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The Flipside with Robert R. Van Ryzin

Buffalo Nickel a Tale of Two Big Trees
June 03, 2008

Having done plenty of research into the topic of who were the models for the Buffalo nickel, I'm convinced that Isaac Johnny John (Chief John Big Tree) was not a model for the coin, despite his claims otherwise. I make my full arguments in my book Twisted Tails: Sifted Fact, Fantasy and Fiction from U.S. Coin History (Krause Publications, 1995) and have previously written about the topic for Numismatic News, Coins magazine, and have given a number of speeches on the subject.

I won't go into the details here, but several factors work against his having been a model for the coin, including a quote from the designer, James Earle Fraser, who noted that Iron Tail, a Sioux; Two Moons, a Cheyenne; and different Big Tree (Adoeette, a Kiowa) were the models. Adoeette is shown (at left).

John Big Tree also claimed he was the model for Fraser's famous "End of the Trail," statue, which is dubious. There are pictures in our photo archives of him posing before the statue in Waupun, Wis., in the 1960s - one of which is shown here (at right).

I started my research into the models for the coin believing he was a model for the coin, having seen John Big Tree on a TV quiz show when I was a kid. He claimed that Fraser used his forehead and the nose in the design.

It wasn't until I started working here at Krause Publications, in the mid-1980s, and began looking into the claims of another Native American who thought he was the model (Two Guns White Calf, a Blackfoot) that I began to doubt John Big Tree's claim and found that another Big Tree was a more likely model.

Even though I don't believe John Big Tree ever modeled for the coin, and really doubt he had anything to do with the "End of the Trail" statue, for past several years I've collected many items related to John Big Tree - particularly photographs of him from his movie days as a bit actor in Western films.

I have two black-and-white photographs of John Big Tree at Glacier National Park, in Montana, while appearing in one of the last silent films. The photos are somewhat ironic in that, in 1929, when filming was done, Two Guns White Calf was claiming to be the model for the Buffalo nickel. For many years after, Two Guns was an attraction at the park, greeting visitors, signing photographs and being procmoted by the Great Northern Railroad as the model for nickel.

Unfortunately for Two Guns White Calf, when asked about his claim of being depicted on the nickel, Fraser denied having used Two Guns' likeness for the coin. Two Guns White Calf is shown at the left in the image here of two Native Americans. Though it's hard to make out, he is wearing a medallion with the image of the obverse of the Buffalo nickel on it. Two Guns died in 1934.

It appears that John Big Tree didn't take up the role until later. Shown here is a wooden nickel from one of his coin show visits in the 1960s.

One of the more interesting things in my collection is a modern jigsaw puzzle by Master Pieces Jigsaw Puzzles. It depicts an artwork by David C. Behrens titled "Five Cent Peace," which represents as its main image Two Guns White Calf in profile to the nickel, which is also depicted. Around the nickel are representations of Iron Tail, Two Moons and Adoeette (Big Tree). "Five Cent Peace" is also available as a limited-edition print, and I've seen the image on shirts.

You can view "Five Cent Peace" and other Native American works by Behrens at his Web site: (Incidently, he uses coins and medals in a number of his works.)

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About the Author
Robert R. Van Ryzin has been a coin collector for 30 years. He has served as editor of Krause Publications Coins and Coin Prices magazines since 1994. He joined the firm in 1986 after obtaining a master of fine arts degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Prior to becoming a magazine editor, he worked on World Coin News as a staff member and later served as managing editor of Numismatic News. Van Ryzin, whose specialty is U.S. coinage history, is also the award-winning author of the book Crime of 1873: The Comstock Connection (Krause Publications, 2001), as well as two earlier titles, Twisted Tails: Sifted Fact, Fantasy and Fiction from U.S. Coin History (Krause Publications, 1995) and Striking Impressions: A Visual Guide to Collecting U.S. Coins (Krause Publications, 1992).

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