Saturday, May 08, 2004

Annals of numismatics: the Louisiana Purchase nickel 

Franco-American relations being what they are, it is interesting, though perhaps unexpected, that there has been so little discussion in the press of the new reverse of the Jefferson nickel, which commemorates the Louisiana Purchase. Here's a drawing of the design from CNN.

The back of the new nickels now headed into circulation bear the words "United States of America," "Louisiana Purchase" and "1803." 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. The images are similar to those on Jefferson Peace Medals, which were presented ceremonially to Indian chiefs and other important leaders. Below the clasped hands are the Latin words "E Pluribus Unum" (meaning "Out of many, one"), and hugging the bottom of the coin is the denomination: "Five Cents."

I note this now because I got my first LP nickel in circulation this week. Not having read anything about the design, I confess that upon inspection I thought that the "ornate bracelet" representing American Indians was the braid of a French officer. We did, after all, buy the territory from France, our faithful ally in our own struggle for independence. Imagine my surprise, then, when I learned it was an "ornate bracelet" of some notional honcho Indian.

Frankly, the nickel's design is not very inspiring, and is generally not up to the high standard of the U.S. Mint (although a nickel is not a large canvas on which to paint, as it were, so perhaps there is virtue in its feel-good simplicity). There is, however, a more troubling aspect to the design, in addition to its mushy mediocrity.

One need not be an unreconstructed revisionist to think that the Louisiana Purchase, which cleared the way -- as a matter of law, at least -- for massive European expansion into the west of the American continent, was a very bad deal for the Indians. If indeed an ornately braceleted chief did shake the hand of an American officer on the occasion of the Louisiana Purchase, we betrayed that chief shortly thereafter. The handshake was a sham, and the peace pipe was a joke.

It is not clear whether the LP nickel is offensive to Indians (whether or not Indians are, in fact, offended, which I have not heard) because it reminds them of what they have lost, or because it portrays Anglo-Indian relations two hundred years ago so divergently from the bloody history that followed. One way or the other, though, I'd be offended if I were an Indian.


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