A Native American Chief Should Have Replaced Andrew Jackson on the $20

The decision to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 brought up an opportunity to feature historical Native American leaders on U.S. currency. 

On April 20th, the Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew announced an important redesign of American currency.  Most significantly, the abolitionist heroine Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.  While Harriet Tubman is an excellent choice for an individual whose presence on our money would serve as a reminder of a terrible blemish on our past, a historical Native American leader should have replaced the noted “Indian Killer” Jackson.


Andrew Jackson deserved to be booted from our money.  The 7th President owned hundreds of slaves, was a ruthless soldier and was instrumental in the forceful relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral lands.  He implemented the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and stood by numerous violations of treaties like when Georgia ignored a federal treaty and seized nine million acres inside the state that had been guaranteed to the Cherokee tribe.  Jackson's support of Georgia in this case resulted in the violent relocation west of tens of thousands Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee, Creek, Seminole and Cherokees.  1838's Cherokee "Trail of Tears" claimed the lives of approximately 4,000, who died of starvation, exposure and illness.  

As there were several bills considered for redesign, it would have been possible to recognize Harriet Tubman and a representative of America’s indigenous people.  Harriet Tubman was a remarkable American, who escaped slavery herself and then helped rescue hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad.  Her life is a testament to the possibility of an individual making a difference.  But rather than having her replace Jackson, it would have been a clearer reversal of a historical injustice to replace Andrew Jackson with a Native American leader.  

Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Sitting Bull

There have been a great amount of Native American leaders whose names are not known as widely as they deserve.  Honoring them the way we honor our Presidents by putting their likeness on the money we use would recognize the complexity of our nation’s creation.  One candidate could be the Nez Perce Chief Joseph (aka "Thunder Traveling in the Mountains"), who resisted the removal of his people and became known widely as a peacemaker and humanitarian. Another great candidate should be the Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud, who was a gifted military commander and a fierce defender of his people.  Similarly, the Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, an instrumental leader during the 1876’s Battle of the Little Bighorn, would be a great presence on our currency.  

Nez Perce Chief Joseph

Before we get into which past injustice gets more priority, there really should have been more changes made with our money.  Taking Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill was also under consideration.  Alexander Hamilton was an important American, one of the founding “fathers” of this country, but he was not a President.  His accomplishment was in helping to set up the financial system of the fledgling republic.  While he did an important job, should we then consider putting Alan Greenspan on one of the greenbacks?    The movement to take Hamilton off the $10 bill was stalled by the success of the Broadway show "Hamilton".  The creator of the show Lin-Manuel Miranda is a great communicator and promoter (and recently won a Pulitzer prize), but since when should lobbying efforts by an ultimately self-serving showbiz personality determine such historical events as who gets to grace our money?  Paper currency plays an important role in the signs that dominate our daily life.  The images on the bills are something we see constantly, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud

Perhaps this is a debate that doesn’t change the reality of what happened in our history. But symbolic gestures that aid the acknowledgement of the past in an honest and fair way are key in resolving the traumas of our collective past.  In not putting a Native American on our money, the US Treasury missed a key opportunity, which can still be corrected. 

As Chief Joseph said: “Whenever the white man treats the Indian as they treat each other, then we shall have no more wars. We shall all be alike, brothers of one father and one mother with one sky above us and one country around us and one government for all. Then the Great Spirit Chief who rules above will smile upon this land and send rain to wash out the bloody spots made by brothers' hands upon the face of the Earth.” 

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.