Chief Iron Tail – where have you seen that face before?

Time Before Now – May 1916Woodrow Wilson became the 28th U.S. president in April amid the horrors of two years of fighting in France.  Renowned Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso recorded “O Solo Mio” for the Victor Talking Machine Company, the New York Yankees paid a whopping $37,500 (about $900,000 today)  for Frank “Home Run” Baker and a Wichita fry cook named Walter Anderson, came up with the idea of hamburger buns.  His next idea was for something to put in them, cofounding White Castle in 1921. (Right)

May 29, 1916

On this day, Lakota chief, Iron Tail, died en route from Philadelphia to South Dakota’s Black Hills. One of  the best known Native American of the day, his iconic profile on the Buffalo Nickel makes him perhaps the most recognizable of the nation’s indigenous people a century later.

Also known as Siŋté Máza, (left) the place and date of his birth was not recorded, but is believed to be about 1842 somewhere in Dakota Territory.  What is recorded, however, is often wrong, confusing his story with that of the similarly named Lakota, Iron Hail, Wasu Máza, (below) also known as Dewey Beard.  Beard was the last survivor of the Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee Massacre, cohort of Crazy Horse, and a follower of Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance movement.  While the names rhyme in English, they don’t in Lakota.

And nothing could be further from the real story of lron Tail.  By contrast, he was never renowned as a fighter or shaman. Instead  he was a counselor and diplomat, a tribal “Secretary of State,” rather than “Secretary of Defense.”  

It is unclear how the Lakota’s “wise man” met William F. “Buffalo Bill”  Cody (right) but he soon became a close friend and advisor to the showman.  He also became an international celebrity as part of Cody’s Wild West Exposition, touring Europe with the impresario, honored by kings, queens and heads of state.

His appearance on the Buffalo Nickel, so the story goes, was prompted by the European visit when he led the Wild West retinue in his regalia down the Champs-Elysees in Paris.  It caught the attention of photographer Gertrude Käsebier, (right) one of the country’s first female portrait photographers.  In addition to capturing images of the rich and famous, Käsebier produced dozens of portraits of Cody’s Native American cast members. 

 Käsebier’s simple image of Iron Tail,  sans regalia and feathers, was featured in a 1901 issue of “Everybody’s Magazine.”  It was inspired, she said, by her memory of the Native Americans she had known as a child growing up on the Great Plains.  Entitled “The Red Man,” it is still her best known work.

Thanks to Cody and Käsebier, Iron Tail’s arresting profile was already famous when he met with sculptor James Earle Fraser, (right) as one of three models being considered for the Buffalo Head Nickel. “I wanted to do something totally American,” Fraser explained, “a coin that could not be mistaken for any other country’s coin.”  

About three dozen of the new nickels were handed out on February 22, 1913, by President William Howard Taft during groundbreaking ceremonies for a proposed “National American Indian Memorial” on Staten Island.  The vision of Rodman Wanamaker, founder of Philadelphia’s now defunct Wanamaker Department Store, it was unfortunately never built.  The ceremonial mint copies were given to the various Native American chiefs who took part in the groundbreaking.

The Buffalo Nickel

General distribution of the coins began in May that year and were instantly popular with the public.  But then what do they know.   The New York Times published a sniffy editorial predicting that even new and shiny, it was “not pleasing to look at . . . and will be an abomination when old and dull.” Numismatists were also unimpressed, saying the image on the front was too large and the buffalo on the obverse shouldn’t be there at all.

 By the 1930s, questions regarding the ID of the nickel’s profile became a fracas.  Son of the last Blackfoot chief, Two Guns White Calf, claimed he was the model along with several other contenders. Sculptor Fraser remained diplomatically aloof, writing the director of the Denver Mint that he’d done portraits of several Native American men at the time.  Which one came out in the final product?  Maybe it was Two Moons, (right) a Cheyenne, Big Tree, Kiowa, or the Lakota, Iron Tail.  Who knew. 

He was equally gauzy about the American Bison depicted on the back. At first, he called it “a typical shaggy speciman” housed at the Bronx Zoo.  Later, he decided it was actually Black Diamond, a denizen of the Central Park Zoo, a gift from circus entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum.

Despite his sketchy memory, Fraser was perhaps the lucky winner in the Buffalo Nickel lottery.  He was paid $2,500 for his model plus some $650 in expenses.  In addition, not undeservedly, he won the Gold Medal at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International exposition two years later for his famous “End of the Trail” sculpture.  (Left)

A half dozen other monumental Fraser sculptures grace the Nation’s Capital, including “Contemplation of Justice and Authority of Law which flank the entrance to the United States Supreme Court Building.

One of the pair of Fraser sculptures at the Supreme Court

Iron Tail may have received a couple of nickels at the groundbreaking.  He outlived the event by just four years.   It is unclear whether the 73-year-old-chief was still with Cody’s Wild West show or the newer Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West in 1916.  Suffering from pneumonia, he was unable to travel when the company moved on to Washington, D.C.  

Native American activist, M.I. McCreight, (right)  owner of Pennsylvania’s Wigwam Ranch, was a close friend of both Iron Tail and Cody.  Learning the elderly chief was hospitalized, he wired Cody, advising him that Iron Tail should be sent to the ranch for treatment.   McCreight’s telegram was never delivered and hospital officials instead sent Iron Tail back to the Black Hills by Pullman car.  He died somewhere in Indiana.  Buried at Holy Rosary Cemetery at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Cody promised to place a granite marker on his grave engraved with the image of the Buffalo Nickel.

 Cody didn’t last long to keep his word, however.  He died six months later and is buried on Lookout Mountain near Denver.

Black Diamond, the American Bison on the Buffalo Nickel

Black Diamond fared even less well.  Ailing at 22, the zoo attempted to auction him but when they got no takers he was slaughtered.  In 1915, Americans could buy a piece of their history for $2 a pound.  

The nation has often been careless with its treasures.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 1700 WE 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is a repository of all things Western.  Founded in 1955, its 11 gallerias run the gamut from the American cowboy, Native Americans, rodeo stars, a performers hall of fame  and a comprehensive collection of Western art.  The 15,000 square feet provides space for sculptures, including  Fraser’s “End of the Trail, plus 200 works by  Frederick Remington, Albert Bierstadt and Charles Marion Russell and more. In addition, the museum is home to the Western Performers Hall of Fame, featuring more than 100 stars of stage and screen and of Fame and the Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5 and Sunday noon to five. The museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years.  The Museum Grill is open Monday through Saturday 11 to 1:30.   Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.50 for seniors and students with IDs, $5.75 for kids 6 to 12 and under 5, free.  For more information go to, call (405) 478-2250 or write 1700 NE 63rd St., Oklahoma, OK 73111.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.