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Forgotten Foremothers: Maria Tallchief

Kathryn S. Gardiner  | Published on 7/20/2021
Profiles of lesser known heroines in the fight for women's rights


This is Maria Tallchief's Story
A woman of two worlds, Maria Tallchief descended from the Osage Nation and became America's Prima Ballerina.

Maria Tallchief

In 1947, 22-year-old Maria Tallchief became the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet and the first United States dancer to perform with the Paris Opera Ballet. A French newspaper declared boldly, “The daughter of the great Indian chief dances at the Opera.”

Maria was born Marie Elizabeth Tall Chief on Jan. 24, 1925, in Fairfax, Oklahoma, to Alexander Joseph Tall Chief and Ruth Porter. Her father was of the Osage Nation, a Great Plains tribe that originally lived in Kansas before the United States government moved them onto designated territory in Oklahoma. Unlike many other tribes, the Osage owned their land, thanks to the negotiating of Peter Bigheart, Maria’s grandfather. Then, in the late 1890s, oil was discovered on that tract of Oklahoma land, making the Osage Nation some of the richest people in the country. 


“When I was growing up, my Indian Grandma Tall Chief was a majestic figure to me,” Maria wrote in her 1997 autobiography, Marie Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina. Sharing her Indigenous heritage was important to her throughout her career. “A typical Indian woman, she wore her hair in a single braid down her back and always had a tribal blanket draped over her shoulders. She and my father were my link to the Osage people. At the time, the tribe lived royally. I was an adult before I heard some of their history.” The oil prosperity was lasting for many, including Maria’s family, but she was born amidst a time called the Reign of Terror.

During the 1920s, the government eroded the Osage fortune by challenging property rights, questioning if landowners could claim to own what was under the land, and assigning white guardians to Osage landowners. Even a drop of Osage blood was believed to make an individual naturally irresponsible with money, so these white guardians controlled the fortune and distributed an allowance to their Osage ward, while—of course—skimming off the top. This guardianship program had nearly no official oversight and was highly corrupt. Murders, including shootings, poisoning, and bombings, lead to the death of an estimated 60 Osage people between 1921 and 1925.


“In the 1920s, villainous white men married into Osage families, then poisoned their wives or shot them in order to get their money, another example of the slaughter of Indians that is a notorious chapter of U.S. history,” Marie wrote. These were the first murder cases investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but aside from one conviction—some of the murderers of the Kyle family—the deaths remain unsolved.


 

 

 

 

  Maria Tallchief, 1954

“The Osage and many other Indian nations kept their culture alive by holding ceremonies in remote corners of the reservation,” Maria recalled. “At the powwow there was dancing, and Indian music was played on tom-toms. Osage women didn’t really dance... Men did the active dancing, stomping their feet on the ground to the tom-tom rhythm. ... The rhythm of those songs has stayed with me.”


To her family, Maria was known as “Betty Marie.” Her parents had met when her mother Ruth, who was of Scottish-Irish descent, came to Fairfax to visit her sister, who was then the housekeeper of Alexander’s mother. “Mother must have arrived tired and dusty from her long journey,” Maria wrote, “but from what I’m told there was an instant attraction between them.”


Alexander’s children from his previous marriage (he was a widower) were raised by his mother. After Maria, Ruth and Alexander welcomed another baby girl, Marjorie. Maria began her ballet training around that same time, at age 3, taking lessons in the basement of the Broadmoor Hotel. “What I remember most is that the ballet teacher told me to stand straight and turn each of my feet to the side, the first position,” Maria wrote. “I did what I was told.” Sister Marjorie soon joined the lessons as well.


The Tall Chief-Porter family also produced a son, Jerry, born with a vitamin D deficiency and later weakened further by a head injury. Ruth diligently taught her son, but his learning abilities were permanently limited. Marie wrote, “I often wonder if Mother’s disappointment in Jerry is what caused her to turn her attention to Marjorie and me, making it so important for her that we succeed.”


Alexander drank heavily and the couple often argued about money; Ruth worried the oil checks would be spent irresponsibly during one of Alexander’s drinking binges, or that the man himself would suffer an injury. “Like many in the wealthy Osage tribe, Daddy had never worked a day in his life,” Maria said.


The sisters performed well in school and showed significant talent in piano and dancing. In 1933, when Maria was just 8 years old, the family moved to Los Angeles with their eyes on Hollywood musicals. Maria also attributes the move to her mother. “She was from a family of true pioneers,” she said. “She longed for more than our town and those shrinking oil checks.”


