During Women’s History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of woman innovators and history makers like Maria Tallchief, who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout March to learn about more important figures.
Born: Jan. 24, 1925 Fairfax, Oklahoma
Died: April 11, 2013 Chicago, Illinois
Known best for: Widely being considered America’s first major prima ballerina and the first Native American to have the role
Maria Tallchief is considered one of the greatest American ballerinas — not only was she the U.S.’s first major prima ballerina, she was also one of the first Indigenous dancers to break into ballet. She was born on an Osage reservation in Oklahoma to a father who was a member of the Osage Nation and a mother of Scottish-Irish descent. Tallchief and her sister, Marjorie began dancing as children. Tallchief excelled in dance and music, and her family moved to Los Angeles in 1933 in hopes of providing better opportunities for her and her sister to secure notable roles. The Tallchief sisters later studied under notable figures such as choreographers Bronislava Nijinska and David Lichine.
After she graduated high school in 1942, Tallchief moved to New York City and joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo touring company. During her time with the company, many tried to persuade her to change her last name so that companies would not discriminate against her and her Osage ancestry, but she refused.
Tallchief became choreographer George Balanchine’s muse, and when the company developed its rendition of Stravinsky’s Firebird, Balanchine created the title role specifically for her.
The two married in 1946, but the marriage ended in 1950. In 1947, Tallchief and Balanchine moved to Paris, where they worked on productions for the Paris Opera Ballet and where Tallchief became the first American to perform. When the two moved back to the U.S., Tallchief became the prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet, where she had many notable roles, many of which Balanchine created for her, including the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, the Swan Queen in Swan Lake and Eurydice in Orpheus. Tallchief was also the first American to perform at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1960.
Tallchief also appeared in the Chicago Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and the Hamburg Ballet. Tallchief ultimately founded the ballet school of the Lyric Opera and became the artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet.
Tallchief held closely to her Osage heritage despite being part of the often-Eurocentric ballet world. In her memoir, Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina, she recalled her and her sister’s discomfort as children being asked to dance in an inauthentic Native-inspired routine for Oklahoma country fairs.
“It wasn’t remotely authentic. Traditionally, women didn’t dance in Indian tribal ceremonies. But I had toe shoes on under my moccasins, and we both wore fringed buckskin outfits, headbands with feathers, and bells on our legs. We’d enter from opposite wings, greet each other, and start moving to a tom-tom rhythm,” Tallchief wrote. “In the end, we stopped doing the routine because we outgrew the costumes. I was relieved when we put those bells away for good.”
In 1996, Tallchief received a Kennedy Center Honor. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Tallchief died in Chicago in 2013. She is remembered for her fiery dancing style, her notoriety as one of the first world-renowned American ballerinas, and her boundary breaking as one of the first Native American ballet dancers.