A Nickel’s Worth of History


U.S. Mint plans to release two newly redesigned nickels into circulation
in the spring of 2004. As the Associated Press reported on November
7, 2003 “After 65 years with hardly a change, the nickel is
getting two new looks next year—one design will feature clasped
hands of friendship between the U.S. government and American Indians,
and the second will show Lewis and Clark on a keelboat.” 

Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore: “We believe it is important
for a country to pause from time to time and recognize our heritage.”
The occasion, in this case, was “the bicentennial of the 1803
Louisiana Purchase.” So, our government has chosen to honor
the bicentennial of something that many consider to be a larceny
of unimaginable proportions. But take a look at the image that was
chosen to “commemorate” it. The AP article explained that
on the back of the new nickel, “There is an image of hands
clasped in friendship—one with a military cuff to symbolize
the U.S. government and the other with an ornate bracelet to represent
American Indians. Above the clasped hands is a tomahawk crossed
by a peace pipe. Below the clasped hands are the Latin words

Pluribus Unum

if we thought long and hard, someone could come up with an even
better symbol of “friendship” with the continent’s
native peoples than the hand of the imperial military that was conquering
them with genocidal force in 1803. Perhaps

E Pluribus Unum

(From Many, One) could be replaced by a motto more meaningful to
the indigenous people whose land was “purchased” 200 years
ago. How about

E Pluribus Pauci

(From Many, Few)? Or, perhaps,

E Multis Viventibus, Multi Mortui

(From Many Living, Many
Dead). I also like

E Pluribus Lucrum

(because it sounds the
best in English: From Many, Money). 

offensive image only increases with a little knowledge of history.
The image is taken from something that appeared in 1803 on the Jefferson
Peace Medal. This medal was carried by official agents of the U.S.
government who traveled with the Lewis and Clark expedition. According
to the National Park Service description, “These agents were
to give the peace medals to the most powerful American Indian chiefs
only if these chiefs would agree to certain conditions.” 

were these conditions? Well, it seems that the agents (the Park
service calls them “captains”) would sit down in ceremonies
with various native leaders. Then, as the Park Service explains,
“During these ceremonies, the captains would impress upon the
chief the importance of making and maintaining peace. If the chief
would promise to be under the rule of the Great Chief Thomas Jefferson
and if he would make peace with all the other American Indian tribes
in the area, the captains would then present him with a peace medal
as a symbol of their agreement.” This process, in the official
history, is known as “making and maintaining peace.” 

200 years later, the image from this “peace medal” is
issued by the U.S. government to commemorate…what? Is it really
to commemorate the “purchase” of the 820,000 square miles
of land that was stolen from the continent’s native people?
Is it to commemorate the almost 400 treaties that the U.S. government
has made and broken with those same people? Either way, the “peace”
of the United States government isn’t worth a nickel.


Minneapolis freelance
writer and activist Jeff Nygaard publishes an email newsletter called
Nygaard Notes