In Los Angeles, Maria was back on square one in both school and dancing. In school, it was a frustrating experience; she found herself far beyond the learning of her classmates and often felt bored. It was also here that Tall Chief became Tallchief. “Some of the students made fun of my last name, pretending they didn’t understand if it was Tall or Chief. … Eventually, I turned the spelling of my last name into one word. Everything in school was in strict alphabetical order and I wanted to avoid confusion.”


In dance, square one was a lifesaver. 


In those little ballet classes in the hotel basement, Maria and Marjorie had been training on pointe. Most ballet schools prohibit pointe work until the student is 11 years old, if not closer to 13. Begun too early, pointe can irreparably injure the legs of growing dancers. This new L.A.-based teacher immediately halted any pointe training and started the girls over from the basics, likely saving both their careers.


At 17, Maria graduated from Beverly Hills High School. She considered college, but her father objected. Maria recalled, “‘You know, I’ve paid for your [ballet] lessons all your life and now it’s time for you to find a job,’ he said. I was surprised, but ages seventeen through twenty are important years for a dancer.” Maria quickly found opportunities, including in the Judy Garland film Presenting Lily Mars in 1943. “Daddy was proud.” This experience also helped Maria determine that dancing in film wasn’t her passion.


Instead, she took to the stage. She worked briefly in New York, and then a long stint in Russia where she was quite unhappy. The Russian dancers resented dancers from the United States, who they believed to be inferior, and Maria was frequently pressured to change her surname to something less exotic to Russians. She refused to change Tallchief, but did concede that Betty Marie was worth changing (there were many other Bettys in ballet at the time) and officially became Maria.


The job was good for her career, but not always her body. “Food was scarce,” she wrote. “Our salaries did not allow for gourmet meals. … I wasn’t eating well.” When she returned to her family in Los Angeles, her mother was alarmed by her poor health. Ruth wanted Maria to return to piano, but despite its challenges, Maria was hooked: she loved performing on stage. Reading the reviews Maria had received—“[Tallchief] has an easy brilliance that smacks of authority rather than bravura,” wrote a renowned New York Times dance critic—convinced Ruth to let her daughter keep dancing.


In 1944, Maria met George Balanchine, a choreographer who is sometimes called the father of modern American ballet. George, in his 40s, was immediately taken with Maria. “It never occurred to me that there was anything more than dancing on his mind,” she recalled, but later, when he proposed, she accepted. The couple were married on August 16, 1946, when Maria was just 21. Her parents did not approve. 


The marriage was short-lived, lasting just four years, but their partnership endured. Maria became George’s muse and the two worked together as dancer and choreographer until 1960, creating some of the most iconic moments in ballet, including Maria’s stints as the Swan Queen, Eurydice, and Sugar Plum Fairy. “Maria Tallchief, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, is herself a creature of magic, dancing the seemingly impossible with effortless beauty of movement, electrifying us with her brilliance, enchanting us with her radiance of being,” effused one critic. “Does she have equals anywhere, inside or outside of fairyland? While watching her in The Nutcracker, one is tempted to doubt it.”


Maria’s love life seems to have been as varied and exciting as her stage life. In 1952, she married pilot Elmourza Natirboff, but the two divorced just two years later. In 1956, she married Henry D. Paschen Jr., a businessman from Chicago, whose lack of ballet knowledge was “very refreshing” to Maria. The two honeymooned in Europe on a ballet tour and had one child, a daughter, born in 1959. This union would last until Henry died in 2004.


After leaving the New York City Ballet in 1966, Maria performed on variety television shows, in movie musicals, and as prima ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre. George, who remained close until his death in 1983, urged her to join the Hamburg Ballet in Germany. She danced in Germany, Europe, Japan, Russia, and South America before retiring from ballet in 1966 at age 41.


After retirement, she moved to Chicago with husband Henry, but remained involved in ballet as an administrator and a teacher of George’s particular dance style. In 1981, she and Marjorie, who also had a successful ballet career, founded the Chicago City Ballet, which ran until 1987. In the following decades, she received numerous awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement in 1996 and an induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She, and three other Native American ballerinas, appear in a mural called “Flight of Spirit,” which decorates the Oklahoma Capital building. A life-size statue of her stands in the Tulsa Historical Society.


Marie died in 2013 from complications of a hip injury suffered the year before. At her funeral, her daughter Elise said, “My mother was a ballet legend who was proud of her Osage heritage. ... She raised the bar high and strove for excellence in everything she did.”


Among the Osage people, Maria is remembered as “Princess Wa-Xthe-Thomba,” or “Woman of Two Worlds.”

____


SOURCES:

 

Wikipedia: Maria Tallchief

Biography.com: Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina

Criteria for Pointe Work

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI