A member of the Seneca Nation, John Big Tree, claimed his profile
was used to create that portion of the portrait from the top of the
forehead to the upper lip. The sculptor is reported to have said,
however, that another Chief Big Tree, Adoeette or Addoeette, from
the Kiowa tribe, was the Big Tree who was one of his models for the
The "buffalo" portrayed on the reverse was an American Bison,
possibly Black Diamond, from the Central Park Zoo.
Soon after the Indian Head nickel went into circulation, it became
apparent that the reverse design was problematic; the "FIVE CENTS"
inscription, which was on a raised mound at the bottom of the
reverse, was one of the highest spots on the coin and thus, wore
away very quickly. As a result, the design was modified by Charles
Barber during its first year of production. Barber removed the
raised mound and lowered the relief of the inscription so that it
would not wear away so quickly, along with making other design
changes,  however, one problem that was not addressed, was the
placement of the date. Similarly to the "FIVE CENTS" in the original
design, the date was placed in a relief that exposed it to a great
deal of wear. (Another similar problem later would be seen on the
Standing Liberty Quarter.)
This issue was never addressed definitively by the Mint, therefore,
many Indian Head nickels have their dates partially or completely
obliterated through extensive circulation. Some collectors place the
coin in a solution of weak acid or even apply acid to the worn area
of the coin, in hopes of re-etching the date. Such re-etched Indian
Head nickels have very little value as investment collectibles.
A more radical, albeit unofficial, design change for the Indian Head
nickel was the advent of the hobo nickel. Enterprising artists would
scrape away the original obverse of this coin and modify the Native
American, his headdress, or the background to create completely
original works of art. Even more ambitious alteration efforts
completely eliminated the original design except for a few key
features such as the date.
One year before the production of these nickels ended an interesting
design variety was produced in 1937, the 1937-D "3-legged" buffalo
nickel. The buffalo's right foreleg is missing on this rare error.
This was produced when the leg accidentally was ground off in the
process of removing undesirable marks from the die. If an
uncirculated condition example of this minting error is possessed,
it is worth a significant amount of money. Some normal Indian Head
nickels have had the front leg ground down as an attempt to mimic
the more valuable die error, but these can be distinguished readily
by other features present on the "3-legged" buffalo nickel.
Most Indian Head nickels were removed from circulation in the 1950s
and 1960s in various degrees of wear, although it was not uncommon,
with diligent searching, to find one as late as the early 1980s.
Today, any talk of an Indian Head nickel showing up in circulation
is notable, as only an estimated 1 in 25,000 nickels in circulation
today is an Indian Head nickel. The dates are completely worn off of
many of those still circulating.
United States Mint Marks
'S' mint mark
Indian Head nickels were minted at the Denver, San Francisco, and
Philadelphia mints and either have a 'D', an 'S', or no mint mark
(for Philadelphia) on the reverse of the coin below the words FIVE