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By Ed Reiter

(NOTE: The Sacagawea dollar got a new lease on life in 2009, when the U.S. Mint started striking it for use in circulation for the first time since 2001. So far, it seems to be doing no better than it did the first time around. The following column appeared in COINage magazine in 2000, shortly after the coin’s initial release. In many ways, it remains just as pertinent today.)


          Paging Lewis and Clark: We need you to organize a new expedition.

          Specifically, we need a search party to locate the Sacagawea dollar we thought we would be getting from Uncle Sam.

          It turns out the folks in Washington, D.C., are Indian givers: After grabbing our interest with aesthetically pleasing designs featuring an authentic-looking Native American woman, they’ve now transformed this erstwhile Sacagawea from a serene young Shoshone mother into a Caucasian cover girl.

          The political correctness of portraying Sacagawea bothered me from the beginning. I’ve said all along that this coin should showcase the Statue of Liberty instead. That was the design favored by the coin’s legislative father, Congressman Michael Castle of Delaware – and with good reason, for it would help ensure public acceptance. Lack of such acceptance played a major role in the downfall of the new coin’s immediate predecessor, the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar.

          But Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin was determined to shove a Sacagawea dollar down our throats – apparently because first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was shoving it down his throat. And so Congressman Castle got extremely short shrift – and little of the deference traditionally shown by the Treasury and the Mint to members of Congress who deal with coinage matters. In a word, he was outranked by Mrs. Clinton – and rank, as they say, has its privilege.

          Still, while the selection (or rather, the imposition) of the Sacagawea theme was offensively high-handed, Rubin and his underlings did make a real effort to come up with a first-rate design – and they seemed to have succeeded. The preliminary portraits by Santa Fe sculptor Glenna Goodacre convincingly captured the essence of the indomitable Indian teenager who, while enduring great hardships, rendered crucial assistance as a guide and interpreter for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

          But when the final design was unveiled May 4, 2000, at the White House, with Hillary Clinton pulling the strings out in the open at last, fundamental changes were apparent. Sacagawea now had a broader, flatter cheek ... a more slender and delicate nose ... thinner and wider lips ... and, most distressingly of all, eyes that seemed to smile, rather than smolder, more like those of a Barbie doll than a real-life heroine steeped in adversity.

          These ill-advised revisions reportedly were ordered in an effort to make the Indian woman “prettier.” Instead, they have blunted not only the aesthetic appeal of the original artwork but, ironically, the political message the theme was intended to convey. Instead of true-to-life portraiture like that on the Buffalo nickel or the Indian Head half eagle and quarter eagle, we have another coinage caricature:  a white woman dressed in Indian clothing, much like the portrait on the Indian Head cent. Only this time, there’s a baby along for the ride.

          Goodacre said she revised her design six separate times before her artistic overseers were satisfied. If they’re smart, they’ll go back to her original – the one the Mint proudly posted at its Internet Web site for several months.

          We’d still be getting political correctness, to be sure. But that’s a lot better than political ineptness.