Maria Tall Chief (Osage family name: Ki He Kah Stah Tsa; January 24, 1925 – April 11, 2013) was considered America’s first major prima ballerina, and was the first Native American to hold the rank.
Maria Tallchief, a daughter of an Oklahoma native family who grew up on an Indian reservation, found her way to New York and became one of the most brilliant American ballerinas of the 20th century.
The combination of Balanchine’s difficult choreography and Tallchief’s passionate dancing revolutionized the ballet. Her 1949 role in The Firebird catapulted Tallchief to the top of the ballet world, establishing her as a prima ballerina. Her role as the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker transformed the ballet from obscure to America’s most popular. She traveled the world, becoming the first American to perform in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.
Tallchief was honored by the people of Oklahoma with multiple statues and an honorific day. She was inducted in the National Women’s Hall of Fame and received a National Medal of Arts. In 1996, Tallchief received a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievements. Her life has been the subject of multiple documentaries and biographies.
Ms. Tallchief remained attached to her Indian heritage long after she found fame and glamour in Paris and New York. But she bridled at the unwanted stereotypes and misconceptions that others perpetuated. Recalling her youth in her memoir, she wrote of a dance routine that she and her sister were asked to perform at Oklahoma country fairs and Boy Scout jamborees, making them both “self-conscious.”