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Chapter 6


“WE PAY TRIBUTE today to Indian women, whose cultural and spiritual contributions have enriched our lives, and whose leadership have helped to change the course of history,” said First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The day was May 4, 1999, and the event was a gathering of Indian leaders from across the United States. They had been invited to the White House to see the unveiling of the design of the Sacagawea dollar coin.

The design was the result of a year and half of hard work. It all started in December 1997 when the U.S. Congress decided Americans needed a new dollar coin. It was to replace the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which bore the image of one of the most important advocates for women’s rights in the nineteenth century. First issued in 1979, the Susan B. Anthony coin had never really caught on with the American public, largely because its size, shape, and color made it easy to mistake for a quarter.

In designing the new coin, the U.S. Mint had only a few instructions to follow. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, who oversaw the Mint, asked that it depict an eagle on one side and, like the Susan B. Anthony coin, show an American woman on the other. The Mint’s director Philip N. Diehl decided to invite the public to help choose who should appear on the coin. “Coins [are] not just a way of buying things,” he later said about his approach toward the design. “[P]utting images and words on coins. . . .[is] way for a government to talk to its people and for people to talk among themselves.”

Secretary Rubin appointed seven people to serve on the Dollar Design Advisory Committee. Their job was to ask the American people for suggestions about the coin design. On the Mint’s web site, the committee asked people across the nation to share their ideas by e-mail. The committee also met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 8 to hear formal presentations from the public.

At the meeting, seventeen American women were nominated as worthy of the honor of appearing on the dollar. One presenter suggested Betsy Ross, the woman who sewed the first American flag. Another proposed Rosa Parks, a leader in the fight for civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s. Still another recommended Eleanor Roosevelt. The wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she was herself a defender of the poor and a crusader for world peace. The overwhelming favorite, though, was Sacagawea. The committee members all decided that the young Shoshone woman was the best choice.

Not everyone agreed with the decision, however. One senator wanted to show the Statue of Liberty on the coin instead. He tried to persuade other senators and members of Congress to pass a law to force to Mint to use this image. Many people, including students from an elementary school in Wisconsin, traveled to Washington to ask Congress to save the Sacagawea dollar. In the end, Congress voted down the proposed law, freeing the Mint to use the image the public most wanted to see.

The Mint’s next step was to find artists to design both sides of the coin. It invited twenty-three sculptors to submit sketches showing their ideas. One of the artists was Glenna Goodacre. For more than twenty-five years, she has been making sculptures out of bronze. Goodacre’s best known work is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, DC. It shows three army nurses struggling to save a dying soldier. Since its dedication in 1993, this sculpture has seen by millions of visitors to the capital every year.

As soon as she learned of the Mint’s invitation, Goodacre set to work. She started researching Sacagawea, although she already knew a great deal about American Indians and their societies. For many years, she had had a home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The city is a center for American Indian art and is near many thriving communities of the Pueblo peoples.

Goodacre decided she needed a model for her portrait of Sacagawea. She met with three young Indian women—one from the Navajo tribe and two from the Comanche—but none seemed exactly right. Goodacre then asked for help from the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) in Santa Fe. The IAIA is the only Indian-operated school of art in the United States.

On the IAIA’s staff was a Cree Indian woman named Bonnie Teton. She showed Goodacre photographs of her four daughters. Immediately, the sculptor was struck by twenty-one-year-old Randy’L, whose father is half Shoshone and half Bannock Indian. She seemed a perfect model for Sacagawea. Randy’L Teton had long black hair and large dark eyes just as Sacagawea did according to Shoshone legend.

As luck would have it, Teton lived nearby in the city of Albuquerque, where she was a student at the University of New Mexico. She agreed to spend a Saturday working with Goodacre at her Santa Fe studio. Teton had never been a model before and didn’t quite what to expect. She found that the job meant a fun, but exhausting day of having herself photographed from every angle. In some photos, Goodacre used a baby doll as a prop. She had Teton hold the doll on her back in a blanket just as Sacagawea had probably held her own baby.

Working quickly from these photographs, Goodacre sent in several sketches for the dollar design a few days later. She and Randy’L then had nothing to do but wait while the Mint gathered reactions to Goodacre’s drawings and more one hundred others submitted by competing artists. The Mint asked many people from different backgrounds to choose which they thought was best. After talking with artists, teachers, historians, politicians, and Indian leaders, it chose six Sacagawea sketches as the finalists.

The Mint then asked the public what it thought by showing the finalists’ designs on its web site. The response was overwhelming. Over five months, people from around the world sent more than 120,000 e-mails and 2,000 letters and faxes. The overwhelming favorite was a sketch by Goodacre of Sacagawea holding Pomp her back. A second-grade class in Kansas City, Missouri, chose the design because “the baby is cute, and it shows that a mommy can be hero.” A woman from Silver Spring, Maryland, wrote, “Mothers and families everywhere will feel so proud to see this image; we will feel that our country truly values our work.” A man from Hampton, New Jersey, even went so far as to say that the design “will be admired a hundred years from now as one of the most beautiful U.S. coins ever made.”

Weighing these comments seriously, Secretary Rubin made his final decision in April 1999. On the front of the coin would be Goodacre’s image of Sacagawea and Pomp. On the back would be a picture of a soaring eagle designed by Thomas D. Rogers, Sr., a sculptor and engraver employed by the Mint. In a circle around the eagle would be seventeen stars—each symbolizing one of the seventeen states that were part of the nation at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. To distinguish it from a quarter, the coin would be gold-colored and have a smooth edge and wide rim.

Randy’L Teton learned of the selection during a phone call from Goodacre. When she picked up the phone, she heard Goodacre’s voice shouting, “Congratulations, we got it!” Teton first reaction was disbelief. “I didn’t know what to say,” she later remembered, “I never dreamed that anything like this would happen.” Goodacre was just as excited. As she told the Washington Post, “It’s amazing to me to think that I’ll have a small piece of sculpture in people’s pockets for years.” With the selection, Goodacre became the first American woman ever to design a circulating coin.

The design made history in another way. It is first ever on a circulating coin to show a picture of a child. In the words of U.S. Mint director Philip N. Diehl, the image on the coin “clearly breaks the mold” by being “much warmer than what we’ve had on American coinage before.” Kevin Glover, the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, also praised the design, calling it “a beautiful and true image of American Indians” that will shape how “future generations of young people” view Indian tribes. “Every day,” Glover pointed out, “this coin will serve to remind us that we are a nation of many peoples and cultures, joined together by a shared vision of freedom, justice, and respect.”

On July 20, 1999, Sacagawea and Pomp took their first journey together since the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Twelve Sacagawea dollars specially made by the Mint were shot into the sky aboard the Space Shuttle. It was a fitting honor for Pomp and his mother—two pioneers who in their own times were always eager for a new adventure.

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© 2000 Liz Sonneborn. All Rights Reserved.