America’s Native American dollar reaches for the stars in 2019

Updated on 6/30/17 to add external links.

On June 21, 2017, a quorum of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee met at United States Mint headquarters on 9th Street in Washington, D.C. We had a full day of meetings that started at 8:00 a.m. and wrapped up at 4:45 p.m., with a break for lunch on premises.

Among our agenda items was reviewing and discussing designs for the upcoming 2019 and 2020 Native American dollars. This coinage series was launched in 2009 to memorialize American Indians and, in the words of its authorizing legislation, “the important contributions made by Indian tribes and individual Native Americans in the development [and history] of the United States.” Their obverse design keeps the portrait of Shoshone guide Sacagawea and her son, Pomp, used on the golden dollar from 2000 to 2008. The Native American dollar reverse designs change every year.

Since 2011, the coins in the series have been produced only for numismatic sales—none are issued for circulation. They can be purchased in annual Mint and Proof sets, and in rolls, bags, and boxes directly from the Mint, for a premium over face value.

A lot of serious thought goes into the design of these historic coins. Members of 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 serve as stakeholders in deciding the annual themes and recommending general potential elements for each coin. Once the Mint’s artists have had a chance to draw design proposals, their work is reviewed by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and, in public session, the CCAC.

In our January 17, 2017, telephonic meeting, we discussed the general themes for the 2019 and 2020 dollars: American Indians in the Space Program, and Alaska’s groundbreaking anti-discrimination law of 1945.

For the 2019 coin, CCAC members agreed on the importance of the legend “American Indians in the Space Program” and the significant symbolism of eagle feathers (and eagles themselves) in Indian culture. Astronaut John Herrington (Chickasaw)—the first Native American in space—carried an eagle feather into orbit with the International Space Station in 2002. Dr. Herman Viola, our member specially qualified as an American historian, praised the portfolio of coinage designs. “This is all very exciting, especially to the Indian community. . . . It’s going to get a great deal of attention. It would be wonderful to have an eagle feather somehow represented,” he said, further pointing out that “Herrington’s eagle feather is at the Museum of the American Indian, on the second floor, if you want to take a look at it.”

My feeling is that the U.S. space program is so big and so dramatic by itself that not emphasizing the Native American theme on the coin would risk viewers not making the connection. Several of the designs were obviously space-themed, but without a strong visual link to American Indians.

The CCAC’s Preferred Design: Symbolic, Rather Than Literal

After much discussion, for the 2019 dollar we recommended design 8—which received 19 out of a possible 27 votes—but with a modification. (Our voting is an internal tool used to guide our final discussions, after which a motion is made, whereby we formally decide which designs we’ll recommend to the secretary of the Treasury, who has final decision-making authority.) Our recommendation is that design NA-2019-08 be used, with the legend CHARTING A PATH TO SPACE modified to something more specific to Native Americans, e.g., AMERICAN INDIANS IN SPACE or AMERICAN INDIANS IN THE SPACE PROGRAM. U.S. Mint sculptor-engraver Don Everhart, who attended the meeting in person, suggested that UNITED STATES OF AMERICA could be swapped to the left-hand perimeter, with the longer legend positioned in the lower-right.

Design number NA-2019-08 (hover to zoom).

The three feathers in reverse design 8 symbolize space-program achievements of the Indian nations of the Cherokee (and Mary Golda Ross); the Chickasaw (John Herrington); and the Osage and Comanche (Jerry Elliott).

Various CCAC member comments about design 8 include the following:

Heidi Wastweet: “I was drawn to design number 8. Although the feathers are really overwhelming the planets, I do think it’s more simplified and an interesting design.”

Erik Jansen: “Design number 8 caught my attention because it does carry the important theme of a Native American core contribution, strength, pillar, to the space program. Rather than publish a ‘picture on metal,’ as we are sometimes faced to challenge, I think we have very simple symbols here which may pass the intended message most clearly in a small coin. That is to say: challenge the observer, who takes a moment to try to understand this coin. Give them the sense of context to Native Americans symbolized by the feather with the contextual mission of space. I think it’s a startling contrast which adds to the reader’s attention-gathering of the message.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “I was drawn to the symbolism of the feather and how effective it was. And for me, number 8 really conveyed that, just the eagle feathers and their connection to the cosmos there, with the planets.”

Jeanne Stevens-Sollman: “I thank Herman [Viola] for his astute description of the eagle feather. I think that we really need to pay attention to that.”

Robert Hoge: “My favorite designs are number 8, number 12, and 14. These all have a degree of simplicity and balance and good use of space and include and incorporate the feather.”

Thomas Uram: Agreed with the general consensus.

Mary Lannin: “My favorite design was number 8 for all of the reasons that we have discussed. I think that the three feathers representing the three tribes is very important.”

Dennis Tucker: “The space program itself is so dramatic, so big, and so interesting that that might be what people focus on if they’re not given some guidance with a legend or text. . . . For number 8, I don’t know if this is significant, but the feathers appear to be falling downward, rather than going up to heaven. I don’t know if that’s something that is important to this design. And again, this is a design that does not specifically mention Native Americans, although the symbolism is there with the feathers.”

