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Channeling Osage Excellence

A US dollar coin honoring Maria Tallchief and American Indians in Ballet has been released by the US mint and a Maria Tallchief quarter will be released later this year

A US dollar coin honoring Maria Tallchief and American Indians in Ballet has been released by the US mint. Maria Tallchief is centered, while four figures behind her echo the Five Moons, five Native prima ballerinas from Oklahoma, who rose to international prominence around the same time. The Five Moons, Tallchief and her younger sister Marjorie Tallchief, Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, and Moscelyne Larkin inspired intense pride in Native communities and in Oklahoma.

Artist Mike Larsen, of Chickasaw heritage, completed a mural, Flight of Spirit, honoring the women for the Oklahoma State Capitol rotunda in 1991. The ballerinas seem to float in the foreground in white costumes before a Native community in western-inspired and traditional clothes. The ability to appear to float, even to fly, while making it look effortless is the hallmark of a prima ballerina.

Maria Tallchief performing ‘Firebird’ at the NYC Ballet, September 19, 1963. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

Maria and Marjorie Tallchief were born in Fairfax in the 1920s, and began to study with a ballet teacher who circulated through rural areas. Their mother was dedicated to developing their talent, and they moved to Los Angeles and later to New York. Their careers, captured most by incredible photographs of Maria Tallchief dancing, have inspired many.

Students from Dance Maker Academy appear at the National Indian Taco Competition in Pawhuska in October. There’s such pride in seeing young Osages perform in the street in the midst of Native crafts, powwow dancers, and Indian taco vendors, channeling another form of Osage excellence. 

Jenna LaViolette, Director of Dance at the Dance Maker Academy, started ballet when she was three. She was already dancing when the family came to their first Inlonshka in 1998, when she encountered a book about Maria Tallchief, her mother Randy Tinker Smith said. Smith began to work on costumes to support her daughter’s classes. Their love of ballet developed into an asset that celebrates Maria and Marjorie Tallchief and the Osage ballet connection.

Dance Maker Academy nurtures Osage talent and the Wahzhazhe Ballet has produced and performed a chronology of Osage life and culture across the United States. This year, it will be presented by the Friends of Fort Scott National Historic Site, Inc. in Fort Scott, Kans., on July 21 and 22.

I didn’t take ballet classes, but I loved seeing my friends’ programs. Janet Emde had eight years of class and went en pointe in fifth grade. She remembers going to the ballet with her mother in Tulsa to see Maria Tallchief dance. Leaf Mushrush enjoyed dressing up and attending gracious receptions with a friend when Maria Tallchief returned to Fairfax.

Russ Tallchief remembered his auntie Maria Tallchief watching him tail dance at the Inlonshka in Grayhorse as a defining moment in his life.

“I was so intimidated,” Russ Tallchief said. After their conversation, he followed Maria’s discipline and dedication and found himself dancing with an intensity he hadn’t experienced before.

The joy of watching a ballet, an opera or symphony is seeing artists who have dedicated themselves to achieving a high level of technical skill, lyricism, and athleticism. That same dedication translates to work in any field. It’s inspiring for me to read a novel written by a virtuoso, a master, to consider how the fabric was woven. In whatever artform or profession, “It’s what we say,” Russ Tallchief said, “𐓷𐓘𐓯𐓤𐓘’.”

In Osage class, we learn to say,𐓨𐓘͘𐓺𐓟𐓮𐓤𐓘 𐓜𐓪𐓤𐓘 𐓮𐓘𐓰𐓘 𐓷𐓣𐓤͘𐓶 𐓤𐓪͘𐓜𐓘, I want to give you five dollars. Broka is the word for dollar. 

It’s interesting to look at this dull-gold colored coin, not so very different in size from current US quarters, and wonder about a time when the government paid in gold. An outer layer of manganese brass gives these coins their color. A Maria Tallchief quarter is scheduled to be released later this year. When I consider Congress memorializing these heroic women I’m pleased. But I don’t want the acknowledgment of Native women, our accomplishments and potential, to be limited to the face of a coin. At the same time, I am pleased to have the Wilma Mankiller quarter that Cherokee Chief Hoskins handed me at the Cherokee Community of Puget Sound meeting. I look forward to holding Maria’s and tracing the orthography.

Ruby Hansen Murray

Title: Culture Columnist

Twitter: @osagewriter

Topic Expertise: Columnist, Literary Arts, Community


Languages spoken: English, Osage language learner

Ruby Hansen Murray is a freelance journalist and a columnist for the Osage News.  She’s the winner of The Iowa Review and Montana Nonfiction Prizes awarded fellowships at MacDowell, Ragdale, Hedgebrook and Fishtrap. She has been nominated for Push Cart prizes and Best of the Net. Her work is forthcoming in Cascadia: A Field Guide (Tupelo Press) and appears in Shapes of Native Nonfiction (University of Washington Press) and Allotment Stories (University of Minnesota Press). It may be found in Ecotone, Pleiades, High Desert Journal, Moss, Arkansas International, River Mouth Review, Under the Sun, the Massachusetts Review, The Rumpus, Colorlines, and South Florida Poetry Journal. She has an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and has written for regional and daily papers across the Northwest and received multiple awards from the Native American Journalist Association and the Oklahoma Pro Chapter of Professional Journalists. She’s a citizen of the Osage Nation with West Indian roots, living in the lower Columbia River estuary.


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