Some Thoughts Prompted by the Passing of Maria Tallchief

The introductory paragraph in Maria Tallchief’s obituary which appeared in the Washington Post today began,

Maria Tallchief, a dancer of electrifying passion and technical ability who forged a pathbreaking career that took her from an Oklahoma Indian reservation to world acclaim….

It struck me that the phrase “an Oklahoma Indian reservation” conjures up an image of a life quite different from the one Maria Tallchief experienced. The reason behind the gap between that image a reality lies in fascinating, but little known episode in American history.

During the 1920s, the Osage were the richest ethnic group in the United States. An article in The New York Times from that time period called them “the wealthiest people per capita on earth.” The article goes on to deplore the idleness and taste for luxuries this wealth had created. In a book he wrote investigating the suspicious death of his grandmother, Dennis McAuliffe describes vividly the gracious homes, cars, pianos, private school educations and other luxuries the Osage enjoyed at this time. This is the Indian reservation on which Maria Tallchief was born. “Their wealth was great enough that Ms. Tallchief’s father never had a job in his life.”

With the intent of getting them into Hollywood musicals, Ruth Tall Chief moved the family to Los Angeles in 1933. Maria Tallchief later said her father happily agreed to the plan because he was an avid golfer and thought the climate would allow him to play more often.

Ms. Tallchief and her sister studied dance with David Lichine, a student of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, as well as Bronislava Nijinska, the sister of celebrated dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.

For many decades the United States government had a policy called allotment to end the communal holding of Indian lands. It was believed that private property would be a means of “civilizing” Indians. Tribal lands  would be divided up and allotted to individual members of the tribe. The Dawes Act, which instituted this policy, did not cover all tribes and the Osage were one of those not originally subject to this policy.

When oil was discovered under the Osage reservation, it made the tribe wealthy. They held their mineral rights in common and each individual received an annuity. Eventually the United States government managed to force the allotment policy on the Osage, however, the Mineral rights continued to be held in common. Members of the tribe were given shares in the oil wealth which could be inherited.

This period, around the time Tallchief was born, saw a great many murders and suspicious untimely deaths. White people married into Osage families and sometimes murdered their members to get the money. McAuliffe believes that this is what happened to his grandmother and he tells her story in The Deaths of Sybil Bolton. In one shocking incident, a white man, Ernest Burkhart married Molly Kyle. He and his accomplices murdered Molly’s mother, sisters and other family members, resulting in Molly inheriting their shares. “With local and state officials unsuccessful at solving the murders, in 1925 the Osage requested the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was the bureau’s first murder case, and by the time they started investigating, Molly Kyle was already being poisoned.” (Wikipedia)

Maria Tallchief was the first Native American to become a significant ballet dancer. Here is a video that includes some footage of Tallchief dancing a part Balanchine choreographed specifically for her. Contrary to the worries expressed in the 1921 New York Times article, Tallchief’s career shows that inherited wealth does not inevitably end in dissipation. In fact, had this talented woman been born in poverty she may have never had the training she need to become the great dancer that she was.

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