The Big Nickel Lie; Two Guns' Famed Mug Not Used|
February 27, 2013
“Have you seen the new nickel, the five-cent pieces with the Indian’s head and buffalo?” Louis Hill asked in a memo to Hoke Smith. “If you have not, I would suggest you get one of these from one of the banks and get up a story on the new ‘See America First’ Glacier Park Nickle [sic], with profile of White Calf.”
It was Feb. 28, 1913—just six days after the coins had been issued at a ceremony arranged by L. Rodman Wanamaker on Staten Island—and Louis Hill was excited. The moment he saw the coin and studied it, he recognized the similarity between the Native American portrayed on the obverse and Two Guns White Calf. That profile, the nose and braids were strikingly similar, even if the feathers worn by the native man on the coin were not a style Two Guns would have used. If it wasn’t Two Guns, it was close enough and Hill was not about to fuss over details when he saw opportunity.
Hill was chairman of the St. Paul, Minn.-based Great Northern Railway, which in a few months would be opening its first major tourist hotel in Montana’s Glacier National Park. His railway had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in hotel and chalet developments in the Rocky Mountain park and Hill was looking for every opportunity to promote this new travel destination, on his railway’s main line from Chicago to Seattle.
Two Guns was the son of White Calf, the last great chief of the American Blackfeet, whose reservation abuts Glacier Park. Hill couldn’t have asked for a better publicity gimmick. If his company got the word out linking Two Guns to the coin, and that by riding the Great Northern to Montana tourists could see Two Guns and the Blackfeet, “Glacier’s Indians,” Hill would have an advertisement in the pocket or purse of every American old enough to buy penny candy or postcards at the general store.
Thus began a 20-year campaign by which the Great Northern planted at every opportunity the idea that Two Guns was a model for the Buffalo nickel. It was a campaign so skillfully managed that to this day the association remains, despite the denial of the designer of the coin, James Earle Fraser.
Almost from the day the coin was issued Americans wondered about the identity of the image of the native. Fraser revealed that he used as inspiration Iron Tail, a Sioux, and Two Moons, a Cheyenne, both of whom had been models for him. There were possibly one or two others, Fraser said, but he couldn’t remember their names. Besides, the image wasn’t meant to be a portrait, he said, but rather a composite ideal of a Plains Indian. The fact was that the composite looked very much like Two Guns and with Fraser unable to name a third, fourth or even fifth model, that was all the Great Northern’s publicity department needed to perpetuate its hoax.
The man at the center of the Great Northern’s campaign was public relations genius Roy (Hoke) Smith. Chicago-born Smith was a newspaperman who in 1911 left journalism to work as a “development agent” for the railway. Smith’s ability to fashion a fascinating tale out of what other newsroom types might deem hokum earned him the sobriquet Hoke, after Hoke Smith, the famed Georgia politician of the day.
As the Great Northern’s Hoke Smith would later write: “One of the reasons I now treasure as contributing to whatever success I had in spreading the written word was that I always loved a good story so much that I never could become mercenary minded in the weaving of it.” Namely, Smith never let facts stand in the way of a good tale, and good tales he told aplenty when it came to promoting Glacier Park and his employer, the Great Northern.
Since the water was so cold in Glacier’s appropriately named Iceberg Lake, Smith wrote that the trout grew fur, then had a taxidermist create a fur-bearing trout which was photographed and sold as a postcard. He fabricated a legend about a place in Glacier where ice cold bourbon poured out of the rocks, providing a logical explanation (until you asked too many questions). He made up a story about another creature, a “wimpuss,” and again had a taxidermist make up two samples that were displayed for years at the railway’s hotels in the park.
Smith was not even above faking an interview with his own boss, Louis Hill, to meet the company’s goals. In an attempt in 1911 to lure William Randolph Hearst to Glacier, Hoke Smith worried that he might have overstepped himself when he “took the liberty in the accompanying interview with you (which appeared in his Chicago Examiner) to speak in a laudatory tone of [Hearst] as a journalist. I have arranged to have marked copy of it sent to him by a third party, so he will see the same. I figured this would serve to pave the way in the matter of getting in a friendly attitude toward the Great Northern Railway, for if he makes the trip into Glacier Park it will mean much in a publicity way to have his string of papers interested in the new national park.”
Hoke Smith told several versions of how Two Guns came to be on the nickel. A common one was that Two Guns was first noticed in December 1912. Two Guns’ “striking profile attracted attention while he was in Washington last fall in conference with the government officials concerning the proposed opening of the Blackfeet reservation.”
As is shown in photographs in Roger Burdette’s book Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-15, the design of the Buffalo nickel had been fashioned by Fraser as early as 1911, well before Two Guns began working for the Great Northern. And the first commercial photos of Two Guns that were used as postcards were not taken until late 1912, so designer Fraser could not even have seen a photograph of Two Guns upon which to base the coin image.
Two Guns was a relative unknown until he was selected by the railway to help publicize Glacier Park. While hailed by the railway as a chief, Two Guns was not a leader among his own people on the reservation. His brothers Wolf Tail and Cross Guns were more successful ranchers, and his brother James White Calf, along with Wolf Tail, was active on the tribal business council. Wolf Tail was, for a time, president of the council. Two Guns was elected only once to the council, in 1927.
Two Guns lived modestly with his wife Susan in a small log house by the Cut Bank Creek, in the shadow of the Rockies, raising and selling a few horses, and hunting for sustenance. His claim to fame came from being the son of White Calf, the last traditional chief of the Blackfeet. When White Calf died in 1903 on a trip to Washington, D.C., it is reported that President Teddy Roosevelt, as a sign of admiration and respect, had the body sent back to Montana in a private rail car with a military escort. Working for the railway and the advent of the Buffalo nickel changed his life. He became possibly the most photographed and, for a time, most recognized Native American in history.
