Celebrating Maria Tallchief: the first (Native) American prima ballerina

The audience goes wild. The city center is alive with thunderous claps and boisterous cheers; it sounds like the stadium after a football game. But it is no quarterback that emerges into the spotlight. No, it’s a Firebird, a creature of flame and light, a piece of poetry in motion. It is Maria Tallchief.

Last weekend I was surfing the internet, as one does when a stunning Google Doodle caught my eye. It turned out the masterpiece was the work of three Indigenous artists, Lydia Cheshewalla, Chris Pappan, and Yatika Fields. They had collaborated to honor Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina.

I’m a simple person: I see ballet, and I click. And Tallchief’s story is certainly worth learning.

Born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925, she was raised on the Osage Indian Reservation. When she was three, she attended her first ballet class and started taking weekly lessons with her sister Marjorie. Before long, the instructor put her on pointe, and her mother thought the instructor was making stars out of her daughters (spoiler alert—she was not). Betty Marie also had perfect pitch, so her mother believed she was destined to be a pianist.

In 1933, her mother, Ruth Porter, grew tired of Oklahoma, and the family moved to Los Angeles. On the drive down, they stopped for gas, where an anonymous man decided their fate; Ruth asked the store attendant if he knew any good schools in the area, and he replied that there was one right in town: Ernest Belcher’s. So that’s where the family settled—a small town where they had just stopped for gas.

Under Belcher’s scrutiny, it became clear that their past instructor’s methods were, ahem, unhelpful. With her faulty techniques, it was a miracle that they hadn’t been injured.

When Betty Marie was 12, the girls started with a new teacher; the legendary Bronislava Nijinska. Tallchief credits Nijinska with putting her on the path to her destiny; she initially thought she was going to be a concert pianist, but Madame Nijinska’s devotion to ballet showed her what she wanted to do with her life.

When Betty Marie turned 17, she did the thing—she moved to New York to pursue her ballet dreams. She joined the Ballet Russe as a corps member and danced with the touring troupe. There, her superiors suggested that she Russianize her last name, and change it to Tallchieva. Tallchief refused, remaining proud of her Indigenous heritage. She did, however, agree to change her first name to Maria.

In 1944, the company took on a project with George Balanchine for a new musical. Balanchine caught Maria’s eye; a pianist herself, Tallchief was intrigued by his unique musicality. As time went on, they became friends, and Balanchine began choreographing for the Ballet Ruse, casting Maria in several important roles. didn’t think much of it, focusing instead on her developing techniques.

In 1945, Balanchine left the Ballet Russe to start a new company: the New York City Ballet. But before he left, he asked Maria Tallchief to marry him.

A girl looking shocked
[A girl looking shocked], via Giphy
Tallchief was just as shook; she had mistaken his attention for mere professionality. Nevertheless, she eventually agreed, and they got married on August 16, 1946.

Here’s the thing about their relationship; it was very much still a working arrangement, built on their passions. In Tallchief’s words: “I was his wife, but I was also his ballerina. He was my husband, but he was also my choreographer. He was a poet and I was his muse.”

Shortly after their marriage, Tallchief accompanied Balanchine on an assignment to Paris, where she danced for the Paris Opera Ballet. The French press complimented her performance, but her Indigenous background fascinated them even more.

Maria Tallchief dancing a pas de deux
[Maria Tallchief dancing a pas de deux], via Giphy
After returning to the US, Tallchief quickly rose in the new company, becoming the first prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet. And the first Native American prima ballerina. Balanchine created many roles for Maria, including Odette in his version of the Swan Lake, and many others. And of course: The Firebird.

After months of preparation, and many stress-induced practice sessions, she debuted the role in 1949, to raving reviews. Emphasis on raving:

“Then the curtain rose again, and as long as I live I’ll never forget the roar. A firestorm of applause erupted in the city center… every time the curtain went down they started calling out my name until it went up again: ‘Tallchief !Tallchief! Tallchief! Tallchief!'”

Tallchief and Balanchine were a combination of artistic perfection; her fiery athleticism and musicality was the perfect vessel for his groundbreaking choreography. Power couple, anyone?

Not really—they annulled their marriage in 1952 after falling for other people. The pair, however, continued their working relationship on amicable terms.

