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  • Maria Tallchief, (Native) America's Prima BallerinaAutobiographies of a Postindian Princess
  • Shannon Toll (bio)

All the girls showed an aptitude for dancing, and all were charming and well behaved. I, however, seemed to develop a special rapport with Caroline [Kennedy]. She was only eight, but she was fascinated by my background. That I was part American Indian enthralled her. One afternoon, while we were changing into street clothing after class, she stood alongside me and said in a whisper that she had a question. Her eyes were bright and she seemed all excited.

"I want to know what it's like being an Indian."

"Well Caroline. It's no different from being anything else. It's my heritage and I'm proud of it. You're Irish and French and American. That's your heritage. You should be proud of that."

She peered at me directly with her father's shining eyes. "I'd rather be an American Indian, Miss Tallchief."

Maria Tallchief with Larry Kaplan,

Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina


In this passage from her autobiography, Maria Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina, Tallchief shares with her reader a moment between herself and little Caroline Kennedy, a beloved pupil of Tallchief' during the latter's time as a ballet teacher. While Tallchief had retired from her post as principal dancer on the world's most illustrious stages, this conversation between prima ballerina and American "princess" illustrates Tallchief's multifaceted allure as a celebrated dancer and a woman of Osage descent. While she expresses "pride" in her heritage in the passage, it was also a complicating factor in her relationship to her public, as audiences shared little Caroline Kennedy's almost possessive fascination with her [End Page 50] Native identity, a fascination that caused her performances to be filtered through a lens of colonial anxiety and subsequent exoticization.

I have chosen this passages from her autobiography to illustrate how Tallchief encountered her publics as a writer, as America's first prima ballerina, and as an Osage woman. In her autobiography, Tallchief narrates her mastery of Western dance, her ascent to the status of prima ballerina, her pivotal role in establishing an American ballet tradition, and, throughout, her connection to her Osage heritage, and in doing so she establishes her identity as a "postindian princess."

While the Indian Princess identity looms large in American consciousness, Tallchief both embodied and complicated this trope in her career, eluding colonial definitions of idealized Indigenous femininity. Beginning with the myth of Pocahontas as John Smith's adoring savior, the Indian Princess is the figurehead for the "legacy of painless 'history' in the early stages of European settlement in North America," constantly reenvisioned in various genres but always playing the same part: that of the conduit for "civilization" in the New World (Lyytinen 83). Moreover, casting Native American women as "princesses" also denies them meaningful agency within discourses of power, rendering them passive and submissive in the public consciousness. This article addresses this passivity ascribed to Indigenous women and describes how a woman such as Tallchief, who ostensibly embodied the Indian Princess prima ballerina—particularly through her tutelage and marriage to acclaimed choreographer George Balanchine—was able to exert agency in an unexpected place.

Revealing the ways in which she was initially influenced by public perception of her as a Native American dancer and leading to her later identification with her Osage title, "Princess Two Standards," Tallchief's autobiography provides insight into the construction of her public persona as America's first prima ballerina and "postindian princess." The term "postindian princess" constitutes an intersection between two of Gerald Vizenor's foundational concepts: "manifest manners" and the "postindian." Vizenor writes that "manifest manners are the simulations of dominance; the notions and misnomers that are read as authentic and sustained as representations of Native American Indians." They are the "once bankable simulations of the savage as an impediment to developmental civilization, the simulations that audiences would consume in [End Page 51] Western literature and motion pictures, [which] protracted the extermination of tribal cultures" (Vizenor, Manifest Manners 5). This definition accounts for the "Indian Princess" aspect of Tallchief's representation, as her status as a Native woman...


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