Cultural Crossroads
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Firebird from Oklahoma

Born a mixed-blood named Betty Marie Tall Chief, daughter of an Osage father and Scotch-Irish mother, Maria Tallchief spent eight years in the Indian lands of northeastern Oklahoma. She was born in the small town of Fairfax, Oklahoma in 1925.

Like so many Oklahomans, her family moved to Los Angeles in 1933. She enjoyed music and dancing, and practiced being a star -- a considerably challenging dream for a Native American child in those days.

Reporting her story would be interesting, regardless of her accomplishments. She would surely have fascinating experiences as she looked back at her mixed Indian and European heritage, her eight years in the Osage Hills north of Tulsa, her journey to California and life among the many people in Los Angeles. After all, those were the days when people became rich with oil fields and poor with dusty crops.

Of her childhood she wrote, "I was a good student and fit in at Sacred Heart (Catholic School). But in many ways, I was a typical Indian girl -- shy, docile, introverted. I loved being outdoors and spent most of my time wandering around my big front yard, where there was an old swing and a garden. I'd also ramble around the grounds of our summer cottage hunting for arrowheads in the grass. Finding one made me shiver with excitement. Mostly, I longed to be in the pasture, running around where the horses were..."

But, there's more. She became a "Woman of Two Worlds."

The Osage Nation became rich from the oil found beneath their land. Young Betty Marie vacationed with her family in Colorado Springs, where she attended a ballet lesson at the Broadmore Hotel.

She followed her dream to be a ballerina. Studying with Bronislava Nijinska for five years led to a nervous appearance at the Hollywood Bowl. Madame Nijinska's philosophy of discipline made sense to Tallchief. "When you sleep, sleep like ballerina. Even on street waiting for bus, stand like ballerina." Betty Marie continued to work hard and mastered technical skills well beyond her years.

A refined professional, Maria Tallchief, as she called herself, left Los Angeles at the age of 17 and auditioned in New York City. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and quickly rose to the status of featured soloist.

Choreographer, George Balanchine wrote several of his most famous works for her and the two briefly married. She performed for the New York City Ballet from 1947 to 1960, where Balanchine was the principal choreographer.

Her performance of Balanchine's Firebird in 1949 and their earlier collaboration at the Paris Opera elevated Maria Tallchief onto the world stage. She received high praise from critics for her performances in France and Russia.

Much of the world had never seen anything like Maria Tallchief. Admired by millions, she became America's preeminent dancer, a Prima Ballerina, and in 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower declared her "Woman of the Year." When the Governor of Oklahoma honored her that same year for her international achievements and her proud Native American identity, Maria Tallchief was named Wa-Xthe-Thomba, "Woman of Two Worlds."

She continued to dance with the American Ballet Theatre through 1965, when her retirement saddened the artistic world.

Throughout her career, Maria Tallchief managed an intense rehearsal and performance schedule, and taught at the School for American Ballet in New York City. Following her retirement, she continued to give her creative talents to the art by directing at the Lyric Opera Ballet of Chicago.

With her sister Marjorie, she founded the Chicago City Ballet in 1981 and served as its artistic director through 1987.

Maria Tallchief was honored as one of America's most revered artists by the Kennedy Center in 1996, along with prize-winning playwright Edward Albee and music legend Benny Carter.

But all of her fame and glory never changed her understanding of her culture. She always admired the Osage ceremonial dances and the ways of her ancestors. She reported being upset by teasing that she and other Native American children suffered.

She researched the history and origin of her tribe, learning how they came to reside in Oklahoma. Of the terror her tribe and her own relatives experienced she wrote, "Cousin Pearl was an orphan, and our family was concerned for her well-being. When she was small, her house had been firebombed and everyone inside killed, murdered for their headrights (oil royalties paid to each member of the Osage Nation). Pearl's situation was not uncommon. 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."

Tallchief's ideals and many accomplishments have strong influence on young scholars today.

A 10-year-old student from Burbank, California, who enjoys sharing the same first name with the famous dancer, wrote to Maria Tallchief, "You made a great impact on the world and on me with your great talent."

In a school report published on the Internet, a fourth grade student named Veronica wrote, "She is still alive right this minute and inspiring young people to do ballet."

-- Mark D. Lacy

To learn more about Maria Tallchief, visit The Kennedy Center.