Imagining America: Native American Icons and National Identity on Early American Coins with Prof. Peter Dunham

In this talk, Prof. Peter Dunham, illustrates that money is not just a medium of exchange but also a vehicle for transmitting ethnic and political messages. The imagery on currency is often employed to help build national identities. In the wake of independence, depictions of Native Americans were frequently used on coins throughout the Americas to distinguish emerging national identities from those of former imperial overlords. Prof. Dunham examines several illuminating examples, from the US, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia. When constructing their initial sovereign images, these newly minted countries all turned to the one thing that fully differentiated them from their prior European masters: their indigenous American heritage. He explores how different nations experiencing the birth throes of decolonization, from both England and Spain, utilized similar symbolic strategies on coinage and other media to aid in forging their separate national identities.

Prof. Peter Dunham received his BA from Colgate University in prehistory and his MA and PhD from the State University of New York at Albany in anthropology, with a specialization in archaeology. An archaeologist at Cleveland State University in Ohio since 1990, he has focused his work on Native American civilizations, in particular the ancient Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula. For a number of years, he directed a major project funded by the National Geographic Society on Maya resource exploitation and exchange in the Maya Mountains of Belize, where he discovered over a dozen previously unreported sites. In recent years, he has turned his attention toward the use of archaeological and indigenous imagery on coins and currency for the purpose of building national identity, especially in Mexico.