Ashley Cordes
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Both sides of the coin
Lady Liberty and the construction of ‘the New Native’ on currency in Oregon’s colonial period

G*** Rush coins are communicative technologies/artefacts reflective of the US nation-building project. This chapter uses an image of the 1853 and 1854 g*** dollar coins as a launching point to discuss the switch the image stamped on the coin from that of Lady Liberty wearing a coronet to that of Lady Liberty wearing an Indigenous headdress. This project is inspired by coins found in G*** Beach, Oregon during an archaeological excavation conducted collaboratively with tribes in Oregon, namely the Coquille Nation. The chapter discusses how the coins are reflective of imperialist nostalgia, and a misguided attempt to honour or eulogize the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. Ultimately, these g*** coins flowing from the five operating US mints in the mid-1850s sought to eradicate various Indigenous currencies in circulation (e.g. dentalium, beads, potlatch systems). G*** and other metals served as a fetish for colonizers; a means to claim and usurp land, impose power and war on tribes in order to extract the natural resource. Raw materials were then refined, processed, pressed into coins and stamped with signifiers that shed light on the financial power dynamics associated with Manifest Destiny. The scope of the chapter is then broadened to discuss more contemporary US coins with Indigenous icons and what the longevity of this trope communicates about racial/national relations with Indigenous nations.

Coins are far more than tiny denominations of money made of malleable metals. They are collectibles, good luck charms, repositories of stories, sentiments of nationhood, remembrances of violence and storers of possibility. In this chapter, I analyse two aged coins in the context of settler colonialism in America, specifically in the state of Oregon. The first is an 1853 half dollar coin and the second is an 1854 full dollar coin, both decorated with the face of Lady Liberty and other significant symbols. Between 1853 and 1854, the coin designer gave Lady Liberty a costume change – replacing her headwear of a coronet with an Indigenous headdress. Reading (i.e., analysing) these coins’ design elements is important because it allows for the unravelling of settler-colonial imperatives and provides clues into their socio-technical journeys – from g*** metal belonging to the earth to antique tokens of American imperialism. 1 How does Lady Liberty's change of headwear reflect the complex relationships between settler-invaders and Indigenous peoples in America's early history? What can coins like these reveal about the intersections of currency, settler colonialism and contemporary debts to Indigenous peoples? The question of how to understand and repay debts to Indigenous peoples is a concern of Randell-Moon (Chapter 14), as well as of Comyn (Chapter 4), which also takes the circulation of currency as its central concern.

Figure 5.1 Half dollar coin.

The Rogue River War and settler colonialism in Oregon

In the 1850s, in what is currently known as Oregon, American imperialism was accelerating. The fur trade and the G*** Rush ushered thousands of settler-invaders into Indigenous homelands, supported by the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 that sanctioned American white men to each steal 320 acres of land, or 640 acres for white men with wives. This Act was consistent with the broader sweep of settler colonialism in America, what Patrick Wolfe (2006) describes as structural, multidimensional elimination of Indigenous peoples and homeland takeover. The Rogue River War (1853–56) in Oregon was designed to eliminate, precipitated by ongoing tensions between Indigenous peoples and settlers. Settlers committed acts of genocide and sexual violence, and spread diseases to Indigenous peoples. 2 Ultimately, the war ended with federal reservation policies that removed most Indigenous people in Oregon to reservations such as the Grande Ronde and Siletz reservations by 1856.

Oregon Territory's Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Joel Palmer, who was white, and others had brokered an arrangement known as the Coast Treaty. Leaders of many tribes along the Oregon Coast signed with X-marks to safeguard a million-acre reservation for their peoples. However, other treaties were never ratified, acreage promised to tribes was reduced and government entities conveniently claimed that a ‘lost map’ was needed to process treaties and thus they could not honour them.

This land that was promised – the rivers that sparkled with salmon and served as meeting places for tribes to forge diplomacy, the rock formations that protect them, including one that has since been destroyed by the government called ‘Grandmother Rock’, the ground that each generation of our families has stood on since time immemorial – are all wanted back. This is the true debt of the American empire. The debts of settler colonists cannot be settled while Indigenous relations with land continue to be violently interrupted, as Randell-Moon (Chapter 14) shows in the chapter on Gurindji Country in Australia. All else that was lost – lives, Indigenous epistemologies and technologies, ideas of land as sacred and not a commodity, are all immeasurable. For example, Oregon is potlatch territory, where gifts from the sovereign earth were given between tribes in ceremonies to honour notions of reciprocity, obligation and relationship building. The loss of potlatch practice (though potlatches have been revived in limited contexts), largely supplanted by capitalist systems, resulted in mass environmental damage, the ruthless pursuit for capitalist gain and alienation of community bonds for individualism. When an Indigenous community endures methods of cultural elimination their ability to steward the land, speak their languages and engage in traditional exchange is stolen. It is not just past generations but present and future generations that are impacted. It can be hard to regain even parts of what has been lost, but when Indigenous nations engage in cultural revitalization, reflection and emancipatory research, it is sometimes possible.

