Maria Tallchief- Pioneer for Native American Women in Ballet

One night in 1949, a 24-year-old woman named Maria was poised backstage, awaiting her cue. Her costume was elaborate and dramatic, which suited the passionate dancer well. Every muscle in her body felt coiled in anticipation. It was opening night, the night that would decide whether this show would make or break her career. But as the opening stirrings of Stravinsky’s Firebird sounded through the theater, Maria discovered she was not nervous. She was ready.

Maria was born Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief on January 24, 1925, on a small town in Oklahoma’s Osage Native American Reservation. Born to an Osage father and a Scottish/Irish mother, both Elizabeth Marie and her sister Marjorie showed early talent in ballet. When the family moved from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, CA, Elizabeth continued her dancing studies. During this time she chose the stage name Maria Tallchief, resisting pressure from peers who thought her “Indian” last name would be a hindrance in the dancing world. 

maria-tallchiefMaria’s first position in a ballet company came after the outbreak of World War II, when she joined a leading New York-based touring company called the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Maria quickly gained attention among ballet critics for her precise technique, her passion, and her frenetic energy. She threw everything into her performances with incredible energy and athleticism, striving to make each performance her best. She danced with several prominent ballet companies in America, catching the attention of famed choreographer George Balanchine. In addition, she became the first American to dance with the Paris Opera Ballet. In 1947, she became America’s first prima ballerina, dancing with the New York City Ballet. She worked closely with Balanchine, and he created several roles for her that would go on to become iconic representations of American ballet. These included Orpheus, Caracole, and Firebird.

Despite her growing fame in the glamorous dancing worlds of New York and Paris, Maria remained proud of her Osage Native American heritage. She resisted any attempts to stereotype her or other Native Americans, and wanted to be judged solely on the basis of her talent.  “Above all, I wanted to be appreciated as a prima ballerina who happened to be a Native American, never as someone who was an American Indian ballerina.” Through her efforts, Maria Tallchief’s name became synonymous with American ballet during the mid-twentieth century.

12ac6d59db8a65eb62e9a12aae6e5990Maria continued to dance with the New York City Ballet until her retirement from the stage in 1965. Soon after she moved to Chicago, where she created a lasting impression on the Chicago ballet scene through her teaching. She founded a ballet school known as the Lyric Opera in 1974, and in 1981 she began a six-year run as the artistic director of the Chicago City Ballet. In 1996, Maria became one of five American artists to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, and later that year she was inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame. Maria’s startling energy and passion for dance helped to shape modern American ballet, and her pride in her Osage heritage made her a true pioneer.


Book Recommendation- Caroline, Charlotte, Martha, and Rose Years

Authors: Multiple Authors

For readers that want to stay in a world connected to Laura, there are four different series they should check out. Each one describes the childhood of a woman in Laura’s life: her mother, Caroline, grandmother Charlotte, great-grandmother Martha, and daughter Rose. Drawing on historical knowledge and letters between the Quiner women, the authors have brought the very different worlds and time periods of these women to life. These books are now out of print, but with a little sleuthing you can find them on sites like Amazon or Thriftbooks. If you can find them, it is definitely worth it for a glimpse into the lives of the pioneer women in Laura’s family.

Jovita Idár- Pioneer for Mexican-American Rights

During the 1913 Battle of Nuevo Laredo, it was almost impossible to tell whether the fighting was taking place on the Mexican or the American side of the border. A 28-year-old journalist named Jovita had been following the unrest growing in both Mexico and the US, and she couldn’t sit by and watch any more. Along with a friend, Jovita crossed the border during the battle to see what she could do to help. She had been trained as a teacher, not a nurse, but by the end of the battle she was providing medical aid to as many people as she possibly could.

Jovita was born Jovita Idar in 1885 in the town of Laredo, Texas, on the US-Mexico border. She was one of eight children born to Jovita and Nicasio Idar. Her father, Nicasio, owned a small weekly Spanish-language newspaper, titled La Cronica. As a child Jovita was raised by parents who were advocates of rights for Mexican-American in the US, and she absorbed many of their teachings. She attended a Methodist school known as the Holding Institute, and she earned her teaching certificate in 1903, hoping to improve the lives of children living in small towns like Laredo.

