The Exchange : Who was the Native American model for the buffalo nickel? That's a matter of debate

Who was the Native American model for the buffalo nickel? That's a matter of debate

James Earle Fraser used a buffalo and an indian head as his design for the Buffalo nickel to ensure that the coin would never be mistaken as anything but an American coin. Production of the Buffalo nickel stopped 75 years ago.  In 1938, the United States decided to make a switch to the Jefferson nickel, which is the nickel that is still used. Today, Buffalo nickels are collected by coin collectors and displayed in museums, such as the Money Museum in Colorado Springs.


Nearly 67 years after 1938, a Buffalo re-emerged as a design on an American coin when it was minted on the 2005 Kansas state quarter.  One year later, a pair of buffaloes appeared as the design of the 2006 North Dakota State Quarter.  


The first Native American image to appear on a United States coin since the Buffalo nickel came in 2000 with the Sacagawea dollar.  In 2009, the United States began minting a $1 Native American Coin Series to commemorate the history and accomplishments of Native Americans through history. 


0901_news _sacagawea

($1 Sacagawea Dollar)


Fraser claimed that the portrait of the Native American on the buffalo nickel was a composite of three Native Americans chiefs from different tribes.  Those chiefs included Iron Tail (Lakota), Two Moons (Cheyenne) and John Big Tree (Seneca). 


1301_smith -1913 Buffalo Nickel Obv

(Native American design on the 1913 Buffalo nickel)

Chief Iron Tail is considered by many to be the most famous Native American of his day.  He is known for his lead roles in the world famous "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show." Iron Tail was one of many well-known individuals who traveled in the show, which included Sioux warrior Sitting Bull and sharp shooters Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith.  Iron Tail and William Cody, otherwise known as Buffalo Bill, were close friends and even took hunting trips together. They worked together until 1913. For the next three years, Iron Tail joined "The 101 Ranch Wild West Show." However, in May 1916, due to pneumonia, Iron Tail died at the age of 74. 


Cheyenne Chief Two Moons first made his name when he participated in three battles that included the Battle of the Rosebud, Battle of Little Big Horn and Battle of Wolf Mountain. In January 1877 at the Battle of Wolf Mountain, he surrendered his Cheyenne band to Gen. Nelson A. Miles.  Two Moons would later enlist as an Indian Scout for Miles. Two Moons was friendly and well-liked by the soldiers he worked alongside.  Therefore, Miles appointed him head chief of the Cheyenne Northern Reservation. Two Moons never stopped serving the Cheyenne; later in his life he served the Cheyenne Northern Reservation by traveling to Washington, D.C. on several occasions to discuss and fight for the future of his fellow Native Americans. During the Woodrow Wilson presidency, Two Moons was invited by the president to discuss the future of Two Moon's people.  In 1917, he died in his Montana home at the age of 70.


The final Native American who can lay claim to being the model of the coin was John Big Tree. Not only did he claim to be one of the models of Fraser's design, Chief John Big Tree claimed to be the only model.  John Big Tree also made claims that he was the model for Fraser's "End of the Trail" work. Big Tree also played roles in several Hollywood films. Additionally, he appeared on the cover of the March 1964 edition of Esquire Magazine


The debate over the models for Fraser's Native American design will continue and leave us with unanswered questions and unknown facts.

Written by Brandon Ortega at 00:00

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005358 said...
I would like to point out that the American Buffalo was also used in the designs of legal tender U.S. commemorative coins, namely the 1991 Mt. Rushmore half dollar, the 1999 Yellowstone National Park dollar, and the 2001 American Buffalo dollar, all prior to the stated post-1938 "re-emergence" on the design of the 2005 Kansas quarter dollar coin. Thanks.
February 14, 2013 07:37


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