Maria Tallchief was born January 24, 1925 to a Native American father, Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, and a Scottish-Irish mother, Ruth Mary Porter Tall Chief. She was born in Fairfax, Oklahoma.
Fairfax is located on the Osage Indian Reservation. Part of her Native American history includes that her grandfather had helped negotiate the treaty that established the reservation and kept the tribe’s right to own any minerals found on the land. When oil was discovered on the reservation, the Osage became the wealthiest Native American tribe in the country. Maria’s father, was of the Osage tribe and was a wealthy real estate executive. Eliza Big Heart, her grandmother, frequently took young Maria and her sister, Marjorie, to the ceremonial tribal dances on the reservation to participate in them.
Maria began ballet and piano lessons at the age of three and frequently performed before organizations in Osage County. By age eight she and her sister had exhausted the training resources in Oklahoma, and the family moved to Beverly Hills, California. Although her mother hoped she would be a concert pianist, Maria devoted more and more of her time to dance. At one of her performances she devoted half of her program to the piano and half to dance.
By age twelve, Maria was studying under Madame Nijinska, sister of the great Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890–1950), and David Lichine, a student of the renowned Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1882–1931).
When she was fifteen years old, Maria danced her first solo performance at the Hollywood Bowl in a dance piece choreographed by Nijinska. After her graduation from Beverly Hills High School in 1942, it was apparent that ballet would be her life. Instead of college she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a highly acclaimed Russian ballet troupe based in New York City. She made her debut with the company in Canada. It was at this time that Marie Elizabeth Tall Chief changed her name to Maria Tallchief to give herself a more European image.
In the beginning years with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Maria was often treated with uncertainty by members of the Russian troupe, who were unwilling to acknowledge the Native American’s true talent. When choreographer George Balanchine (1904–1983) took control of the company, he recognized Maria’s talent. He selected her for the understudy role in The Song of Norway. In working with Balanchine, her reputation grew, and she was eventually was given the title of Ballerina. During this time, Maria married Balanchine and they moved to Paris together. They were married from 1946 to 1951.
In Paris the same thing happened as with the Ballet Russe, Maria was initially treated as an inferior. Her debut at the Paris Opera was the first ever for any American ballerina, and Maria’s talent quickly won French audiences over. She later became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia. She quickly became the ranking soloist and soon after joined the Balanchine Ballet Society, now called the New York City Ballet where she became leading Ballerina for allmost twenty years. George Balanchine created more than twenty-five roles for her with the New York City Ballet. Maria’s performance in the title role of The Firebird made an enormous impression on the public, and it became her signature role. As Ballerina with the New York City Ballet, Maria became recognized as one of the greatest dancers in the world. When she became Prima Ballerina, she was the first American dancer to achieve this title and kept it until she retired.
Maria left the New York City Ballet in 1966 and went on to found the Chicago City Ballet in 1981. She also served as the artistic director of that company through 1987. Maria was presented with a National Medal of the Arts award by the National Endowment for the arts in 1999.