By Judy Carmack Bross
(Editor’s Note: Columnist Katherine Harvey wrote in a November 18th Classic Chicago Magazine article about the official introduction of the Maria Tallchief quarter at the Lyric Opera November 11 by the US Mint and the National Women’s History Museum. We spoke recently with Elise Paschen, internationally acclaimed poet, anthologist and professor to learn more about the poems she has written about her mother, America’s first prima ballerina.)
Elise Paschen and daughter Alexandra Brainerd with the Maria Tallchief quarter
As lists of 2023’s best films and Golden Globe nominees appear, Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” is among the most frequently mentioned films–and surely has the most poetic name. David Grann’s 2017 bestseller about the Reign of Terror in Oklahoma in the 1920s after the discovery of oil on Osage land, owes its title to Elise Paschen’s poem “Wi’-gi-e” which speaks to the Osage lunar cycle in which late frosts often kill young flowers.
Killers of the Flower Moon star Lily Gladstone, who plays Mollie Burkhart, with Paschen at the Tallchief Quarter launch in Tulsa
Anna Kyle Brown, the sister of Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife of the Leonardo DiCaprio character, was killed with other relatives during that cycle as white men married oil rich Osage women in order to get their headrights. The poem, which is excerpted in Grann’s book, shines a light on the abuse the Osage suffered. The poem ends with Paschen’s powerful words: “During Xtha-cka Zhi-ga Tse-the, the Killer of the Flowers Moon. I will wade across the river of the blackfish, the otter, the beaver. I will climb the bank where the willow never dies.”
Paschen first published “Wi’-gi-e,” which means prayer in Osage, in Bestiary in 2009. “I received a Newberry Library Fellowship in 2001 to research the Reign of Terror with the idea to write a prose book on the subject. The poem, spoken by Mollie Burkhart, arrived, as a gift, several years later.” Paschen said. “I also worked on a screenplay with Jenny Friedes about the Reign of Terror although no one picked it up. After David Grann interviewed me about his nonfiction book, I shared my poem with him. He is an incredible prose writer, and I am glad he wrote about the Reign of Terror.”
Book signing of Tallchief on publication day, October 29, 2023. Elise Paschen with Osage Princess Lulu Goodfox and Chad Renfro at the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum. Photograph by Owen Hutcheson
Coinciding with the release of the Maria Tallchief quarter, Magic City Books Press in Tulsa released the chapbook (a small book or pamphlet) entitled Tallchief containing new as well as previously published poems about her mother. David Grann’s blurb is on the back cover. When the chapbook was released in October, it quickly went to the top of the bestseller list in Oklahoma. In 2025, Red Hen Press will publish Paschen’s new poetry collection, Blood Wolf Moon, which also will focus on her Tallchief family and cultural heritage.
“Blood Wolf Moon was borne out of my research of my Osage background. The poems have brewed for awhile and then the words began to pour out.”
Elise Paschen with her mother Photo: Jack Mitchell
“The tiny town of Fairfax, Oklahoma where my mother and her sister Marjorie grew up was always a source of inspiration for me. In the aftermath of the Reign of Terror, my grandmother Tallchief took her family to Los Angeles in 1933 when my mother was eight years old,” Paschen said. “The Reign of Terror lasted from 1921 to 1926 and there was so much crime in Fairfax. I’m sure my grandparents would have known Mollie Burkhart, but my family never talked about the Reign of Terror with me.
“We would go to Fairfax during the summers of my childhood to visit my grandmother Tallchief. I loved riding the horses and being allowed to cut cattle (separating a cow from the herd) and hearing my grandmother’s stories about rattlesnakes. Although I wrote poems in high school, I began to commit myself to poetry in college. During my sophomore year, studying with the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, I wrote a poem inspired by my mother’s childhood home in Fairfax, called “Oklahoma Home.” It has been my lodestar, and I often begin readings with “Oklahoma Home.”
“In 12th grade at Francis W. Parker School, I did an independent study on Osage history at the Newberry Library. I continue to explore and learn about our Osage history. Not many people knew about the Reign of Terror. Now, thanks to Grann’s book and Scorsese’s movie, the world will learn about this horrific period of American history.”
From left to right: Carol Conner, editor of “The Fairfax Chief”; Misty Copeland, the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre; Elise Paschen, and Leyla Fayyaz, “Life in Motion” film producer, in front of the Tallchief house in Fairfax
Taking on her ancestral name and spending time in Fairfax are key to Paschen’s life. “Along with the family of my mother’s sister, Marjorie Tallchief Skibine, we are in the process of transferring the Tallchief House to the Osage Nation with the hope to create a cultural center for the Osage Nation and a tribute to the Tallchief sisters.”
Paschen was involved with the U.S. Mint in the whole process of designing the coin honoring her mother which included consultants, Chad Renfro and the Osage Nation Language Department and Nancy Reynolds from the George Balanchine Foundation. In addition to the quarter, Maria Tallchief’s image, along with four other Native American ballet dancers, is also featured on the reverse of the 2023 Sacagawea Native American Dollar coin with the image of Sacagawea always on the obverse. The coin is titled “Maria Tallchief and American Indians in Ballet” with the dancers often called “The Five Moons”.
We are very grateful to Paschen for sharing Heritage XII from Tallchief.
To purchase Tallchief, go to:
Or visit the Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Hyde Park.