Disagreement With Other Reviewers

The first preference of the Mint’s Senate liaisons, stakeholders in the Native American tribes, the family of Mary Golda Ross, and the Commission of Fine Arts was number 10 (showing Ross writing calculations, with an Atlas-Agena rocket launching into space, mathematical equations, an astronaut spacewalking, and a star cluster). However, we found this design to be too crowded, too finely detailed for the small planchet of the golden dollar (26.5 mm, about one inch, in diameter). A coin this size needs a bolder, simpler design, and that’s where symbolism carries a lot of weight, rather than trying to show “a picture on a coin” or crowd the art by telling an encyclopedic story. The CFA recommended number 10 with some elements removed for simplification.

Design number na-2019-10 (hover to zoom).

Still, in the CCAC’s opinion the design would have remained too packed. In our ranking, design number 10 received only 3 votes out of our potential 27, and our comments on it included the following:

Heidi Wastweet: “There’s a lot of momentum and preference for number 10. I think it has a lot of merit. And this would be a fantastic medal. But I’m not sure about a dollar coin. It’s just got a lot going on. And I agree with the [CFA] notes of taking away the tower and simplifying the clouds. I love the fact that the astronaut is upside-down. I don’t think taking away the stars is going to add any value. I think the stars are not making it more busy. I think the stars are nice. It’s the other elements that are making it busy. I agree with taking away the arrow. When you see this coin in hand, you’re really not going to be able to identify a lot of what’s going on here. And I would love to see a more simplified design.”

Erik Jansen: “We’re dealing with a very small planchet here, and shallow relief, at that. And so, I’m concerned that potentially we’re generating a mixed message here, against what the CFA may have recommended, because I personally think number 10, even simplified, will become a bit of a ‘mess by committee.’ And I really don’t want to be part of that. So I am then explicitly saying that is not among my recommendations.”

Jeanne Stevens-Sollman: “Number 10, for me, was too much information. It’s better if we’re doing a medal and have more space.”

Robert Hoge: “I’m not very pleased with number 10. This is a design which is just not suitable for a coin. It’s much too fine in detail, if you think of the size. Everything’s going to be lost in the little launching tower and the portrait of Ross. I like the astronaut gripping the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’s baseline up there. I think the image of the Pleiades is not very good because it’s not what can be seen from Earth. It can be a space view, but that’s not explicable. I think it is just much too complicated.”

Next Steps: A Final Decision, Sculpting, Then Coining

Recommendations, including those of the CCAC, will be formally communicated to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who has the decision on which design will be finalized and sculpted for the 2019 dollar coin. Before too long his decision will be made. A member of the Mint’s artist staff will engrave the design for hubs and dies, minting will begin in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco, and then in 2019 we’ll be adding these important coins to our collections. In the meantime we can gaze to the stars and marvel at American Indian contributions to our nation’s exploration of space.

Gallery of U.S. Mint headquarters. (Photos by the author)


Print of a Tiffany mosaic on the second floor of Mint headquarters…

…and the explanation of the print (hover to zoom). The mosaic, “commissioned at a cost of $40,000 for the third Philadelphia Mint” in 1901, illustrates the weighing of coins. This and four related Tiffany mosaics are on display at the Philadelphia Mint.

Dennis Tucker serves the hobby community as publisher at Whitman Publishing, the nation’s largest publisher of numismatic references. He holds the position of numismatic specialist on the CCAC.   ❑

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  1. Jerry Diekmann says

    Xena, KCSO, cagcrisp, SoKrates, Dennis Tucker, and others – thank you for your kind words to wish me a speedy recovery. I am feeling a little better every day, and I have to thank medical science for all the improvements it has made in the last generation, so that patients have a better chance of recovery, and faster and with less pain – I actually got off pain meds while I was still in the hospital.

    I will keep reading this website and offering my assessment and recommendations from time to time. I think the Mint is in a doldrums period now, with less than good designs for coins, which they still try to push with different finishes. In the future I don’t think these finishes will count for much in the way of premiums, and they are making the hobby needlessly complex.

    Here’s a suggestion for a future commem coin – in 2022 – the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln memorial. My suggestion – use the hub for the Lincoln Memorial cent from 1959 -2008, and strike a silver dollar and a gold 1/4 or 1/2 or 1 0z. (or all three) in gold. It would be a beautiful tribute and coin!

  2. John Q. Coinage says

    earthling I think your feelings are kind of skewed. So Obama being a black man created a ghetto culture? He cause the Watts & Detroit riots? ….if so what is the current occupant’ doing? Certainly NOTHING for coins, where’s a MINT DIRECTOR huh, oh I digress this is a coin blog…Anyway NK is a loser for all, without China, or “Ghina…”.) NK is a non starter. IF some kind of coup could be done fine, military action is off the table & Trump’s folks say as much. Now we have the opposite of YOUR alleged “ghetto’ culture” replaced by a culture of self pro-promotion, ignorance of the Constitution, narcissism, lies, and a goal to make his 30% happy, oh & 12 old white lifetime politician creating their “health” plan…..phlease…. Trump lost by 10,000,000 popular votes that is not a mandate.

  3. David says

    I would collect dollar coins but since the date and mintmark is no longer on the obverse I am not interested in these monstrosities.

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