Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Meanings behind new change in your pockets

Commentary by Jim Banholzer


The new nickel displays a proud (and obviously male) buffalo on the reverse. For 67 years, this is where the revered image of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello has been displayed. The dome at the top of the building was originally designed by the man on the front of the nickel to be a billiard room. However before construction was completed gambling over pool became outlawed in Virginia and this mountaintop room overlooking rolling hills of Charlottesville became a magnificent library.

Monticello is the same plantation where this founding father drafted the words "All men are created equal" (an idea practiced by Native Americans for centuries). But here slaves were held, helping the place "hum with activity," according to Monticello's Web site. Sally Hemings, a black women, was one of those slaves and now shown by DNA testing to have been the mother of several of Jefferson's children.

Did Jefferson truly love Sally Hemings, a lot of people have asked? Or was something else going on between them? It's difficult to determine for sure, since anybody who might have known the couple intimately has passed into the zamani. This African word describes people who have passed into the great beyond and out of the memory of anybody who is still alive. Even if they were in love, imagine how difficult it would have been for them to display affection for each other in public. After all, interracial marriages were outlawed in Virginia until 1967.

Jefferson and Heming's mixed descendents are now, after all these years, finally welcomed to family reunions at Monticello—although separate cliques tend to form within the same powwow. Above the entrance hall where these gatherings take place, an enormous buffalo skin is hanging from the railing and can be seen online at

As Lewis and Clark journeyed to where Jefferson sent them, they handed to Native Americans friendship medallions showing two hands clasping. We all know that money can be a very dirty thing and who knows how many of these sculpted gifts contained a touch of the smallpox virus? A replica of this medallion has also been put into circulation and currently may sit atop your dresser next to the medicine.

"Settlers" soon followed Lewis and Clark, splitting the Native's happy hunting grounds with railways, not carrying Peace Trains. It took less time than Jefferson has been on the five-cent piece for the white man to almost totally eradicate the buffalo. These majestic animals had represented what was once thought to be an impossible to bankrupt social security blanket for the Plains Indians. Unlike the coins they're minted into today that hold a symbolic value, the buffalo held true value.

During a faith-based initiative known as "Manifest Destiny," millions of buffalo were slaughtered (not to mention more than a few Indians "wiped out"). Sometimes copies of treaties not yet countersigned by the President were used as wadding paper for the hunter's muskets.

When Indians killed buffalo they would eat the raw liver of the animal right away to give them strength for carrying meat back to the tribe. Virtually all parts of the buffalo were used in one form or another. The meat the white men shot was usually left to rot on the plains. What a bonanza for the scavengers of the day it must have been! Golden Eagles feasted so much that their weight became too overbearing for flight for days at a time. Lucky thing Mastodons were already extinct—but then again they might have made hunting a fair sport giving the animal an equal chance of winning. I would have liked to let my faith ride on the mastodon money.

Though the buffalo barely avoided decimation, today they face controversial quarantines due to fear that the brucellosis virus could spread from buffalo to cattle. This disease causes bovines to abort their young.

Buffalo meat has slowly regained popularity owing to its tastiness, lean healthy nature and recent mad cow disease concerns. Several local restaurants can whip up some fantastic bison dishes just as quick as your cowboy hat hits one of their hooks.

These days in Virginia, small forms of gambling have become legal again and lottery ticket outlets now hum with activity. But not for billiard parties at Monticello, yet. Bison hunting has also returned to some preserves and grown men trade sacks of coins to dress up and replicate old-fashioned settlers wiping out actual buffalo.

Spring is here and melted snow reveals tons of trash on sides of roads. I wonder if some gambling man has ordered a super-sized pizza topped with coins of buffalo meat pepperoni then thrown his box out with some new nickels landing next to still visible Native American fire circles? Later to be discovered alongside Sheep-eater and Buffalo-eater spear points by future head-scratching archeologists below the bison-jump cliff about two large slices this side of Challis?

With the return of the buffalo to the numismatic world along with more frequent white buffalo appearing on the plains, the species of buffalo would like to further address mankind. Though some may find this to be a bunch of bull, even most of them will admit that this makes for a most interesting interpretation. See

Little known facts: A buffalo can jump over a fence almost as high as Dick Fosbury's gold medal leap of the 1968 Olympics!

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