Archaeological considerations

In the summer of 2016, I was invited to participate in a Southern Oregon University project that archaeologically and ethno-historically reconsiders sites of importance during Oregon's colonial period. This project was brought to my attention by Southern Oregon University professor of anthropology Dr Mark Tveskov and the Coquille Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO). I am an enrolled citizen of the Coquille Nation, located around Coos Bay Oregon, and I serve as chair of the Coquille Culture and Education Committee. This archaeological excavation presented a unique opportunity to work with my nation to learn more about the Rogue River War, which has had intergenerational effects on Coquille families. It also provided opportunities for me to connect and correct biased histories that are framed by settler-colonial storytelling (Cordes 2020). What I learned was that loss of sovereignty was categorically based on the value placed on the land as property, as well as value placed on people. Those are mediated through notions of ownership, cash, commodity, currency and the significance ascribed to them. Thus, I found myself most interested in artefacts/belongings related to currency. They are the mechanisms and systems that drove settlers to displace Indigenous peoples and commit genocide, and for that, the ghosts of colonialism will forever haunt each generation of Americans who must reckon with their complicity, historical amnesia and ultimate responsibility to engage in comprehensive reparation, including, but not limited to, the return of lands to Indigenous nations.

About a month into excavations, where I was primarily responsible for film-recording belongings and interviews, and helping to sift through layers of earth, one of the lead archaeologists announced the uncovering of a full, unaltered excavated coin. After brushing off, it revealed itself as an 1853 half dollar coin designed by James B. Longacre. This coin is imprinted with elements that when decoded, speak to how America imagined itself in the colonial period and is thus an ideal coin for helping to understand cultural politics. My process of coming to understand the importance of this coin and its agency as a signifier of American imperialism came from dissecting everything about it – its materials, symbols, size, purpose and how it changed in the next iteration of coins, and then zooming back out to see how it fits into America's settler-colonial arrogance.

Understanding Lady Liberty coins

The front of the excavated coin displays Lady Liberty, facing left from the neck up with an expressionless face, curled hair and a coronet. The coin's modelling and type of profile framing, a common generic convention of coin design, is based on Greek and Roman figures as well as nineteenth-century notions of European phrenological and phenotypical aesthetic predilections. The iconography of money frequently projects settlers’ self-understandings of the nation in settler-colonial contexts (Mwangi 2002). Lady Liberty's gaze shows that she is conscious of her identity – a hesitant national symbol of freedom and the most prominent piece of the coin's design. She is important because of her ties to American femininity and status. America had consistently been conceptualized as feminine and, in the eighteenth century, under ‘captivity’ by British rule; metaphorized as colonizable, rapeable, vulnerable and yet still strong. Lady Liberty represented the breaking of captivity and the promise of freedom. She holds symbolic power, but not as a queen, as suggested by her wearing a coronet as opposed to a royal crown. Around her head are thirteen stars and around the stars is a rim, which perhaps signifies her crown accomplishment, the possession of thirteen colonies.

The reverse side of the coin displays 1853 in the centre and is encircled with a wreath and the words ‘Half Dol California G***’. Due to its immediate proximity, Southern Oregon was treated as an extension of California's g***fields, as California remains the primary site in the historical memory of the larger G*** Rush. The California G*** Rush was brutally genocidal against Indigenous peoples of California, and settler invaders tried rationalizing their methods of elimination and conquest through myths, including that of the American Dream. This myth that success and happiness are possible for anyone in America, though what they meant is white Americans, is undergirded by settler self-making and entrepreneurial colonial terrorism in the quest for capital. Specifically, California g*** was the ultimate commodity or the token of g*** fever, whose allure superseded acting with humanity toward Indigenous peoples and those that the settlers enslaved.