Her time as a teacher exposed her first-hand to the problems facing children of Hispanic descent in America. Their schools were poorly funded with few resources, and even as a teacher Jovita felt she was unable to make her voice heard when she protested against these problems. In response, she resigned from her teaching post and became the first woman to work in her father’s newspaper office. She and two of her brothers helmed the newspaper during a time of unrest in the Hispanic community. She wrote about American-Hispanic relations, criticizing educational/social discrimination, deteriorating economic conditions, decreasing use of the Spanish language, loss of Mexican culture, and the practice of lynching Hispanics.

Jovita_IdárDuring this time in the early 20th century, several identity groups in America were establishing themselves with organizations to help end discrimination. The NAACP was formed in 1909, and several groups advocating women’s suffrage were gaining momentum. In 1911, Jovita and several members of La Cronica’s staff attended the first Mexican Congress in Laredo, Texas to discuss the issues facing Mexicans in the United States. During this time, Jovita became passionate about the idea of women’s suffrage and helped to found first League of Mexican Women. Jovita became its first president, and she chose their first objective based on the biggest need she had experienced so far: proper education for poor children.

Two years after the conference, fighting in the Mexican Revolution was beginning to intensify. After Jovita witnessed the Battle of Nuevo Laredo, she became motivated to help as much as she could. She joined an organization called La Cruza Blanca, similar to the Red Cross, and traveled all throughout Northern Mexico providing aid to the wounded. This experience strengthened her efforts to foster a cross-border community of Mexicans on both sides of the border. Upon her return from Mexico, Jovita wrote a series of editorials decrying discrimination against Mexican-Americans, including the widespread Texas practice of lynching of Hispanics. Her articles criticizing U.S President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send army troops to the border earned her attention from Texas Rangers, and they were dispatched to shut her newspaper down. She responded by standing in the doorway of her office and refusing to move aside.  

Following the fallout from the Mexican Revolution, Jovita moved to San Antonio where she met her husband, Bartolo Juárez. Jovita lived the rest of her life there, staying involved in the causes she believed in. She helped to establish a free kindergarten for children in the city, and she worked as a translator for patients in the county hospital. Jovita was fiercely passionate about the rights and treatment of Mexican-Americans in Texas and beyond. Throughout her life, her first priority was standing up for herself and her people during a time when women’s voices were not especially welcome. About her lifelong fight, Jovita wrote “Working women know their rights and proudly rise to face the struggle. The hour of their degradation is past…. Women are no longer servants but rather the equals of men, companions to them”

Annie Smith Peck- Pioneer for Women in Exploring and Mountaineering

Mount Coropuna in Arequipa, Peru, is 21, 079 feet tall. In 1911, a 61-year-old woman 133239449-f767fc7f-36f5-469f-95df-8f039b25d146named Annie was trying to make it to the summit. Mountaineering in 1911 involved taking serious risks. There were no oxygen tanks or supportive equipment, nothing to aid a climber in high altitudes. All Annie had to rely on was her determination, her experience, and her desire to reach the top. On the ground, it was sunny and warm. Up near the top Annie could see nothing but ice and snow. It was an alien world she was climbing through, and as she got farther and farther up it was getting more difficult to breathe. The summit seemed both impossibly close and incredibly far away, but Annie was determined to make it.

Annie was born Annie Peck Smith on October 19th, 1850 in Providence, Rhode Island. The youngest of four children, with four older brothers, Annie grew up spending more time playing outside and rough-housing than inside learning household chores. In addition to being extremely athletic, Annie was also incredibly talented academically. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a masters degree in Greek, both from the University of Michigan. She worked for a time as a teacher, in both the United States and in Europe. Her intellect alone was enough to impress; In 1886, Annie became the first woman ever to be permitted to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. To support herself when she wasn’t teaching, Annie gave lectures in Greek archaeology. However, she soon found that often her audience was more interested in her hobby of mountaineering than in her studies.

