Portland banks on Monday started issuing dollar coins featuring the United States' seventh president, Andrew Jackson. The move is part of a pilot program by the U.S. Mint to wean Americans off paper bills.
But in choosing Jackson for the honor—and Portland as one of its four test cities—the U.S. Mint has angered some local Native Americans. For them, Jackson is remembered not for his democratic ideals but for spearheading the 1830 Indian Removal Act.
The resulting Trail of Tears forced 15,000 members of the Cherokee Nation west to arid Oklahoma. An estimated 4,000 Native Americans died of starvation, disease and exhaustion during the trek.
"I bet Hitler had coins with his picture on them, too," says Tabitha Whitefoot, assistant director of Portland State University's Native American Center.
U.S. Mint spokesman Michael White touts the environmental benefits of the 1.4 million $1 Jackson coins now going into circulation in Portland; Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Grand Rapids, Mich. He says they will last 30 years, compared with paper bills that last 21 months.
Asked about Native Americans' anger at commemorating Jackson again (he's appeared on the $20 bill since 1928), White sidesteps the question. "Beginning in 2009, the United States Mint will mint and issue $1 coins featuring designs celebrating contributions made by Indian tribes," he says.
But Debra Muller, a Potawatomi/Ottawa Native American in Grand Rapids and chairwoman of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, is more direct. "Members of the Native American population could not have been consulted," she says.
Don't expect any local protests, however. "I am going to give my time and energy to things that have a chance at being successful," PSU's Whitefoot says. She would rather put her time into projects like the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act and Native American child welfare programs, she says.
But it's not just Native Americans who object to honoring Jackson once more.
During his bid this spring to become Oregon's Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, local activist Steve Novick said Sitting Bull should replace Jackson on the $20 bill (see "Trail Mix," WW, March 26, 2008). "Lionization of Jackson is an insult to Native Americans," Novick says.
According to the U.S. Census, Portland's Native American population is 5,908. The Native American Youth and Family Center says that's a gross underestimate and puts the figure for the Portland area at 38,000.