The thirteen stars on the coin underscore that America was to be comprised of its thirteen colonies, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island, leaving a clear erasure of Indigenous nations, despite diplomatic promises from the government. America's conception of democracy, however, is based on the biased interpretation of structures of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and a specific symbolic wampum belt, made of hundreds of pieces of wampum (quahog and whelk shells that also served as currency) woven into elaborate forms (Shell 2013). As depicted in their Great Law of Peace wampum belt, there is an agreement that their Confederacy respects the liberties of each of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca clans. Notably, America's so-called founding fathers were inspired by the Confederacy's ability to honour unity among separate powers and various other freedoms with regard to religion and the right to assembly.

These thirteen colonies on the coin were a band that imagined themselves in a particular way and shared the idea of a supposedly justified or godly backed fight for independence and a democratic trial. To be sure, American currency is still saturated with signifiers of these same colonies, ones that were based on federalist principles that are indeed indebted to Indigenous nations. For example, there are thirteen layers of brick on the pyramid that is imprinted on the left side of the reverse one dollar bill, and there are thirteen stars above the eagle seal on the right side of the same bill.

The coin also contains a laurel wreath around the year 1853, a symbol of martial victory based on another enduring Roman symbol. The coin contains laurel to signify triumph over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. One of the primary grievances of the colonial revolutionaries was the enforcement of British treaties that forbade settlers from their trajectory of stealing more Indigenous lands. The year after the war, the founding fathers of America offered the Olive Branch Petition of 1775 to King George III in hopes that a sense of peace could exist between Great Britain and the newly forming America. The king refused the petition, thereby not accepting the said metaphorical olive branch, and the colonies intensified American nationalism and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the years following.

America claims to be peaceful and Christian, and, as such, liberally stamps signifiers of peace and freedom on its coinage. But the irony is that America is rather offensive in wars, especially those waged on Indigenous peoples to steal land. As the line of the frontier moved into more territory, Indigenous peoples were challenged through wars such as the Cherokee–American Wars, the Northwest Indian War, the Seminole Wars and the Rogue River War, among countless others. America rationalizes defeat by appealing to its perceived exceptionalism and desire for a self-serving peace that made the American empire-building project as expedient as possible.

Full dollar coins in 1854

Full dollar coins were also in circulation in 1853. However, from 1854 the dollar coin design was replaced with an updated profile portrait (Figure 5.2). The g*** coin displays a woman's head facing left from the neck up, with rudimentary features, an expressionless face and a headdress. This bears basic similarities to the Lady Liberty coin and is plainly a product of a genre that has staying power. One just needs to dip into one's coin jar to note that faces are a staple feature of many coins. The coin also changes the flora of the wreath on the reverse side to corn, tobacco, maple and cotton agriculture that Americans largely usurped from the lands of Indigenous peoples, and enslaved Black peoples to produce.

Figure 5.2 Full dollar coin.

The most notable change of the coin design is indeed the switch to Lady Liberty culturally appropriating a feather headdress, Lady Liberty in Indigenous American drag. She becomes framed as an ‘Indian princess’, adorned with European stylization topped off with the Indigenous symbol as an afterthought. She appears confused about her identity, her symbolic power and the nature of relationships between Indigenous peoples and Americans. Lady Liberty ‘taking’ the headdress is reminiscent of a common practice for a leader who defeats a nation to take their crown, expunging them of the need to repay their debts through dominance and a ‘finders-keepers’ mentality. Lady Liberty with a headdress connotes entitlement and the dethroning of Indigenousness in America, illustrating that there is a new power. But there is also simultaneously other cultural work that is being performed on this coin, where a now American icon is simultaneously appropriating markers of Indigenousness.

Lady Liberty, by attempting to look Indigenous, functions to make herself seem as if she actually is Indigenous to the land, to America. She is granting herself the power to appropriate, but also foreshadows the belief that many Americans hold, that they are Indigenous to the land or perhaps even descended from an Indigenous person. This reflects the popular misguided adage that Americans are all ‘part’ Indigenous, have a long lost Indigenous relative or are simply now Indigenous to the land since so many years have passed since colonial imposition. These are settler attempts to move themselves toward legitimacy and even innocence (Tuck and Yang 2012).

Like Lady Liberty in this coin, Americans are historically known to pillage cultural symbols based on tropes of Indigenous peoples to construct a pretence that they are in fact ‘the new Native’ of the land (O'Brien, 2010). This kind of appropriative symbolism has a longer history, notably in European empires that frequently erect statues and produce art that contains cultural signifiers of lands they have colonized. The 1854 coin is a stylized, recycled jumble of colonial tropes.