Annie first became enamoured with the thought of scaling mountains during one of her many trips to Greece. She traveled through Germany and Switzerland, and the sight of the Matterhorn awakened a desire in her to reach new height. She began practice climbs in the United States, finally conquering Mount Shasta in California in 1888. Six years later, she made it to the top of the Matterhorn. The ascent brought her notoriety in Victorian circles, as did her next climbs in Mexico, one of which secured her the women’s altitude record in the Western Hemisphere.

Many people were just as fascinated by her climbing outfits as they were with her any peck2exploits. For starters, Annie climbed in pants. Her outfits caused a stir in Victorian circles, as she was seen as very improper. In addition to her clothing, it was also seen as reckless and irresponsible for a women to be gallivanting around the world climbing mountains. Annie stated once, “Although one is not inclined to be timid or nervous, it is nevertheless a trifle depressing to receive letters full of expostulation and entreaty: ‘If you are determined to commit suicide, why not come home and do so in a quiet lady-like manner?’”  In addition to her athleticism and intellect, Annie was also an avid supporter of women’s rights. She advocated for the right of women to be treated on the same level as men, whether it was in mountaineering or the right to vote. In fact, when Annie made her ascent of Mount Coropuna in 1911, she placed a pennant reading “Votes for Women” on the peak.

During her life, Annie wrote many books describing her record-breaking climbs and describing the travels she took throughout South America. Through it all, she remained a fierce advocate for the rights of women to take up so-called “manly” activities. Whether she was causing a stir with her climbing outfits or setting altitude records in Peru, Annie lived her life doing exactly what she loved. ”Climbing is unadulterated hard labor. The only real pleasure is the satisfaction of going where no man has been before and where few can follow.” Annie climbed mountains for the rest of her life. Her last climb was of Mount Madison, in New Hampshire, at the age of 82 years old.

Margaret Hamilton- A Pioneer for women in NASA and Computer Science

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 was just minutes away from touching down on the surface 625098110.0of the moon. Engineers in Houston, TX, and in the lab at MIT, including a young software engineer named Margaret, were anxiously waiting to see if their brand-new computer software would hold up. So far, everything with the lunar module’s on-board computers had gone according to plan, with no major hiccups. So the engineers in Houston were startled when error messages suddenly began popping up. The computer, built with software written by a team of engineers from MIT headed by Margaret, was being overwhelmed with a series of unnecessary tasks rather than performing its real job of landing the lunar module. The panicked astronauts sent a message back to Houston. Should they abort the landing? Would the computer fail at the last minute?

Margaret was born Margaret Heafield on August 17, 1936 in Paoli, Indiana. As a young girl, she excelled in science and math, both subjects not considered typical for women to like. She attended Earlham college in 1958 to get a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. While she was there, she met her husband, James Cox Hamilton. After Margaret graduated, she was accepted to the lab at MIT as a software engineer. The plan for Margaret was to work three years to support her husband’s degree at Harvard Law, and then the pair would switch so Margaret could pursue a graduate degree in abstract math. However, Margaret would soon find herself caught up in one of the biggest revolutions to ever sweep the technology industry.

During her time at MIT, she got her first introduction to the world of software engineering. She worked on projects such as SAGE, which was a computer program designed to search for “unfriendly” aircraft, a very early form of homeland security. Margaret called her work on SAGE as a “jumping-off point”, where she became interested in the importance of software reliability. This early work under pressure undoubtedly served her well during her next major project: creating software for the Apollo 11 moon mission.

In 1961, MIT’s instrumentation lab received the contract for the Apollo guidance and control systems. In order to take advantage of what she saw as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Margaret put her plans for a graduate degree on hold and applied for a position with the Apollo program. She was hired on the spot. As Margaret recalled, it was like the “Wild West.” She and her colleagues were coding programs for takeoff, navigation, flight plans, and the moon landing, all without a guidebook or a clear set of rules. There were no classes in computer science and no precedent for the programs Margaret was creating. As she said of herself and her fellow engineers, they “had no choice but to be pioneers.”