Tallchief remained with the New York City Ballet until 1960, but she took time off to dance with other companies. At one point, she was the highest-paid ballerina in the world, earning 2000 dollars a week. She retired from the stage in 1966 and moved to Chicago with her new husband, Buzz Paschen. There, she founded the Chicago City Ballet.

Maria Tallchief is certainly an icon; her passionate, musicality and technique changed the face of American ballet, and through it all she remained proud of her Native American heritage. A true queen.

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History Forgotten History

The real history behind Pocahontas and her relationship with colonists

Pocahontas seems to be immortalized thanks to the Disney rendition and to countless history books. We know Pocahontas to be a young woman who fell in love with a European settler and eventually dove off the cliffs of Virginia. That’s just a story. Her true history is very different, and much darker. 

Tales have been spun about her rescuing John Smith, an English adventurer, from certain execution. This idea, that Pocahontas turned allies with the English, is one that captured the public’s imagination for centuries. Maybe because stories of star-crossed lovers are bound to fascinate humanity. However, the idea that Pocahontas turned her back on her own people to single-handedly help ‘bridge’ two cultures is not historically true. There isn’t much evidence of Pocahontas rescuing the soldier at all. 

First off, Pocahontas is just a nickname.

First off, Pocahontas is just a nickname. Her real name is Amonute, and her more private name was Matoaka. Pocahontas was just a nickname, meaning “playful”, thanks to her curious and inquisitive nature. 

Born in approximately 1596, Amonute was Powhatan’s daughter, and he ruled more than 30 Algonquian-speaking tribes, in the area that would later become Jamestown, Virginia. Before I dismiss her relationship with John Smith as a silly historical romanticization, I should mention that the misconception that Pocahontas saved his life isn’t recent at all. It’s seen in Smith’s account, too. 

Apparently, when Smith first met Powhatan, his head was placed on two stones and a warrior was prepared to kill him. Pocahontas saved him by placing her head on his, preventing the attack. The reason Smith’s account is debated is that he wrote different versions of this first meeting. Some historians even believe that Smith was never in any danger at all, and this was just a ceremony he went through. 

Pocahontas began visiting Jamestown along with Powhatan’s envoys, in an attempt to bridge some peace between the two starkly different cultures. Pocahontas saved Smith’s group time and time again. As an emissary, she brought food to the settlers and negotiated the release of Powhatan prisoners in 1608. Smith also wrote that Pocahontas warned him of a plot against his life. Historians have uncovered that if a Native American chief honored a man – the way Smith was honored by Powhatan – there wouldn’t be a threat to his life. There wasn’t any romantic relationship between Pocahontas and Smith, either.

It was an interesting period for the two groups, and the colonial leaders even agreed to an exchange – they presented Powhatan with a young 13-year old boy, Thomas Savage, and Powhatan sent a young man named Namontack in return. Don’t worry – these exchanges were common, and served as a way of learning customs and forging relationships between the groups. The peace was tenuous at best, and relations slowly devolved, leading to war.

Another misconception is that Pocahontas was willingly traded to the English.

Another misconception is that Pocahontas was willingly traded to the English. In fact, she was kidnapped. In 1613, Pocahontas was captured during the First Anglo-Powhatan War. While in captivity, she was baptised and given the name ‘Rebecca’. During her imprisonment, she met John Rolfe, a widower and tobacco planter. Pocahontas married Rolfe in 1614, and the move cemented relations between colonists and Native Americans. Though she was married to a Native American earlier (in 1610), there isn’t much record of what happened to this first relationship.

By 1616, Pocahontas arrived in London along with Rolfe and her son, Thomas. In London, she was referred to as “Lady Rebecca Wolfe”, and was treated like royalty. Unfortunately, the pollution from the city ended up killing her – she fell sick and eventually died, at the tender age of 20. 

Her contributions went beyond securing relations between these two groups. In the Chesapeake Algonquian society, women were the agriculturalists, so Pocahontas knew her stuff. Tobacco culture requires different treatments that Europeans weren’t used to so Rolfe used her expertise to aid the growth of tobacco in America, as she knew the lay of the land.

For so long Pocahontas has been touted as an ‘Indian’ princess who embraced western culture, and bridged relations between the colonists and Native Americans. It’s surmised that the marriage symbolized an alliance. Pocahontas’ relationship with colonists is complicated to say the least.

