People throughout the world know of Maria Tallchief as one of America’s first and greatest prima ballerinas, but for Russ Tallchief, she was always a beloved aunt first. “She made a lot of beautiful art with her body,” he says. “She’s going to remain unprecedented in my heart.”
Maria Tallchief’s passing was honored with a private ceremony. The public service is scheduled for May 5 in Chicago, and the burial will take place in Fairfax, Oklahoma in June. (Related story: “Osage Ballerina Maria Tallchief Walks On at 88”)
Tallchief says his aunt was born during a turbulent time in Osage history, known as the Reign of Terror, in which Osage people were being murdered for oil head-rights. The family escaped to California, where Maria and her sister Marjorie diligently pursued their lessons in dance and piano.
Russ says his aunt did not visit Oklahoma often due to her ballet performance schedule, but he talked of key moments he recalls fondly. One of those was on his birthday in 2004, which was celebrated at his family camp during the Osage Ilonshka ceremonial dances. He says Maria sang “Happy Birthday” a capella “at the top of her lungs. She was on, like she was on stage.”
Maria Tallchief, as one of five internationally known Native ballerinas, is also seen as one of Oklahoma’s finest exports to the rest of the world. “She danced her way off the Osage Reservation and Oklahoma and onto the stage of the Paris Opera Ballet and the New York City Ballet and the world stage,” says Tallchief. “She’s like an ambassador for Oklahoma.”
Tallchief, an artist and playwright, says his aunt was an inspiration for his people—“a symbol of perseverance”—and his personal inspiration. His play on the Kiowa Five artists is currently in the reading stage in Oklahoma City. “I really felt like she is, just truly, beauty in motion. If anyone could take anything from her legacy, it would be to try to contribute something beautiful to the world.”