In 1965, Margaret was put in charge of all onboard flight software for the Apollo mission. As a female engineer at NASA in the 1960’s, Margaret was already unique. As a female engineer at NASA in the 1960’s responsible for a major coding project like Apollo, Margaret was unprecedented. She was also unusual in the fact that she was a working mother in the 1960’s. While working on the Apollo program, Margaret would often bring her young daughter, Lauren to the lab at night and on the weekends. Margaret was often asked how she could stand to leave her child all day while she was at work. But to Margaret, the work that she was doing was important, and so she created a balance that allowed her to spend time with her daughter and to give her absolute best at her job.

The flight software that Margaret’s team was coding had to be absolutely perfect. The astronauts needed to be able to rely on it to get them safely to the moon and back, something no one had ever attempted to do before. Coding in Margaret’s day was slightly Margaret_Hamilton_-_restoration.jpgmore complicated than typing it out on the computer. Every line of the program had to punched in a stack of cards, which would then be run through a massive computer overnight. The picture on the left shows Hamilton standing next to a massive stack of code written for the Apollo program. Every line of that code had to be tested and retested according to the rigorous standards Margaret put in place. As she and the other programmers knew, there would be no second chances if the software failed mid-flight.

This intense testing proved invaluable when the time came for the moon landing. As the computer’s error messages were popping up, Margaret and the other engineers knew that the software would not fail. It had been programmed specifically to perform the most important task in case of a shutdown. In this instance, that task was landing the lunar module. Houston advised the astronauts to continue with the landing process, and history was made.

Margaret Hamilton is a true modern pioneer. She excelled in science during a time when women were often excluded from tech jobs, particularly in the brand-new field of computer science. Engineers like Margaret Hamilton were responsible for contributing to a massive leap in software technology that resulted in the basis for the computers we have in the present day. In 2016, Margaret was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her contributions to the Apollo mission. Today, Hamilton is the creator of Hamilton Technologies, a tech company in the same neighborhood as MIT, where she got her start as a software engineer. She has encouraged hundreds of women and girls to enter the tech industry, where their accomplishments have the chance to be just as important and legendary as Hamilton’s.

Day in the Life of a De Smet Tour Guide

Have you ever taken a guided tour through a museum or historic site and wondered what it was really like to be a tour guide? Could it really be as glamorous and exciting as it seemed?

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LIWMS Director and tour guides visiting the Walnut Grove, MN, pageant.

Like most jobs in the tourist industry being a tour guide is an incredibly rewarding, if not occasionally frustrating experience. There are painfully slow days, lightning-fast busy days, and days that are combinations of the two and feel like they’re going to last for the rest of our lives. But how many other jobs are there where you can get paid to talk to people about history all day? In the end, the benefits of working as a tour guide always outweigh the drawbacks. “The best part about being a tour guide,” according to Heidi, who has worked at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society for four years, “is that you get to meet people from all over the world.”

Of course, a major part of being a tour guide is interacting with the guests of the museum. People from all over the country and even the world come to visit, and whether De Smet is a destination or a pit stop for them, they all bring something new and interesting to each tour.  Some groups will know a lot about Laura’s life, some only know about her from the television show, some have almost no knowledge of her at all, and some will be a mix of the three. While that gives the each tour some variety, it also contributes to one of the biggest challenges of being a tour guide. Our executive director, Tessa Flak, has also worked as a tour guide at the Laura site in Burr Oak, Iowa. “I’ve spent eight years as a tour guide,” she says, “And none of my tours have ever been the same.” Tour guides are not only responsible for memorizing the stories of each “Little House” book and the tour script, but often have to adapt each tour on the fly to fit a particular groups’s interest and knowledge level. 


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However, there is much more to being a LIWMS tour guide than just giving tours! A typical day will start with opening each of the buildings and checking to make sure everything looks ready for the day ahead. The gift shop will need to be vacuumed and restocked. During the day there is generally someone posted at the front desk, in order to answer questions, handle transactions, and get people signed up for tours. At the end of the day, each building needs to be cleaned, swept, and locked up for the night.

