1) The Indian-head or buffalo nickel is much like a modern-day mascot. Twenty-three years after Wounded Knee, it was a way to "honor" Indians after their defeat. Americans came close to exterminating both Indians and buffalo, so this was a way to salve their consciences. "Look how brave and noble the Indian (and buffalo) was," the coin seemed to say. "Think about how they symbolized the strength and majesty of America. And not how we were slaughtering them just a few years ago."
2) The Staten Island statue would've served a similar purpose. "Look at the Indian welcoming people to America," observers might say. "The Europeans weren't invaders, they were guests. White men and Indians lived in peace and harmony (see our Pocahontas and Thanksgiving myths) until something went tragically wrong."
It would've been interesting if we'd had a giant status of an Indian instead of Liberty. I'm not sure if that would've been positive or negative. On the one hand, it would've become the most iconic Indian in the world. On the other hand, it would've whitewashed the white man's responsibility for breaking the treaties and stealing the land.
3)The Wanamaker expeditions did explicitly what the coin and proposed statue did implicitly. Namely, seal off the past and make America feel good about its conquests. People like Wanamaker wanted the Indians to assimilate and vanish from our history. We could remember them as noble warriors, but we were to forget they were sovereign entities with legal rights and natural resources. Indians were to become a comforting myth (again, like Pocahontas and Thanksgiving): the friendly guides who helped us "tame the wilderness." We wouldn't have had to trouble our consciences anymore.
Most of the Native stereotypes in our culture today--and there are millions of them--serve the same purpose. Whitewashing the past...salving our consciences...erasing our crimes. In other words, maintaining the status quo in which broken treaties and stolen land are the norm. It's all about confirming the white man's power and privilege to rule according to Euro-Christian standards.
All that from one little nickel.
For more on the buffalo nickel, see Indian Head Gold Dollars and Sports Logos = US Coins?
Below: "Chief Two Guns White Calf, nickel model."