December 18, 2008

The Indian Head penny

I've written before about the buffalo nickel (e.g., Original Buffalo Nickel Mold) and the state quarters, but not about the granddaddy of all Native-themed coins: the Indian Head cent. This posting rectifies that.

The Indian Head penny circulated from 1859 to 1909--longer than any US coin, I believe, until the Lincoln cent surpassed it. I think these pennies could buy as much as a dime or a quarter now, so people wouldn't have spurned them. The pennies circulated during the Indian Wars, when many of the worst slaughters in Indian country occurred. I suspect they influenced how Americans perceived Indians.

Here's the story behind the coin:

This 19th Century Cent Design Lasted For Only One YearDesigner Longacre intended his Indian Head motif to be a depiction representing “Liberty” wearing an Indian headdress. He had previously utilized this idea of an Indian representing “Liberty” for his three-dollar gold piece, first struck in 1854. Longacre modified this design, particularly the headdress, for the Indian girl on the new cent. It should be noted that the law at this time did not specifically require a depiction of “Liberty” on the obverse of these coins and gave the Director of the Mint latitude in the designs. In fact, the copper-nickel Indian Head Cents did not become legal tender until Public Law 89-81 was passed in 1865.

When a number of people questioned the use of the Indian, mint engravers explained this was a North American Indian girl. This idea continued to be popular into the 20th Century. However, the Indian on the gold coins of Pratt and Saint-Gaudens and James E. Fraser’s so-called “Buffalo” (really a bison) or Indian five-cent coin, depicted real Indians rather than a girl wearing an Indian headdress.

Mint Director Snowden was very impressed with the new “Indian Head” obverse for the one-cent piece. He wrote, “The obverse, it will be seen, presents an ideal of America--the sweeping plumes of the North American Indian giving it the character of North America.”

Cornelius Vermeule, in his fine book: “Numismatic Art in America,” commented that Longacre’s depiction “with the flowing hair and a few cascading feathers and a necklace” seemed more natural. According to Vermeule, “the coin became perhaps the most beloved and typically American of any piece great or small in the American series.”
Comment:  Note the confusion in these conflicting comments. The coin depicted "Liberty" wearing an Indian headdress. Or a North American Indian girl. Or a white girl wearing an Indian headdress.

I suspect most people thought it was a genuine Indian girl. Why? Because it was an Indian Head penny, not a Liberty Head or White Girl Head penny. Because people didn't think of Liberty as a young girl. Because the mint tried to fudge the issue with its references to Indians. And because the penny matched the stereotypical impression of what an Indian looked like.

Initially, people didn't like the idea of having a "savage" Indian on one of their coins. But choosing a sanitized Caucasian girl with Greek features to represent an Indian made it okay. They grew to love their cherubic "Indian" girl, so safe and sane was she. She was one of the good Indians who wouldn't hurt a fly--not like those bad Indians who were killing settlers. She was an early version of an Indian mascot--a favorite pet, just like a real little girl.

Of course, few people realized that a real Indian girl wouldn't be caught dead wearing a chief's headdress. The "plumage" was reserved for revered male leaders and warriors. But the mint's people either didn't know that or didn't care.

Whomever the penny depicted--Liberty or an Indian girl or a white girl playing an Indian--it symbolized something. I like the mint director's claim that the Indian wannabe represented the "ideal" or "character" of America. Yes, she sure did. Some quotes from The Political Uses of Stereotyping help make the point:After the Indian wars, Sacagawea and other "good Indians" ironically became symbols of the rightness of manifest destiny and white displacement of the Indians. Here was an enlightened Indian maiden, the thinking seems to have been, who recognized the superiority of the white race and the inevitability of subduing the west. That this unusually perceptive Indian helped achieve that goal just goes to show that the conquest of the west was best for the Indians too, even if they didn't know it yet.  [The Straight Dope Science Advisory Board]

Playing Indian was a way for the interlopers to transform themselves into authentic Americans. As Deloria observes, "Conflating Indians and land, the rioters suggested that these qualities lay embedded in the American soil itself and that, as the environment reshaped settlers' personalities, freedom and liberty had made their way into the psychic makeup of white Europeans."  [Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian]

"Indians had been slaughtered; for the sake of the new race of Americans, they must be resurrected and commemorated, their 'pure' image preserved in gold," Trachtenberg writes. ... "Freezing the Indian image as 'pure' so that it could be incorporated as an ingredient in American whiteness was a cure to both blackness and the 'inferior' strains from Eastern and Southern Europe," he writes.  ["What It Means to Be an Indian in America," Hartford Courant]
Yes, that's the message Americans got from their beloved penny. It was okay to kill or oppress real Indians because the mythical Indian lived on as the spirit of America. Nice.

For more on the subject, see America's Cultural Roots.

1 comment:

dmarks said...

Interesting take on it.