Throughout the mid-20th century, Osage dancer Maria Tallchief wowed audiences with her graceful, gravity-defying performances. Now, the barrier-breaking ballerina is the latest woman featured on the United States quarter.
This week, the U.S. Mint unveiled the newest coin in its American Women Quarters Program, which celebrates prominent women throughout history by placing their likenesses on the reverse side of special quarters. The Secretary of the Treasury selects the honorees in consultation with the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, the National Women’s History Museum and the bipartisan Women’s Caucus. The Mint began shipping the Tallchief quarters on October 23.
The dancer was born in 1925 on Osage Nation land in northern Oklahoma. Her name was Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief, but she later decided to combine her last name into one word and go by her middle name.
Tallchief and her sister, Marjorie, began taking dance lessons as young girls. The family—which lived on money from oil discovered on Osage Nation land—spent many summers at a resort in Colorado.
“Every July and August, my parents drove to Colorado Springs, where Daddy played golf and Mother, Marjorie and I played in the pool of the Broadmoor Hotel,” wrote Tallchief in her 1997 autobiography. “When I was three, Mother took me for my first ballet lesson in the Broadmoor's basement. What I remember most is that the ballet teacher told me to stand straight and turn each of my feet out to the side, the first position. I couldn't believe it. But I did what I was told.”
Later, the family moved to Beverly Hills, California, where the girls continued their music and dance studies. At age 17, Tallchief moved to New York City, where she was selected to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a renowned ballet company.
In 1946, she married well-known choreographer George Balanchine and followed him to Paris, where she became the first American to perform with the Paris Opera Ballet. Later, after Balanchine co-founded what’s now known as the New York City Ballet, she became America’s first big prima ballerina.
This was a big accomplishment, but Tallchief “wasn’t concerned about fame,” her daughter, Elise Paschen, tells National Geographic’s Erin Blakemore.
“What she really cared about was the art in and of itself,” adds Paschen. “She was magnificent.”
Tallchief dazzled audiences throughout the 1950s and early ’60s before retiring in 1966. Together with her sister Marjorie, she co-founded the Chicago City Ballet in the 1970s. She was later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a Kennedy Center Honor. She died in 2013 at the age of 88.
One of Tallchief’s most iconic roles was the title character in The Firebird in 1949. On the new U.S. quarter, sculptor Joseph Menna and designer Benjamin Sowards depict Tallchief floating through the air in the middle of a dramatic leap while in costume for this role.
The quarter features her name in English alongside her Osage name—“Wa-Xthe-Thoṉba” —written in Osage orthography. Her grandmother selected her Osage name, which means “Two Standards,” to describe her two identities: as a ballerina and as a member of the Osage Nation, per the U.S. Mint.
Other women honored by the American Women Quarters Program include Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, poet and activist Maya Angelou and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The initiative started in 2022 and will continue through 2025.
Tallchief was one of five Native American ballerinas from Oklahoma who became known collectively as the “Five Moons.” The other dancers were her sister, Marjorie, as well as Myra Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower and Moscelyne Larkin.
Last year, thieves cut down a statue of Marjorie Tallchief that stood in front of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum as part of a broader display honoring the Five Moons. Earlier this week, on the same day Tallchief’s new quarter was revealed, the museum unveiled a replacement statue, reports News On 6’s Chloe Abbott.