Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief April 16, 2013

Maria Tallchief died. perhaps the best-known American dancer in the field of ballet.  I confess to not following that particular art-form, though I’ve seen a few ballets and was quite impressed with them.  I want to honor Maria Tallchief here because she was a fellow Northern Oklahoman, born in Fairfax in the Osage Nation.  I drive through the Osage countryside virtually every time I go back home, and in my opinion it’s among the most beautiful landscapes in Oklahoma.

The story of how a young girl from an Indian reservation in the 1930’s went from dancing at rodeos to the New York City Ballet is quite a tale.

From Sarah Halzack in the Washington Post:

Maria Tallchief, a dancer of electrifying passion and technical ability who forged a pathbreaking career that took her from an Oklahoma Indian reservation to world acclaim and who was a crucial artistic inspiration for choreographer George Balanchine, her first husband, died April 11 at a hospital in Chicago. She was 88.

The cause was complications from a broken hip sustained in December, said Kenneth von Heidecke, a choreographer and founder of the Chicago Festival Ballet.

Ms. Tallchief — born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief — was of American Indian and Irish-Scottish descent. In a career that flourished from the 1940s to the 1960s at what became the New York City Ballet, she helped break down ethnic barriers in the world of dance and was one of the first American ballet stars in a field long dominated by Russian and European dancers.

After retiring in 1965, she settled in Chicago and taught at the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet and founded the Chicago City Ballet.

When she received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1996, she recalled the pressure she faced as an American dancer. One impresario insisted that she Russianize her name to Tallchieva. “Never!” she said, although she was open to the concession of changing her surname to one word and to use Maria, a variation on her middle name.

From the start, her dancing was characterized by precise footwork and an athleticism that dazzled without being excessive. Her regality and grace won critical admirers, as well as the attention of Balanchine, who was consistently impressed by her musicality, which had been honed through childhood piano lessons.

Balanchine revolutionized ballet by creating sleek, streamlined works that demanded athleticism, speed and attack like no choreography before them.

Read the rest of her story, including how she broke into the ballet world and took it by storm:   Maria Tallchief, ballet star who was inspiration for Balanchine, dies at 88 – The Washington Post.

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  • kerner

    Dr. Veith:

    I read somewhere that a very large percentage, maybe the majority, of native Oklahomans are part Native American, even though for some that part of their heritage may be very small. Do you know whether that is true?

  • sg

    What? The 1940’s -60’s? I thought indians were all oppressed back then? We keep hearing how the fifties were only swell if you were white. How did this happen?

  • Gene Veith

    Kerner, I don’t know what the percentage is. But it’s pretty high. And it’s hard to tell who counts as a tribal member and who doesn’t. The state was settled largely by the “Five Civilized Tribes,” which meant that the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaw, Seminoles, & Creeks had already assimilated to the White Man’s ways in their dress, customs, houses, farms, religion, etc., which made it especially heinous when their land was stolen from them and they were sent on the Trail of Tears to Indian territory. Of course, other tribes were also sent there that were not so assimilated. Also, in Oklahoma, there are Indian lands, but they aren’t necessarily reservations, as in other regions. Also, to get on the tribal roles of the Cherokees, etc., you just need a fraction of Indian blood, 1/16th, or so. But you usually would have a connection to the tribe. For examples, the Civilized Tribes, being good Southerners, had slaves. When emancipation came after the Civil War, the freed slaves were enlisted on the tribe. So there are quite a few “black Cherokees” where I grew up. In general, in Oklahoma, there has been nearly complete integration of Indians (or Native Americans) and Whites (even when blacks were not included in that integration). In Maria Tallchief’s case, she was an Osage, and the Osage did live on a reservation. Which was not good, until they discovered oil on the reservation. That land was not taken away from them, though; rather, many of the Osage, including the Tallchief family, became very wealthy.

  • kerner

    Dr. Veith:

    The former Oklahoma Congressman, J.C. Watts has a cousin who was a Milwaukee County Sheriff’s deputy, and who, like him, was generally thought of as African American, but because of some of her facial features, and the fact that I knew she was from Oklahoma, I once asked her if there was a Native American branch in her family tree somewhere, and she told me there was. And this is partly how I became aware of this.

    Another thing I think is interesting is that, if you are correct, Oklahoma is a state which, like Latin America has a significant Native American strain in its gene pool, and yet it has assimilated it without becoming unproductive or socialist. You must have some secret other Republicans have overlooked. 😀