by Marty Menz – Gainesville Coins
The Next Era of U.S. Coinage would benefit from a return to the continent’s roots…
Native Americans have a rich artistic heritage that has developed in this land for the past 13,000 years or more, yet the United States Mint has ignored contemporary native artists while it struggles with complaints of creative mediocrity. Meanwhile, mints in other nations with indigenous populations have moved ahead with innovative designs by native artists.
American numismatics is filled with examples of designs featuring the figure of a Native American; they have been mobilized as symbols of American identity for well over a century and their stoic visages communicate the rich history of our nation. But do these depictions of American Indians actually represent a native identity and its place in the United States? In a certain sense, yes. They symbolize the use of Native Americans as totemic figures interpreted through an Anglo-American lens, largely divorced from their own beliefs, traditions, and art.
We need not look back to the controversially anachronistic “Indian Head” bust of Saint-Gaudens’s gold eagle coin to witness this, but can see it expressed in the present with the Native American $1 coin program. While the designs for this coin series must be vetted by the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the Congressional Native American Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the National Congress of American Indians, this does not mean they necessarily represent American Indian history, identity, or art in any real sense.
In fact, the stated purpose of the Native American Dollar Program is to celebrate “the important contributions made by Indian tribes and individual Native Americans to the history and development of the United States,”1 meaning that American Indian cultures are not “celebrated” here on their own terms, but instead for their contributions to a nation which has subjected them to racism, forced migration, and assimilation. How likely is it that we will ever see figures like Tecumseh, Osceola, or Wovoka, remembered for their resistance to American expansion, on a U.S. Mint coin?
Historical Perspective on American Indian Art
For more than a century, archaeologists and antiquarians working throughout the United States have been uncovering the remnants of American Indian artistic and religious traditions dating back 12,000 years ago or more. Engraved stones found at the Gault site in Central Texas may seem less-than-spectacular at first glance, but their extraordinary age makes them important.
These same early Americans also crafted large stone spear points, some of which are more than a half-foot in length. Thousands of years later during the Middle and Late Archaic periods, cultures in Wisconsin and Minnesota crafted copper implements and ornaments that archaeologists refer to as the Old Copper Complex. Meanwhile, around 1500 B.C. in Louisiana, people at the Poverty Point site were creating massive earthworks and trading in objects such as polished animal-shaped beads carved from stone.
About 1,000 years after Poverty Point’s abandonment and the collapse of its trading network, people associated with the Adena culture in the Ohio River valley began their own regional trade network. The Hopewell that succeeded them along the Ohio River around the time of Christ traded in copper from the Great Lakes, marine shell from the Gulf Coast, and exotic stones such as obsidian from as far away as Wyoming. Hopewellian crafters created wonderful designs in stone, bone, clay, and metal that are spread among archaeological sites throughout the eastern woodlands.
Beginning around A.D. 1000, Mississippian people, including those who built the massive Cahokia site near St. Louis, spread their ideas and artistic motifs throughout the American Midwest and Southeast. This suite of beliefs, designs, and artifacts is known by archaeologists today as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex and includes objects such as engraved shell gorgets and embossed copper plates depicting dancing warriors, birds of prey, and more abstract patterns like the quartered circle.
In the West, puebloan cultures created intricately painted ceramics and elaborate ritual outfits, complete with wide arrays of symbols and designs that adorned the walls of their ceremonial buildings. As recently as the early 20th century, anthropologists studied among the American Indian societies of the West, making note of their artistic heritage, from the kivas and kachina costumes of the arid Southwest to the decorated poles and plankhouses of the Pacific Northwest.
Inclusion is a Solution
While contemporary American Indians are successors to a long history of artistic expression, there are many problems with the use of historical designs for the production of coins. Perhaps most importantly, many native religious beliefs and their artistic expressions may be considered secret, their meanings not meant for outsiders to know. Alternatively, many Native Americans remain resentful about the disturbance of graves by archaeologists, and may be resistant to seeing the grave goods of their ancestors displayed on a coin. The inclusion of indigenous art on U.S. coinage requires consultation with the various nations of American Indians. It is more than a little presumptive to expect that the artistic heritage of America’s indigenous past can be copied and used without the consent of those whose ancestors originally created it.
That said, this piece is not intended to advocate for the use of designs from artifacts recovered by archaeologists, but rather to suggest that the U.S Mint invite contemporary indigenous artists to submit original artwork for coins. The Royal Canadian Mint’s set of coins recounting the legend of Nanaboozhoo, designed by Ojibwa artist Cyril Assiniboine serves as an excellent example of the potential of such a relationship. So too does the Perth Mint’s “Dreaming” series, designed by aboriginal artist Darryl Bellotti. These coins incorporate an indigenous perspective that is absent from the Congressionally-determined themes of the U.S. Mint’s Native American $1 program and a level of artistic expression missing from its relatively bland designs.
The United States has no shortage of indigenous artists from whom to draw designs befitting of our nation’s coinage. In fact, a number contemporary native artists have had their work displayed through the Smithsonian Institute’s Museum of the American Indian and its associated print publication, meaning that the U.S. government already has a body of qualified candidates to contact for commissions. Alternatively, the U.S. Mint could solicit design submissions more broadly, creating an opportunity for up-and-coming artists to gain exposure. In taking up this suggestion, the U.S. Mint can at once provide an outlet for American Indian artists and strengthen its own artistic reputation while also exposing the American public to the traditions and history of Native Americans in a novel way that acknowledges their culture on its own terms.