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.


Whatever Happened to Silver Lake?

Today many visitors come to De Smet, South Dakota, hoping to see the Silver Lake that Laura Ingalls Wilder described in her fifth children’s book, By the Shores of Silver Lake.

“The lake shore went lower and lower toward the Big Slough, until really there was no shore. The lake melted into the slough, making small ponds surrounded by the harsh, rank slough grass that stood five and six feet tall. Little ponds glimmered between the grasses and on the water the wild birds were thick” (By the Shores of Silver Lake, 77).

Wilder made Silver Lake sound like a wonderful place to be! Any Little House fan knows their trip to De Smet would not be complete without seeing Silver Lake. Unfortunately, Silver Lake no longer exists today or at least not the Silver Lake that Laura knew and loved.

In the early 1920’s Silver Lake was drained with the hopes of turning the land into farm land. The De Smet News described the plan in 1923. The News stated they intended to “turn the wet marsh into hay and pasture land” and in addition, to ensure that the nearby roadways were able to be driven if the lake was flooded (“Extensive Ditching”). The last picture we have of Silver Lake before it was drained is from 1914 and on the back of the picture it stated that Silver Lake was drained into Lake Henry in order to keep the water from washing over the railroad tracks (LORE 27,2).

Between the 1930’s – 1980’s the lake never recollected water (Pioneer Girl 159). However, starting in the mid-1980’s Silver Lake’s bed started to fill with water after large rainfalls. In June of 1984, Silver Lake was filled once again. That year in the month of June alone De Smet received 11.92 inches of rain.  By the end of October that year De Smet had received 34.47 inches of rain which is over 10 inches above the annual average (LORE 10,2).  Again, in the spring of 1986 Silver Lake flooded again due to the amount of snow from the winter. With that amount of snow it even created a problem for planting crops (LORE 12,1). Ever since 1986, Silver Lake and the Big Slough have never been dry enough to use as farm land. Today, the land is a thriving wetlands area. Visitors can see the Silver Lake Vista off of Highway 14 as they come east into De Smet. At that pull-off what you are actually looking at is the Big Slough and then behind it is where Silver Lake was located.

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Silver Lake as seen today.

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.

Pioneer Cooking: Vinegar Pie

Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions that both the Ingalls and Wilder families baking Vinegar Pie in both the Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, even though she does not go into detail in either account. This recipe was sometimes called, “poor man’s pie” and was used as a substitute for lemon pie in places where they did not have lemons. Vinegar pie was popular at the time because most people had the ingredients on hand. 

“[Ma] baked vinegar pies and dried-apple pies, and filled a big jar with cookies, and she let Laura and Mary lick the cake spoon.” (LHBW 62-63)

“When [Almanzo] began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he ate almost a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it.” (Farmer Boy 262)

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If you recall from our first attempt at pioneer cooking we made lettuce leaves with vinegar and sugar and we were pleasantly surprised by how good it tasted, so I was very excited to try this recipe.

This recipe can be found on page 197 of The Little House Cookbook. For this recipe you will need pie paste, butter, eggs, white sugar, brown sugar, white flour, water, nutmeg, and of course vinegar. The recipe calls for homemade pie paste, which there is a recipe for in the cookbook. However, if you are not feeling adventurous you can get pie crust from the store like we did.


Once the pie is baked set it out to cool. This will take a long time, at least an hour and a half. After 40 minutes of cooling, Molly and I decided to wait until the next morning to eat it, as it was going on 9:00 at night.

The next morning we brought it to work for everyone to try, and we were surprised. The vinegar taste was fairly strong, but we discovered that it depended on the bite as to how much vinegar was in it. Over all the pie was good, but you may not want to eat too big of a piece. I would say it is somewhat similar to lemon pie.

I would recommend making this pie just to try it out, it is easy to make and gives you a good idea as to what the pioneers made.



The Mystery of Baby Boys

Over the years the Society has been asked why some of the Ingalls-Wilder women were unable to have baby boys. There was a trend in the family that all three generations had brothers or sons that were short-lived. Caroline Ingalls, Laura’s mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Rose Wilder Lane, Laura’s daughter, all had baby boys who passed away shortly after their birth.

Charles Frederick “Freddie” Ingalls:

Charles Frederick was born on November 1, 1875, in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, which technically made him Charles and Caroline Ingalls fourth child. Laura never mentioned Baby Freddie in her “Little House” books because she did not feel that it belonged with the image she was trying to create (Pioneer Girl iv). The whole family was extremely proud of Freddie and happy to have a boy. Mary and Laura would rush home from school just to see and spend more time with him (Pioneer Girl xvi). Unfortunately, we do not have a lot of information as to the cause of Freddie’s death. It has been noted that Freddie was a sickly baby, however; other versions of Pioneer Girl do not give any insight as to how Freddie died. We do know that he died in South Troy, Minnesota, on Peter Ingalls’ farm, but the grave location is unknown (Anderson LORE 2,2).

Son of A. J. Wilder:

Laura’s infant son, who was never named, is mentioned in Laura’s books unlike Freddie. Remember, Laura’s last book, The First Four Years was published many years after her death in 1971. The book talks about the Wilder’s hardships in De Smet, South Dakota, after Laura and Almanzo married in 1885. We have no way of knowing if Laura intended to leave in the story of her son’s death or even publish this book as their son’s death was just one of the many tragedies they suffered.

