US paper currency with a Native American Chief

A fascinating and embarrassing story began to emerge. A story of Running Antelope and the only US paper currency with a Native American Indian Chief on it.

Born Takota Iyanke in 1821, Chief Running Antelope was a leader of the Hunkpapa. Not only was he a famous warrior and diplomat, but he was also widely said to have been the greatest orator of the Sioux nation.

Among some noticeable aspects of his life, he was brother of Rain in the Face, and was a close advisor to Sitting Bull during the Prairie Indian Wars of the west. Along with many other prominent Sioux leaders, he was a signer of the Treaty of 1868 and though he had argued in good faith for compromise with the U.S. Government, he would later regret it.

After being moved to Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas, Chief Running Antelope would be the appointed leader of the Last Great Buffalo Hunts in 1882 and 1883.

He died around 1897 and is buried at Little Eagle, in Standing Rock.

It was in 1899 that the ”only US paper money with a Native American Indian Chief“ was issued by the U.S. Mint. Full of splendid detail that almost captures the essence of Chief Running Antelope, that simple $5 note caused a scandal.

Whether it was creative license by Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, ignorance by engraver George F.C. Smilie, or an embarrassing combination of both, it is widely understood that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing attributed a Pawnee headdress to a Sioux Chief.

According to Jeff Smith of, ”The story is that Chief Running Antelope is shown wearing a Pawnee head dress, not Hunkpapa, because the one the Chief actually wore was too tall for the engraving. Another version of that story is that the Chief was told to wear the Pawnee head dress during the photographic session which he adamantly refused to do. Either way, the head dress shown on his head is Pawnee.

The considerable cultural gaffe outraged the Sioux and, as it did so well, the U.S. Government decided to take it back. The $5 paper note was discontinued and since then, Native American Indians have been only on our coin currency.

Ultimately the 1899 Large Silver Certificate bearing the image of Chief Running Antelope had the distinction of being the only US paper currency to have the image of a Native American Indian Chief.

And so it remains. Rare, revered and recognized — even if only for the sake of history, private collections, and strong lessons about how, over a century later, we still have never had a Native American Indian Chief on the front of any of our bills.

In my opinion, clearly, there is something wrong with this. If the U.S. is to honor our heritage in currencies and national imagery, we must ask and push for proper recognition and representation.

Recently the U.S. Mint has made announcements of changes to our paper notes, including the addition of Harriet Tubman on the $20, presumably kicking off Andrew Jackson. This opens up the possibility of honoring other Americans on our currencies. If we have had Andrew Jackson, famous for his disdain of Native American Indians, on a U.S. Mint $20 Paper Note, then surely we can honor one of the myriad Native American pioneers and heroes who are stewards of this land with an artistic representation on our paper currency. As a matter of fact, after the addition of Harriet Tubman and other deserving women, I recommend the U.S. Mint look into a fascinating figure in U.S. history they might have heard of: Chief Running Antelope.

And this time, please have enough sense and respect to get the headdress right.

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