August Balls remarked in his March 17 letter that the 2007 Montana quarter reminded him of Canada’s 1982 Regina commemorative silver dollar. Both coins utilize a bison skull image. Referring to the Montana quarter, he asked, “It wasn’t a copy, was it?”
Two years ago a letter from Jeff Hoff (April 3, 2007) asked, “…why intelligent people would put a bone on a coin representing their state.”
As a former member of the Montana Quarter Design Selection Commission, I want to respond to these questions and make known a piece of numismatic history – the process that led to Montana’s “bone head” quarter.
First, I want to assure Mr. Balls that Montana did not copy the Regina commemorative.
From the perspective of history and local sentimentality, the bison skull has long occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of many Montanans. The survival of American Indians and early European settlers depended on the bison. It has been said that the bison was the commissary of the early West. The early people groups that lived in the land that would become Montana utilized the bison for food, clothing, medicine, tools and more.
The late Montana artist Charlie Russell popularized and ingrained the bison skull icon into Montana’s culture by using the image as his personal trademark. Thus, Montana’s use of the skull image on its state quarter was a matter of authentic cultural and historical association rather than a rip-off of the Regina design, which shares a coincidental resemblance.
Although the bison skull image is an icon of Montana culture, I must agree with Mr. Hoff’s statement that Montana “could have come up with something better than the head of a dead animal.” In fact, during the Montana design selection process I worked very hard to do just that – come up with something better.
My favorite among the finalist designs was the “bull elk” design that showed a majestic bull elk standing in an open prairie with the Rocky Mountain Front in the background and a rising sun gracing Montana’s “Big Sky.” That design proudly and beautifully illustrated Montana’s bountiful wildlife, its open spaces, its eastern prairies, the western Rocky Mountains, and the famed “Big Sky.” It was the ideal and most logical choice to me.
The Montana selection process began in the summer of 2005 with an invitation to Montanans to submit their ideas for the state’s quarter – in narrative form – to the Governor’s office. In all, about 400 submissions were collected. The Commission reviewed the submissions and developed four design concepts that represented the general themes expressed through the narrative submissions.
These design concepts included the bison skull, the bull elk, a mountain and river scene, and a landscape and sky design framed by an outline of the state. These four designs were posted on the Governor’s Web site where state residents were invited to “vote” in a non-binding straw poll for their favorite design.
Unfortunately, the voting process was lacking in integrity. At one point, it was discovered that an adolescent from Bozeman, Mont., had figured out how to make his computer vote for the skull design approximately 30,000 times. The votes were removed from the tally, however, the incident demonstrated the on-line poll lacked the security needed to assure a “one-person one-vote” outcome. It was also discovered that people from outside Montana could vote. So, it’s a sure bet that many votes that originated from places far removed from Montana were included in the final tally.
After the voting period closed, the Governor’s office reported the final poll results. Thirty-three percent had selected the skull, 31 percent the bull elk, 18 percent went to the mountain and river design and the remaining 18 percent chose the state outline. Without an absolute majority for any design, the skull edged out the elk with a plurality of the vote. Did the poll accurately reflect the true preferences of Montanans? It seemed questionable at best to me, but it was the only measurement of public preference available.
The burden of actually selecting a final recommendation for submission to the Treasury secretary was left to Governor Schweitzer. Before he made his choice, he asked those of us on the Commission to give him our personal written recommendations. I used this opportunity to plead my case for the “elk” design and against the “skull.”
I wrote, “For me, the skull design suggests something that is without life. It speaks to being dead and dry. While I understand that for many Montanans the skull is an image that conjures up warm thoughts of Charlie Russell and the Wild West of bygone days, I believe it will serve to imprint something far different and considerably less attractive on the rest of the world. The message of the skull to outsiders is this – ‘Montana is a place that thinks its dead bones are the best attributes it has to showcase to the world.’ I strongly urge you to NOT select the skull design.”
Despite my pleadings, Governor Schweitzer selected the skull design. He explained that he ultimately relied on the on-line poll results as the best reflection of the thoughts of the people of Montana.
Was the bison skull the best choice for the Montana quarter? The answer is a matter of perspective. I believe Montana could have done better. While the skull has recognizable meaning to Montanans, it is only a bone to many others.
Gary B. Marks, formerly of Montana, is a life-long coin collector, a member of the Citizens Coin Advisory Committee, and a resident of Ketchum, Idaho.
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