Two Guns first big step out in the public arena as the model for the Buffalo nickel was in March 1913 at the New York travel show, one of 10 Blackfeet who would entertain crowds to lure them to buy a trip that summer to Glacier Park. Under the guidance of Hoke Smith and other handlers, the Blackfeet dressed in buckskins and acted as amazed primitives in the big city. They set up teepees on the roof of the 25-storey Hotel McAlpin, where they were lodged, took a subway for the first time, visited a zoo for the first time and toured the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper plant—anything that made them look like fish out of water for the media and ensured daily news stories.
Two Guns was not the main attraction, rather sharing the limelight with his fellow tribal members. Always, though, Two Guns spoke only in Blackfeet, his replies translated by another of his party. The idea was to build a mystique around Two Guns as a Native chief unadulterated by modern society. While he could speak English, Two Guns’ unilingual status in public was a convenient way to avoid reporters’ more probing questions.
One New York reporter described Two Guns as “an impressive figure. He stands 6 feet, 2 inches in height [he was really only five-eight], is well-built and, facially and physically, possesses all of the characteristics that go with the true Indian. His features are almost classic. He has posed in his native haunts for many photographers, artists and sculptors. He is one of the principal chiefs of the Blackfeet tribe and an Indian of more than average intelligence and character.”
The reporter, like the rest of the New York media, had bought Hoke Smith’s publicity campaign hook, line and sinker. Smith didn’t need to say Two Guns posed for the nickel. Smith simply led reporters along to draw their own conclusions, reflected in such comments that Two Guns’ features were “classic” and that he had posed for many photographers, artists and sculptors. Smith would later proudly claim: “I still defy anyone to find me guilty of ever having said Two Guns White Calf was the Indian who posed for the face on the nickel.”
After a few years of touring Two Guns and other Blackfeet across the United States, such as to the Portland Rose Festival, the Panama-Pacific Exposition and several Shriners conventions, Smith didn’t even need to make the connection between the coin and Two Guns. His campaign had become so effective that newspaper editors would simply fill in the obvious blank regarding the association between Two Guns and the coin. It allowed the Great Northern to run advertisements for Glacier Park with a profile view of Two Guns, looking very Buffalo nickel-like, and a caption that stated: “I remember your face.”
Hoke Smith was aided in his publicity campaign by the media itself. Having worked in the press, he knew many news people in Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis and was able, via friends, to plant stories he’d written on the wires as legitimate new items. He would also arrange “to express a bunch of stories to our attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., in order to get the Washington, D.C., postmark on them to gain official influence for their use.”
Louis Hill’s connections with publishers and editors was a further aid, as publishers were eager to co-operate in getting Hoke Smith’s stories out in exchange for getting the railway’s advertising business.
Then it all came to an abrupt halt.
For reasons that I’ve yet to fathom, in 1931 Buffalo nickel designer James Earle Fraser denounced Two Guns as a model for the coin. Why he waited 18 years to do so is the unanswered question. In a news release issued on June 12, 1931, Fraser is quoted as saying:
“The Indian head on the Buffalo nickel is not a direct portrait of any particular Indian, but was made from several portrait busts which I did not Indians. As a matter of fact, I used three different Indian heads; I remember two of the men. One was Iron Tail, the best Indian head I can remember; the other one was Two Moons, and the third I cannot recall. I have never seen Two Guns White Calf nor used him in any way, although he has a magnificent head. I can easily understand how he was mistaken in thinking that he posed for me. A great many artists have modeled and drawn him, and it was only natural for him to believe that one of them was the designer of the nickel.”
Fraser’s announcement does not seem to have fazed Great Northern officials at all, as I have found no memos or letters discussing the matter. Any discussions would likely have been personal and not recorded. It really didn’t matter much. By that time the Great Depression had taken the wind out of the railway’s advertising budget and touring of the Blackfeet was pretty well cancelled. News releases about Two Guns continued to be issued by Hoke Smith and tourists could still see him daily in the summer at Glacier Park Hotel, but he was no longer on the road.
Coincidentally, Two Guns’ last season working for the Great Northern as its native ambassador was 1931. He quit after a few weeks into the 1932 season. In the summer of 1933 Two Guns fell from a horse breaking his leg and that winter caught pneumonia. He died of complications on March 12, 1934. He was 62.
As Hoke Smith had launched Two Guns career, so did he write Two Guns’ obituary. Smith gloated over Time’s obituary for Two Guns in which the magazine tried to convey, correctly, that it was purely accidental that the image on the Buffalo nickel looked like Two Guns. Smith said that the explanation was probably too late, as the link had already been fixed in the mind of the American public. “You will find I was even more politic than Time because I did not even hint at Two Guns ever being paid by a railway,” Smith said. “Rather, I left it for inference that being an ambassador for the charms of Glacier Park was an avocation with him which he followed out of pure love of his native scenic land.”
W.P. Kenney, president of the Great Northern, would congratulate Hoke Smith on having gotten away with Two Guns lie.
“I think the ease with which you have finally slipped under the wire with respect to old Two Guns and the buffalo nickel Indian is worthy of the tradition. Our skirts are clean now.”
Ray Djuff of Calgary, Alberta, is a journalist and author who has co-produced nine history books. His niche is the Great Northern Railway developments in Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, straddling the Alberta-Montana border. He expects to complete his biography of Two Guns White Calf by 2014. — Editor.
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