Marjorie Tallchief, renowned as the first Native American “première danseuse étoile” at the Paris Opera Ballet, died on November 30 at her home in Delray Beach, Florida. She was 95.
Ms. Tallchief was born October 19, 1926, in Denver, Colorado. Her parents were Alexander Joseph Tall Chief, a member of the Osage Nation, and his wife, Ruth Porter Tall Chief. Ms. Tallchief’s paternal great-grandfather had helped negotiate with the U.S. government for oil revenues that brought the Osage Nation incredible wealth. Ms. Tallchief grew up on the Osage Reservation in Fairfax, Oklahoma, not far from a house that had been firebombed as part of the Reign of Terror, a period lasting from 1921-1931 when murderers targeted Osage members for their headrights to oil revenues.
Ms. Tallchief’s family moved to Los Angeles so Ms. Tallchief and her sister, Maria, who would become one of the United States’ most famous prima ballerinas, could pursue dance training. Ms. Tallchief accepted a position of leading soloist in the Colonel de Basil’s Original Ballet Russe. Ms. Tallchief would later note that the Ballet Russe, a traveling company, brought ballet to small towns across America. From there, she joined the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo, later renamed the Grand Ballet Du Marquis de Cuevas in Europe. She then became the first American and Native American to be “première danseuse étoile” of the Paris Opera Ballet. She performed to great acclaim in Annabel Lee, Romeo and Juliet, Camille, Pastorale, and Ariadne. Ms. Tallchief performed for U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and for French President Charles de Gaulle.
Ms. Tallchief married George Skibine in 1947. Skibine was a choreographer and Ms. Tallchief’s dance partner. They remained married until his death in 1981.
Ms. Tallchief moved back to the United States from France in 1965 to become a leading dancer with the Harkness Ballet in New York City. She subsequently taught at the Dallas Civic Ballet Academy and acted as a dance director for the Dallas Ballet. She also taught at the Chicago City Ballet School and was dance director at the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. She retired to Delray Beach, Florida, where she was a fixture at the local yoga and Pilates studios well into her nineties.
Ms. Tallchief was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. She and her sister Maria, along with Native American dancers Moscelyne Larkin, Rosella Hightower, and Yvonne Chouteau, were named Oklahoma Treasures at the Governor’s Arts Awards. These five Native American ballerinas from Oklahoma are known as the Five Moons and are honored with bronze sculptures in Tulsa and the Flight of Spirit mural at the Oklahoma State Capitol. In 2021, the Five Moons Dance Festival, presented by the University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance, celebrated their impact on ballet. The University of Oklahoma School of Dance offers a scholarship in Tallchief’s honor. “We are happy to honor the amazing accomplishments of Maria Tallchief and Marjorie Tallchief in this way,” said the Director for the OU School of Dance. “Our hope is that others will join us to provide a lasting legacy and support future generations of dancers.”
“I think it’s important for us to remember that Maria and Marjorie and all five of the ballerinas came out of Oklahoma, from small rural reservation communities,” said Russ Tall Chief, who helped to plan the Five Moons Dance Festival. “To have these women of color, representing not just American Indians, but America, on the ballet stage was profound.”
Ms. Tallchief is survived by her sons, Alexander and George Skibine, and her grandchildren, Alexandre, Nathalie, Adrian, and Trevor Skibine.