Wolfe (2006: 389) states that settler colonialism requires Indigenous peoples to be eliminated or supplemented, yet settlers ‘sought to recuperate indignity in order to express its difference’. There are numerous examples of intentionally pejorative appropriations and representations of Indigenous peoples in American culture to express difference (e.g., the media stereotype of Indigenous savagery). However, the coin designer's intention of a sympathetic addition of the headdress on Lady Liberty, though still thoroughly problematic and racist, suggests a strategic attempt to align America's identity with qualities of American views of Indigenous identity. Specifically, settler-invaders desperately wanted their ideas of Indigenous identity such as freedom, competency in and closeness to the land, and bravery projected back upon themselves (Deloria 1999). Drawing on Indigenous motifs was a way for Americans to distinguish themselves from the British. Additionally, in building up Indigenous peoples, Americans could also claim superiority in achieving victory against a formidable yet honourable opponent, and claim that they had absorbed the qualities and practices that could transform them into being capable ‘new Natives’. Ultimately, this type of appropriation is rooted in white supremacist nostalgia for the frontier and selective deployment of symbols and ideologies to allow future generations to remain feeling legitimately American. This includes a false sense of entitlement to stolen lands and has led to the contemporary belief that many Americans hold: that non-white peoples and Indigenous peoples are threatening to their settler futurity.

Expanding the scope of this discussion, it is notable that ‘Indian heads’ and headdresses are present not just on G*** Rush coins but on a number of coins including the one cent coin, minted from 1859 to 1909, and ten dollar coins minted in 1907–8. The first with the ‘In God We Trust’ motto, the right-facing Indian head buffalo nickel, was designed by James Earl Fraser and minted from 1913 to 1938, along with others. The pervasiveness these representation and appropriation practices, forms of colonial fantasy, can be seen not just on coins but in many American cultural/commodity forms from Cherokee cars to sports teams that were once named R*dsk*ns and Indians.

Coins become colloquially accepted tokens that contain selectively edited imagery of those that were conquered, and they serve as a discursive vehicle to bolster colonial identity formation and maintenance. On the other hand, Indigenous faces decorate coins and are in the company of other coins with revered symbols including Lady Liberty. But it is the self-serving selectivity of signifying that presents historical incongruence that should be carefully considered. These coins can be interpreted to signify settler-colonial righteousness, and directly feed into the mainstream belief that decorating anything with synthetic ideas of Indigenousness ‘honours’ Indigenous peoples. This instead turns multidimensional Indigenous peoples into fixed images, freezing people in time. This is because dated and narrow representations of Indigenous life create stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as pre-modern, imaginary (e.g., in headdresses, war paint and buckskin loincloths) and defeated, rather than dynamic and contemporary.

Colonial process and coin production

Coins, like those I described, are important tokens of settler coloniality, and their journeys from metal to finished product reveal more. Their mass production, in tandem with the G*** Rush, is what began to transform America as a project into something ‘real’. G*** was a substance of capitalist greed for colonizers; a means to claim land, impose power and war on Indigenous peoples in order to extract the natural resource and dispossess them. The extraction of Indigenous resources is a form of colonialism, but the control of Indigenous bodies, representation and cultural disenfranchisement is also part of the larger internal structure of settler colonialism. Stolen g*** is raw material, which was then refined, processed, pressed into coins and stamped with signifiers of a then-forming American nation. After minting they were disseminated, pushing out mass quantities of coins with stamped representations that both valorized and demonized Indigenous people, while methodically racially appropriating them. The coins, in the context of colonialism, are belongings that signify the identity crisis of America, and when placed in the larger story of the G*** Rush and Rogue River War, come alongside genocide in Oregon.

However, to settlers, these coins were ascribed different meanings rooted in futurity and survival. They represented the accumulation of wealth, or the early American dream, backed by the conception of Manifest Destiny. This conception refers to America's false belief that ‘God’ wanted settlers to invade Indigenous lands and seed ideas of democracy, capitalism, Christianity and white ideals from the East Coast to the West Coast and beyond its borders.

By the mid-1850s, currency was just starting to become more nationally standardized with the establishment of five mints operating in Charlotte, Dahlonega, New Orleans, Philadelphia and San Francisco. The opening of the San Francisco mint in 1854 made g*** bullion the official currency of the area, with the government mandating that private coinage be turned in and melted. Mints, which are factories that serve as a mechanism of government, expressed power and authority as they churned out coins that then trickled up and down the coast, aiming to replace and standardize the various currencies in dynamic circulation. These coins attempted to systematize value, filling a need created by a lack of trust in currency created with the influx of many competing forms.

