U.S. quarters will soon spotlight trailblazing Native dancer from Oklahoma, Maria Tallchief

Calling tails on a coin flip using some future U.S. quarters could reveal an Osage dancer from Oklahoma known as "America's first prima ballerina."

Maria Tallchief — the most famous of the "Five Moons," five Native American dancers from Oklahoma who took the international ballet world by storm in the 20th century — will be one of the five 2023 honorees of the American Women Quarters Program, the U.S. Mint announced.

"Featuring Maria on the quarter will elevate our collective memory about her unprecedented contributions to dance," said Russ Tallchief, Maria Tallchief's nephew, an Oklahoma City-based writer, dancer and educator.

"It is easy to forget over time that Maria reached the highest echelon in ballet at a time when women of color were still struggling for career opportunities that allowed them to reach their greatest potential."

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Maria Tallchief appears in a 1940s studio portrait by New York City photographer Walter E. Owen for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Maria Tallchief appears in a 1940s studio portrait by New York City photographer Walter E. Owen for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

What groundbreaking women will be featured on the 2023 quarters?

Along with Tallchief, the groundbreaking women to be featured on 2023 quarters are:

  • Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady who became the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and played an instrumental role in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • Jovita Idár, a Mexican American journalist, activist, teacher and suffragist

  • Edith Kanakaʻole, an Indigenous Hawaiian composer, chanter, dancer and teacher

  • Bessie Coleman, the first African American and first Native American woman pilot.

“The range of accomplishments and experiences of these extraordinary women speak to the contributions women have always made in the history of our country,” said U.S. Mint Deputy Director Ventris C. Gibson in a statement.

Maria Tallchief (Osage) is one of the five Native American ballerinas from Oklahoma to become known as the Five Moons. She is widely considered to be America’s first prima ballerina.
Maria Tallchief (Osage) is one of the five Native American ballerinas from Oklahoma to become known as the Five Moons. She is widely considered to be America’s first prima ballerina.

What other Oklahoma women will be honored on a quarter?

The first African American to earn an international pilot’s license, Coleman also has an Oklahoma connection: She spent a semester at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston. But the Texas native, who grew up helping her mother pick cotton and wash laundry to earn extra money, had to drop out of college after one term because she couldn't afford to attend.

Still, Coleman went on to become a pilot, advocate and aviation pioneer.

Mayor David Holt said Oklahoma City's MAPS 4 improvement package includes plans for a Bessie Coleman Garden near Will Rogers World Airport.

Tallchief will be the second Native American woman from Oklahoma honored on a U.S. quarter. Last year, Wilma Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation's first principal woman chief, was part of the first group of honorees announced for the American Women Quarters Program.

As authorized by the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020, the program will release five new designs honoring women trailblazers each year between 2022 and 2025. So far this year, the U.S. Mint has begun shipping new quarters featuring African American poet, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou and astronaut Sally Ride.

Due to be released later this year are quarters spotlighting Mankiller; Adelina "Nina" Otero-Warren, a leader of New Mexico's suffrage movement; and Anna May Wong, the first Asian American female movie star.

As required by law, no living person will be featured in the coin designs, so all the women to be honored must be deceased.

The quarters depict the women trailblazers on the reverse, or tails, side. The obverse, or heads, side features a portrait of George Washington originally composed and sculpted by Laura Gardin Fraser to mark the first U.S. president's 200th birthday.

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Who was Maria Tallchief?

Born in Fairfax in 1925, Elizabeth Maria Tallchief — known to her family as Betty Marie — got her start dancing at her father’s movie theater with her sister, Marjorie, in their hometown. From there, she performed all over the world, raised the profile of American ballet on the international stage and helped popularize ballet in the United States.

Her family moved to California when she was 8, and after high school, Tallchief traveled to New York and started as an apprentice with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

In 1944, famed Russian choreographer George Balanchine joined Ballet Russe, and he and Tallchief married in 1946. Their marriage ended in 1951, but they proved successful collaborators: In 1947, after becoming the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet, Tallchief was named the first prima ballerina of what would evolve into the New York City Ballet.

Balanchine choreographed leading parts for her in several ballets, including "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker" and "The Firebird."

Tallchief retired from the stage in 1966 and settled in Chicago, where she directed Chicago's Lyric Opera Ballet from 1973 to 1979 and the Chicago City Ballet from 1980 to 1987.

Before she died in 2013 at the age of 88, Tallchief was given the name "Wa-Xthe-Thonba," or "Woman of Two Standards," by the Osage Nation, became the first Oklahoma native lauded at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996 and received a National Medal of Arts in 1999.

Oklahoma's five Native American ballerinas, known as the "Five Moons," pose with Chickasaw artist Mike Larsen at the state Capitol Oct. 14, 1997. From left are Yvonne Chouteau, Larsen, Rosella Hightower, Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief and Moscelyne Larkin.
Oklahoma's five Native American ballerinas, known as the "Five Moons," pose with Chickasaw artist Mike Larsen at the state Capitol Oct. 14, 1997. From left are Yvonne Chouteau, Larsen, Rosella Hightower, Maria Tallchief, Marjorie Tallchief and Moscelyne Larkin.

Tallchief and the other Five Moons — her sister, Marjorie Tallchief (Osage), Yvonne Chouteau (Shawnee and Cherokee), Moscelyne Larkin (Shawnee-Peoria) and Rosella Hightower (Choctaw) — were named Oklahoma Cultural Treasures in 1997. They are immortalized in Chickasaw painter Mike Larsen's mural "Flight of Spirit" in the state Capitol rotunda.

"Each time we hold that quarter in our hands, we will be reminded that women like Maria and all of the five Native ballerinas paved roads untraveled by Native and American women in dance. I can't wait to hold that history in my hand," Russ Tallchief told The Oklahoman.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Iconic Native dancer Maria Tallchief to be put on U.S. quarters