Beyond these daily chores, however, the most typical thing about a tour guide’s day is that there is no such thing as a typical tour guide day. One of our summer interns, Melanie, put it best: “My favorite part of a regular day is the random things we do, like decorating covered wagons or rearranging display cases in the exhibit. Life is always exciting here at the Society!” Sometimes you might find yourself pulling an 1880’s covered wagon across a parking lot, rearranging porcelain dolls in our gift shop cases, or struggling to fix a weed-whacker. During a summer thunderstorm this year, we ended up serving fruit punch and some of Laura’s leftover birthday cake to guests as we waited for the rain and hail to stop!


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The craziness of some of these days brings all of us tour guides together into a sort of family. But what brings us together the most is our desire to bring the world of Laura to life for our visitors. Dianne, our assistant director, states that being a tour guide is important “because we are the ones who are passing along her stories and keeping them alive.” Without tour guides, the experience of visiting Laura’s “Little Town” would be far less personal. “We spend a short time with people on our tours”, Dianne says, “but sometimes they leave a lasting impression on us as we hope we do for them.” And every tour guide can agree, one of the most special moments during a tour are when visitors are overwhelmed with emotion from visiting the buildings of Laura’s childhood. We get to feel like we are helping to make dreams come true. How’s that for a summer job?

Bessie Coleman- A Pioneer For Black Pilots

Bessie was born Bessie Coleman on January 26th, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. She was the tenth of thirteen children born to George and Susan Coleman, who were sharecroppers. Although her childhood was undoubtedly a difficult one, Bessie was a happy child, and an extremely intelligent one. She had to walk four miles back and forth to school everyday to her one room, segregated schoolhouse, but she excelled in math and was an avid reader. When she was still a young child, her father, who was half-Native American as well as black, left the family to pursue better economic opportunities in Oklahoma. Susan Coleman and her children elected to stay in Texas, and Bessie often ended up pitching in to help with her younger siblings or to pick cotton. 


Bessie completed her schooling up to the eighth grade, and then she began saving for college. In 1910, Bessie entered the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but she was only able to attend for one term before her money ran out. Bessie, who always had her sights set forward, saved up again and moved to Chicago, where she lived with her brother and opened a manicurists shop. One day her brother, looking to tease her, told Bessie that women in France were doing something that Bessie could never do- fly a plane. In response, Bessie began learning French.

Just a few months later, Bessie crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a steamship. She was going to be trained as a pilot at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Cadron et Le Crotoy, the most prestigious flying school in France. Seven months later she passed the test for her international pilot’s license, making her the first licensed black female pilot in the world. Bessie returned to America intent on purchasing her own plane and starting a flying school for African Americans. However, she soon ran into money problems. She found that pilots could make more money performing stunt shows on rural tour circuits, Bessie_Coleman_and_her_plane_(1922).jpgknown as barnstorming. She returned to France in 1922 for advanced aviation training, and began touring as soon as she returned to the U.S. Bessie performed dangerous stunts like wing-walking and parachute jumping to amazed crowds all across the country.

Throughout her increased popularity- among both black and white Americans- Bessie remained true to her goal of increasing equality for African Americans in the world of flying. She refused to perform in a show that didn’t allow black and white people to enter through the same gates, and insisted on desegregation for her audiences. She encouraged fellow African-Americans to fly, believing that “the air is the only place free of prejudice.” Unfortunately, Bessie did not live to see her dream of opening a flight school for black pilots. By 1926, Bessie had finally made the last payment on her own plane, a used model with a lot of engine troubles. One night, she and her mechanic took the plane up in the air for a test run before a show in Jacksonville, Florida. Over three hundred feet in the air the plane malfunctioned, and both Bessie and the mechanic were killed in the crash.

Thousands of people showed up to Bessie’s funeral, held in Orlando, and an additional 15,000 showed up in Chicago to pay their respects. The poor, black daughter of Texas sharecroppers grew up to inspire an entire country in her short life. She proved that not only could black women fly planes, but that they could excel at it. Her legacy inspired black flying groups like the Five Blackbirds, the Flying Hobos, and the Tuskegee Airmen. Her fight for racial equality in the skies caused her to break boundaries, and makes her a true pioneer.