Osage ballerina Marjorie Tallchief dazzled audiences in Paris, Monaco and New York City throughout the mid-20th century with what one critic described as “quasi-acrobatic virtuosity.” For the last 15 years, a bronze statue commemorating the late Native American dancer stood in front of an Oklahoma museum about an hour from where she grew up.
But late last week, police say, a thief cut down the statue, hacked it into pieces and sold the parts for scrap metal.
The pilfered artwork was one of the “Five Moons” statues in front of the Tulsa Historical Society & Museum (THSM). Designed by two Tulsa-area artists, the statues commemorate the Sooner State’s gifted Native American ballerinas: Tallchief; her sister, Maria Tallchief; Yvonne Chouteau; Rosella Hightower; and Moscelyne Larkin.
While investigators with the Tulsa Police Department work to identify and apprehend the perpetrator, Oklahomans are still trying to make sense of the crime. Michelle Place, THSM’s executive director, told the Tulsa World’s Ashley Jones that she was “devastated” by the loss.
“We’re hoping that additional information regarding missing pieces will be located so that we can then do our best to restore this Native American symbol through art,” Place said.
When staff at the historical society and museum first noticed the statue’s disappearance last week, they reported the incident to the police. On Monday, employees at a nearby recycling center discovered parts of the statue’s torso, legs and tutu.
But the mystery continues: So far, no one has recovered the life-sized sculpture’s head and arms. Museum staffers believe that two people committed the crime and took the bronze pieces to different recycling facilities.
The recycling center paid $266 for pieces of the statue, offering a per-pound rate for the bronze parts, as reported by the New York Times’ Alyssa Lukpat.
When it erected the “Five Moons” sculptures in 2007, the historical society estimated their value at around $120,000 in total, per the Times. Museum staffers believe the thief or thieves didn’t understand the statues’ significance.
Replacing the hacked-apart sculpture may prove to be a challenge, as its original mold burned in a foundry fire, per the Tulsa World. But according to a Facebook post from the historical society, one of the original sculptors, Gary Henson, has agreed to try to repair the statue and, if that's not possible, make a replica.
“I can bring her back to life,” Henson told the museum. He created the statues with fellow artist Monte England, per the Tulsa World.
“That someone would steal [one of the statues] and destroy it to sell for scrap metal is a disgrace,” said G.T. Bynum, Tulsa’s mayor, in a statement, as reported by the New York Times.
Before her statue became ensnared in the headline-grabbing art crime, Tallchief was an accomplished professional ballerina and dance teacher. She was born in 1926 and grew up in Fairfax, a small town on the Osage reservation in north-central Oklahoma, with her older sister Maria and older brother Gerald. Their father was a member of the Osage Nation and their mother was of Scotch-Irish descent.
The Tall Chief family (the sisters later combined their last names) lived comfortably on royalties from oil discovered on the reservation and the two girls began studying ballet at a young age. At the urging of the girls’ mother, Ruth Tall Chief, the family moved to California for more rigorous ballet training.
Both women went on to have successful careers with major international companies. Tallchief danced with the American Ballet Theatre, the Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, the Ballet de Marquis de Cuevas and the Paris Opéra Ballet, where she became the first Native American “première danseuse étoile,” the company’s highest-ranking dancer. Maria danced with her sister at the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, as well as with the New York City Ballet, where she was choreographer George Balanchine’s muse (and, for several years, his wife).
The sisters spoke publicly about their Osage heritage and were proud of their Native American roots. Oklahoma, in turn, was proud of them. The “Five Moons” moniker was an outgrowth of a 1967 ballet entitled “The Four Moons,” which was first performed by Chouteau, Hightower, Maria Tallchief and Larkin and featured dances that combined the ballerinas’ Native heritage and their ballet training. The name stuck, and the dancers inspired other artistic tributes like a 26-foot-long mural in Oklahoma’s state capitol. They were even dubbed “cultural treasures” by Oklahoma’s governor in 1997.
The Tallchiefs, along with the three other “Five Moons” dancers, undoubtedly helped inspire generations of Native American artists who came after them—and given that an online fundraising campaign to replace the stolen statute already at more than $18,000, it’s clear their influence is still felt in Oklahoma and beyond.
“To have this legacy of these five ballerinas in our past, that are part of us, really inspires the kids,” Randy Tinker Smith, director of the Osage Ballet and Dance Maker Academy, told the New York Times’ Meryl Cates ahead of the Five Moons Dance Festival in August 2021. “You can dream and you can follow your dreams.”