Maria Tallchief was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief to an Osage Indian father and a Scots-Irish mother. She and her sister Marjorie joined their surnames when they began dancing professionally, although they refused suggestions to adopt Russian stage names. When she was 8 years old, the family moved to Los Angeles. There she studied dance with Ernest Belcher, Bronislava Nijinska, and Tatiana Riabouchinska. In 1942, after graduating from high school, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and toured with the company. She was cast in ballets choreographed by Nijinska, Agnes de Mille, and George Balanchine. She married Balanchine, who was 20 years her senior, in 1946 and went with him when he and Lincoln Kirstein founded the company that became New York City Ballet. Balanchine created roles for her in many of his celebrated works, and she became the first Native American prima ballerina. She remained with NYCB after she and Balanchine were divorced in 1950, but also made guest appearances with other companies. She played Anna Pavlova in the 1952 film Million Dollar Mermaid and performed with Rudolf Nureyev on television and on tour in Europe. She retired from the stage in 1966 and moved with her second husband to Chicago, where she served as director of ballet for the Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1973 to 1979 and founded its ballet school. She then co-founded and was artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet. From 1990 until her death, she was artistic adviser to Chicago Festival Ballet.