Why is the face of a mass murderer engraved on a United States coin? The other day I was looking for quarters in my big bag of loose coins. You may have a similar bag or jar where you toss spare change from a purchase. That’s when I came across an old Buffalo nickel.
The date was worn off, but you could see the majestic buffalo standing as if it were ready to lead a stampede. However, did you know that there is the face of a noble American Indian chief on the reverse side? He has feathers, braids, high cheek bones and an aristocratic nose. We know the faces of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Anthony, and even Sacagawea, but which chief posed for the nickel?
By 1871, the Kiowa Native Americans were forced to live on a reservation with other tribes in southwest Oklahoma. Living conditions were terrible, food supplies were unreliable, and settlers were taking the land that was once Indian territory. Kiowa restlessness roiled into outright rebellion. Marauding bands of angry warriors began to make deadly raids into Texas and New Mexico. They were out of control, and the U.S. government made plans to bring them to justice.
The last straw came on May 17, 1871, in an area west of Weatherford, Texas, on the flats of Salt Creek, near the present day town of Graham. Over 150 mostly-Kiowa warriors attacked a government wagon train, killing seven teamsters and injuring many more. The massacre was discovered the next day by 4th U.S. Cavalry, under the command of Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie. The victims had been mutilated, scalped, and burned.
Within a few weeks, the military had caught the three chiefs who led the attack, and brought them to trial at Fort Richardson, near Jacksboro. One of the chiefs, Satank, was killed while resisting arrest. But Big Tree (Ado-Eete) and Satanta became the first American Indians to be tried in civil courts. They were convicted of murder, and sentenced to death.
Eventually, their sentences were commuted by Texas Gov. Edmund Davis, and after tedious negotiations with Kiowa Chief Lone Wolf, they were released from prison on good behavior. Satanta quickly returned to his rebellious ways, and soon died. Upon the death of Satanta, Big Tree became the chief of the Kiowas.
Big Tree returned to his home in Mountain View, Oklahoma, and through the ministry of local Christians, Big Tree became a Christian. He started Rainy Mountain Indian Mission, and served as a deacon and Sunday School teacher in a local Baptist church. On November 13, 1929, Big Tree died and was buried in Rainy Mountain Cemetery. He knew the word forgiveness in his own life.
It was sculptor James Earle Fraser who asked Big Tree to be one of three chiefs he used to create a composite face for the coin. So, yes, a mass murderer was placed on the Buffalo nickel. But by then, the grace of Christ had changed his heart.