Other currencies and transformations

There were well over ten types of currency in use in specific markets in Oregon, including Indigenous types referred to as alaquah-chick. These included dentalium, tusk-shaped shells from scaphopod molluscs, and off-white in colour. Indigenous peoples in Oregon even had tattoos on their forearms indicating equidistant lengths to determine value by measuring strings of shells. Olivella shells, fur pelts, beads, baskets, copper and ooligan grease were also common forms. Elsewhere, in what is now known as the East Coast, Indigenous currencies that were widespread in precolonial times were also appropriated by settlers, and significantly influenced the trajectory of American currency (Shell 2013). Wampum, for example, was adopted by colonists as legal tender, allowing for international transactions with Indigenous peoples. Over time, wampum was also counterfeited, devalued and eventually replaced with what was called paper wampum, paper bills that frequently had images of Indigenous peoples designed on them. Indigenous people struggled when colonizers monopolized the wampum that they needed for their holistic well-being. They also became alienated from new currency forms, often forced to sell their lands, if they had not already been stolen, in order to transact in newer, stricter markets to survive. This happened with different Indigenous currencies across the country.

Indigenous peoples were skilled in precolonial international diplomacies and trade cultures, which extended into the colonial era, when they used a variety of different Indigenous forms and colonial forms, including manufactured coins, concurrently. The shift, however, from exclusively Indigenous currencies to an assortment of both Indigenous and settler currencies to exclusively standardized colonial forms is one marked by strategic domination. These currency shifts are representative of a government that sought to control those markets, brand itself in relation to Indigenous peoples, shut out or ban traditional types of Indigenous transactions and practices (such as potlatch) and make Indigenous cultural forms obsolete relics.

Coins circulating in Oregon during the Rogue River War, and the iconography that they express, were likely taken for granted by the people that the coins belonged to, as most people do not carefully examine and perform semiotic analysis on their spare change. Regardless, these were material belongings that connected people to an imagined collective American identity, which was predicated on the elimination of Indigenous peoples. The 1853 and 1854 coins are iconic artefacts/belongings that codify American imperialism and settler colonialism. Moreover, they are important tokens that allow us to retrospectively question settler-colonial histories, Indigenous histories and debts that Indigenous nations in Oregon, and throughout America, are waiting to be rectified.

Further resources

Black, J. E. (2005) ‘Sacagawea as commodity, currency, and cipher’. Journal of Media and Cultural Politics 1: 226–230.

Cordes, A. (2020) ‘Revisiting stories and voices of the Rogue River War (1853–1856): A digital constellatory autoethnographic mode of Indigenous archaeology’. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 21(1): 56–69.

Cronon, W. (1983) Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Ganteaume, C. R. (2017) Officially Indian: Symbols that Define the United States. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Tveskov, M. A. , Rose, C. , Jones, G. , and Maki, D. (2019) ‘Every rusty nail is sacred, every rusty nail is good: Conflict archaeology, remote sensing, and community engagement at a Northwest Coast settler fort’. American Antiquity 84(1): 48–67.

Works cited

Cordes, A. (2020) ‘Revisiting stories and voices of the Rogue River War (1853–1856): A digital constellatory autoethnographic mode of Indigenous archaeology’. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 21(1): 56–69.

Deloria, P. J. (1999) Playing Indian. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Mwangi, W. (2002) ‘The lion, the native and the coffee plant: Political imagery and the ambiguous art of currency design in colonial Kenya’. Geopolitics 7(1): 31–62. (accessed 13 September 2022).

O'Brien, J. M. (2010) Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis MN: Minnesota Press.

Shell, M. (2013) Wampum and the Origins of American Money. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press.

Tuck, E. and Yang, K. W. (2012) ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1: 1–40.

Wolfe, P. (2006) ‘Settler colonialism and the elimination of the Native’. Journal of Genocide Research 8(4): 387–409.


1 To protect Indigenous lands from looting, we have rendered all references to the element with symbol Au and atomic number 79 as ‘g***’.
2 Ongoing settler colonialism in America, in particular its relation to resource extraction, is also the focus of Szeman (Chapter 1) and Lassiter (Chapter 2), while settler colonialism more broadly is considered by Comyn (Chapter 4), Randell-Moon (Chapter 14) and Nir (Chapter 16).
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The entangled legacies of empire

Race, finance and inequality


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