Maria Tallchief was one of the most accomplished dancers of the twentieth centuries. She was the first Native American woman to hold the rank of prima ballerina, or the leading woman dancer in a ballet company.
Tallchief was born in Oklahoma in 1925. Her father was an Osage Indian and the family name was actually Tall Chief. From a very early age, Maria’s family saw that she was talented. She began ballet at the age of three! By the age of eight, Maria’s family left the Indian reservation where she’d grown up and moved to Los Angeles. Their parents had big dreams for both Maria and her sister, Marjorie, who was also a dancer.
While only a teenager, Maria moved to New York City, in the hopes of finding a spot with a major ballet company. It was in New York City that Maria was advised to take the name Maria Tallchief. Russian ballerinas were very much admired at the time, and many American dancers took Russian stage names. Maria, however, was very proud of her Native American heritage. She refused to change her name.
In New York, Maria earned a spot with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. The famous choreographer, George Balanchine, choreographed many of the company’s performances. He and Maria became close friends and were eventually married in 1946.
The marriage of a passionate choreographer and a highly talented ballerina produced incredible performances. When Balanchine founded his own ballet company, the New York City Ballet, Maria Tallchief was the company’s first star. Balanchine created many roles for her. One of these roles, “Firebird,” made her famous. Tallchief also starred as the Swan Queen in “Swan Lake.” Her role as the Sugarplum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” made the ballet one of the most famous in the world.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Tallchief traveled the world as a ballerina. She became the first American to perform in Russia’s Bolshoi Theater. She often starred in television performances, and even had a role in a movie, “Million Dollar Mermaid,” in 1952. She also performed for the Royal Danish Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, and the Hamburg Ballet.
For most of the rest of her life, Tallchief promoted ballet in Chicago. She founded the ballet school of the Lyric Opera. She also worked as the artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet.
No matter where Maria Tallchief went in life, or how famous she became, she never forgot her Native American heritage. She was proud of her Osage ancestry. She did not like the misconceptions many people had about Native Americans. In addition to the many awards she won for her dancing, Tallchief has also been honored for her pride in her heritage. She is depicted on a mural in the Oklahoma state capitol. She was even honored by the Osage Nation with the title Princess Wa-Xthe-Thomba, which means “Woman of Two Standards.”
Things to Remember:
- Maria Tallchief was the first Native American prima ballerina
- She was proud of her native heritage and refused to change her name