In The First Four Years:

In the afternoon Manly sent Peter to bring Laura’s Ma, and at four o’clock he sent Peter again to town, this time on his running pony for the doctor. But their son was born before the doctor could get there. (125)

She also mentioned that it was on the fifth of August that her infant son was born. Today we know from the De Smet Leader that the baby was born on Thursday July 11, 1889. It was published in the paper on July 13, 1889 saying, “Dr. Hunter reports the arrival of a 10-pound boy at A.J. Wilder’s on Wednesday night.” From the paper, we were also able to figure out the day Laura’s infant son died. On August 10, 1889, the De Smet Leader published, “Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Wilder’s little child died Wednesday evening.” From this quote, we know that the day their son died was August 7, 1889, living one day short of four weeks.

Laura mentioned her son’s death just a few pages later, “Laura was doing her work again one day three weeks later when the baby was taken with spasms, and he died so quickly that the doctor was too late” (First Four Years 127). That is the only insight was have as to how Laura’s son died. How accurate is her account? We do not know for sure but it is all we have today. Considering that according to Laura, the doctor did not make it before her son passed, it would be hard to have any documentation as to what he died of. Today he is buried in the De Smet Cemetery with the rest of Ingalls family.2017-08-07 (3)

Infant Lane:

Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane marked a third generation of baby boys not surviving. Even though Rose’s boy was born the latest, there is probably the least amount of information about him. Rose’s son was born premature and stillborn in Salt Lake City, Utah, at Holy Cross Hospital. From his death certificate we have been able to figure out that her son was born on November 23, 1909 (click here to see a copy of the death certificate). It was noted that they buried him the following day, November 24, which then points to a gravestone in the Mount Olivet Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah, marked Infant Lane who was buried November 24, 1909. Beyond this information, we do not know anything more about Rose’s infant boy.

Since he was Rose’s only child, the direct line of Charles and Caroline Ingalls ended when Rose died, making it impossible to figure out if the Ingalls may have had a genetic disease that ran in boys or if it was just a coincidence.

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”

Behind the Tree Claims

When the early settlers first came to the Dakota Territory there were very few to no trees. The railroad company would plant trees as they went along to help mark their way, and the one in De Smet became known as the Lone Tree. This was the only tree in De Smet when the Ingalls family first arrived and it even made an appearance in The Long Winter. During Almanzo Wilder’s and Cap Garland’s brave trip for the wheat they used the “Lone Cottonwood” as a point of reference in the snow-covered prairie (Long Winter 270). Due to the lack of trees the government wanted to entice the settlers to plant trees, which was where the Timber Culture Act came in.

Many people know about the Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, which gave settlers 160 acres of land for $1.25 per acre. This act lured many people into the area with cheap land and the idea of moving west. However, there was another act that brought many people to the area and is less known. That is the Timber Culture Act of 1873. Senator Hitchcock from Nebraska described the goal of the act in a Senate debate, “the object of this bill is to encourage the growth of timber, not merely for the benefit of the soil, not merely for the value of the timber itself, but for its influence upon the climate.”[1] Some senators pushed for this act because the west needed timber for fuel, while other senators pushed it because they believed that the tree would bring more rainfall to the region. Either way the government wanted a way to entice settlers to plant trees.

With the Timber Culture Act settlers could get 160 acres, possibly in addition to their homestead land, to plant forty acres of trees on. Originally there was not an age requirement for the land; however, when the act was amended in 1874 the government made the requirements the same as the Homestead Act, twenty-one or head of household, and citizen or soon to be citizen. In this amendment, the government also made a schedule with certain “deadlines” for planting the trees. The act was amended a second time in 1878, which lowed the required acres of trees planted from forty to ten. It also helped out settlers as it made exceptions for trees that were destroyed due to the harsh climate.

Ultimately this act did not pan out as intended. It had many loopholes and flaws as some homesteaders got away without planting trees on their tree claims. If the homesteader was not able to plant all the trees they could preempt the land, which meant the homesteader could purchase the land and possibly sell it later. Due to loopholes like this, ultimately the act was repealed on March 3rd, 1891.

Almanzo had gotten his homestead and tree claim in 1879, 6 years before he married Laura. He had proved up his homestead in five years; however, he and Laura were not able to prove up their tree claim with in the allotted time, which was about eight years, and thus Almanzo preempted the land.[2] Laura talked about her and Almanzo’s tree claim in The First Four Years. She discussed how the trees were not doing well and they needed to have ten acres of trees planted. Their trees also had to be given extra care because “for years from now there must be the ten acres with the right number of growing trees in order to prove up on the tree claim and get a title to the land” (First Four Years 47). Laura wrote that by the end of her and Almanzo’s fourth year of marriage nearly all the trees on their ten acres were killed (First Four Years 121). There was no point in replanting them because either way they could not fulfill the requirements for the Timber Culture Act. In August of 1888 Almanzo filed an intent to preempt his land and then in 1890 he purchased the land for $200.2 The failure of Laura and Almanzo’s tree claim did not help their terrible first four years; however, their troubles were not unusual. As I had mentioned earlier, the Act was repealed in 1891 due to people preempting the land as the trees did not grow well out here.

Over time De Smet has been able to overcome the difficulty of growing trees and today there are a fair number of trees in the De Smet area. There is even a De Smet Forest which can be seen off Highway 14 on the eastern side of De Smet.


[1] C. Barron McIntosh, author. 1975. “Use and Abuse of the Timber Culture Act.” Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers no, 3: 347. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed June 30, 2017).


[2] Cleaveland, Nancy. 2011. “what happened to almanzo’s claims?” (accessed July 11, 2017).