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Maria Tallchief, America’s first prima ballerina, will be featured on U.S. coin

Bessie Coleman portrait ©Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Edith Kanakaʻole portrait ©franco salmoiraghi. Eleanor Roosevelt portrait ©Yousuf Karsh / Provided

Maria Tallchief will accompany George Washington in wallets, pockets, piggy banks, cashier drawers and while being flipped in the air.

Along with Eleanor Roovevelt, Bessie Coleman, Edith Kanaka’ole and Jovita Idár, Tallchief was recently chosen as the 2023 honorees for the American Women Quarters Program. This four-year plan highlighting women in history will end in 2025, according to the United States Mint.

Born Jan. 24, 1925, Elizabeth Marie Tallchief was raised on a reservation in Fairfax, Okla. before her family moved to Los Angeles. Tallchief, a citizen of the Osage Nation, would eventually be considered America’s first prima ballerina.

Tallchief trained under Bronislava Nijinska in California, before moving to New York to attend classes at the School of American Ballet. There, she became a member of the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo..

After a lead ballerina stepped down in Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, Tallchief performed the role and received positive reviews. As her career began to excel, some people wanted Tallchief to change her last name to Maria Tallchieva. But, she refused to change her last name and compromised on Maria, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

While touring with the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo in 1954, making $2,000 a week, she became the highest-paid ballerina of that time, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

In addition to her performances on stage and screen, Tallchief was the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. She eventually joined George Balchnine’s Ballet Society, now known as the New York City Ballet, where she was the company’s leading ballerina.

Tallchief’s honor in the American Women Quarters Program comes one year after Tahlequah native, Wilma Mankiller, was depicted on the first round of American Women quarters in 2022. Mankiller, an Indigenous rights advocate, was the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation and the first female elected as chief of a major Native Tribe.

As chief, Mankiller increased tribal membership and revenues, was the founding director of the Cherokee Nation Community Development Department, helped establish the Office of Tribal Justice and assisted in the founding of the Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations. For her work, Mankiller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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