She isn’t the first Native American woman to further history, nor will she be the last. Her history was whitewashed, her trauma effectively erased. Instead of being seen as a victim of European colonization, she’s propped as one that welcomed European ‘civilization’. In such a short time period, she made lasting impacts to America, resulting in Europeans forming permanent settlements. Her passing was tragic, but her portrayal as a willing convert to European practices was simply unfair, and untrue.

It’s time to set the story straight, and remember her, as Amonute or Matoaka, for who she was – a bright, intelligent and capable young woman that was caught up between her tribe and European colonists, and paid for it with her life.

Celebrate Native American Heritage Month by learning more about another Native heroine, Sacagawea.


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Why the curse of Columbus Day lingers onto Native American Heritage month

Columbus Day celebrated on the 12th of October, juxtaposed with Native American heritage month in November, which goes by in relative obscurity could be one of the greatest contradictions on the American National Calendar. While the latter is an important homage to the earliest residents of the continent, it is not possible to celebrate Columbus Day without disrespecting indigenous people. How can one glorify a cruel, tyrannical invader and its victims within the span of a single month?

The very context of Columbus Day is rooted in a whitewashed elementary school history lesson: 0n the 12th of October 1494, Christopher Columbus discovered the uninhabited Americas and brought with him on his three iconic ships (Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria) democracy, Christianity and civilization. And in doing so, proved that the earth was spherical.

There’s a lot to unpack and unlearn here: for starters, the Eurocentric historical lens and one of the greatest misnomers ever used, the word “discovery” so frequently associated with Columbus. Most of these claims have been debunked by history itself: Columbus never set foot in North America, and the idea of the earth being round was a prevalent theory at the time. And according to Oren Lyons, traditional chief of the Onondaga Nation, what Columbus brought on his ships were actually “Two edicts, the papal bull of 1452, which said to enslave all Saracens and pagans, and the papal bull of 1493, which said to bring in all pagan nations and peoples to the Christian faith and their property. And that’s been done.”

In fact, recent historical findings reveal that he was not even the first European to set foot in the Western hemisphere nor was he the first to establish a settlement there. Earlier Vikings had already achieved this feat. But myths die hard. Columbus’ voyage simply inaugurated transatlantic colonization and the subsequent American Indian genocide. A recent article by Penn Today highlights that “there were between 5 million and 15 million Indigenous people living in North America in 1492. By the late 1800s, there were fewer than 238,000 left.”

He viewed the native populations as obstacles, and eventually exploited them as forced labor to collect gold. He plundered and looted, enslaved, and raped women. He mutilated the body parts of those who objected to his coercion. And he recorded all this in his diaries, which he eventually presented to the Spanish royalty, that was funding his chartered mission. Here is one such existing excerpt, which declares his intentions of enslaving indigenous people:

“They willingly traded everything they owned … They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features …They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron …They would make fine servants … With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

So why does Columbus still merit a federal holiday in his name? Whether one considers him as an innocent product of his time, simply talking the language of colonialism, or as the vindictive tyrant of the Caribbean that committed countless atrocities against humanity, to memorialize him is to perpetuate his legacy of oppression.

And while we’re on the topic, let’s also remember how holidays such as Thanksgiving are equally culpable of the erasure of Native American history due to their capitalistic appropriations. Over time this holiday that stemmed from an indigenous ceremony celebrating the generosity of the Wampanoag tribe, has evolved into a feast of Turkeys. And the following day to be celebrated as Native American Heritage day has come to acquire the popular title of “Black Friday”: an excuse to shop. Thanksgiving as we know it naively commemorates the arrival of settlers without addressing the repercussions of the phenomenon: years of oppression and genocide.

[Image Description: Members of the Mexica Movement protest against Columbus Day in downtown Los Angeles, California, in 2015.] via Reuters
Today, about 13 states have renamed Columbus Day to some variant of “Indigenous people day.” In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, anti-racist protests made many statues and monuments of slave owners come crashing to the ground. Amidst these were statues of romanticized conquistadors including Columbus, removed by the American Indian Movement. Taking down monuments that represent genocide and slavery is not vandalism. It is a symbolic act of throwing wrongful “historical heroes” off their pedestals.

[Image Description: A statue of Christopher Columbus toppled from its stand in June on the east side of the Minnesota State Capitol.] via Darren Thompson, Native News Online
The next step? The carefully sanitized version of history must be replaced by an adequate representation of Native voices. After all, “history not taught is history forgot”.


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