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A statue honoring a Native ballerina was stolen in Oklahoma. This artist is piecing it together again
TULSA, Okla. — Sculptor Gary Henson surveys the lines of fused bronze on a statue he's been piecing back together.
There are weld scars across the waist, arms, legs and neck of the statue of Marjorie Tallchief, one of Oklahoma's renowned Native ballerinas. The 6-foot-tall artwork was stolen off the grounds of the Tulsa Historical Society last May and later recovered from two different scrap yards in the Tulsa area. It had been cut and hammered into pieces.
Henson molded and cast in bronze the statue of Marjorie Tallchief, one of five ballerinas on display outside the museum that celebrate the Five Moons — Native ballerinas Yvonne Chouteau, Rosella Hightower, Moscelyne Larkin and Maria Tallchief, Marjorie's older sister — who rose to international fame in the latter half of the 20th century.
Henson began collaborating with Monte England on the sculptures shortly after the project began. He finished them in 2007, two years after England's death.
Before Marjorie's statue was cut from its base, the ballerina was depicted in a pose from the ballet "Idylle." In a 1954 promotional image for the performance, Tallchief has one foot drawn up to the other knee, arms raised behind her, as she looks toward the floor.
"It was a treasure and a wonderful thing for everybody to enjoy," said Henson, a member of the Cherokee Shawnee tribe. "To think somebody thought they could take it and destroy it and that everybody else should suffer."
But Henson thinks the statue's scars will tell a new story.
Inside his studio in the town of Chelsea, Henson has been reassembling the pieces with plans to unveil the restored statue later this year. He said these extra chapters of perseverance and rebirth will only grow interest in the Five Moons.
The name "Five Moons" originated from performances by the dancers at the Oklahoma Indian Ballerina Festivals held in 1957 and 1967, which were created to commemorate the 50th and 60th anniversaries of Oklahoma's statehood. The 1967 festival featured a ballet titled "The Four Moons," created by Cherokee composer Louis Ballard Sr. The performance featured solos that paid tribute to each dancer's heritage.
The "Five Moons" never all danced together. Marjorie Tallchief missed the 1957 festival because she was set to perform for French President Charles de Gaulle, and Maria Tallchief had retired by the time of the 1967 festival.
"Nothing is ever gone," Henson said of the damaged statue. "They could've grinded the statue into powder, and I could've put it back together. The story it tells is too important to let go of."
Nearly all of the pieces of the Tallchief statue were found at the scrap yards; they had been sold for around $260, said Michelle Place, the executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society.
Henson is making molds to replace the pieces that were never recovered — Tallchief's hand, both of her feet, part of her shoulder, a piece of her headdress and portion of one leg.
The mayor of Tulsa called the theft "a disgrace," and thousands of dollars in donations poured in from across the country to help restore the statue, which the Tulsa Historical Society and Henson pledged could be done.
"Anything to share our Native culture and to see it spread around," Henson said. "The world would be in better shape right now if there was more of the American Indian outlook on life and the arts."
Ballet dancer Jentry Thorne remembers checking her phone and seeing the news about the statue being found about two days after it was dismantled. In disbelief, she showed her mother the photos of the broken ballerina.
"That's my girl. That's Majorie," Thorne, 19, said of her reaction. "I was shocked and then I was angry. How could someone do this?"
Thorne is a student at Dance Maker Academy in Pawhuska, about 30 miles from Fairfax, the home of Marjorie and Maria Tallchief. Thorne, who grew up in Pawhuska and is a member of the Cherokee Nation, said she had long been drawn to the sisters' stories as Native ballerinas.
Marjorie Tallchief, born in 1926, grew up in Fairfax, a city in Osage County. Ruth Porter, the girls' mother, was never able to take dance lessons, but when her daughters showed interest in dance, Porter immediately placed them in lessons, where they both excelled. When Marjorie was still young, her family moved to Los Angeles so she and her sister Maria could take advanced ballet classes.
In 1957, Marjorie joined the Paris Opera Ballet as danseuse étoile, or "star dancer," becoming the first American and Native American to hold the company's highest rank.
During her career, Tallchief performed for leaders around the world, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, according to the historical society.
Tallchief retired in 1993 after serving as the dance director for ballet companies in Dallas, Texas; Chicago; and Boca Raton, Fla. She died in 2021 at age 95. She was the last surviving member of the Five Moons.
"It was so unusual to have five Native American ballerinas, all of whom founded and directed companies," said Cheryl Forrest, chief historian for the Tulsa Ballet. "They paved the way for a lot of young dancers who thought, 'Well, here are some Indian ballerinas who have danced all over the world. If they can do it, maybe I can do it, too.'"
Marjorie Tallchief's legacy is strong in Pawhuska, the headquarters of the Osage Nation and a town of fewer than 3,000.
Randy Tinker Smith and her daughter Jenna Smith LaViolette have operated Dance Maker Academy for the past nine years.
Before that, the two worked together to write and choreograph "Wahzhazhe," a retelling of Osage history through ballet. Tinker Smith spent nearly a year on the story, interviewing more than 50 tribal elders to better understand the tribe's history and stories.
Tinker Smith said she's often asked by people from other tribes why they decided to tell their tribe's story through ballet. It's a question that no one in the Osage Nation has asked her.
"It's because of Maria and Marjorie Tallchief," Tinker Smith said. "They paved the way for so many young Native children to see themselves as ballet dancers."
Dance Maker Academy, with LaViolette as the lead instructor, currently has more than 70 students. Laviolette said more than 40 of those students are Native American.
Jentry Thorne wasn't interested in practicing ballet until she saw a performance of "The Nutcracker" put on by students of Dance Maker Academy. Then, Thorne said, she felt compelled to give it a try.
While attending a recent camp at the University of Oklahoma and visiting the college's ballet department, she said she began to understand how the scope of the Five Moons' impact on ballet. After that experience, she began to see herself as an extension of that legacy.
"I feel directly involved," Thorne said. "This academy is here to make the world know who the Osages are, who the Tallchief sisters are and what Native American ballet is all about."
Henson has the Tallchief statue almost all the way reassembled. He needs to smooth out the scarred areas and buff out the dents and dings it sustained during the theft before he can recast the few pieces the statue is missing.
"So often when you see bad things happen, you can't do anything about it," Henson said. "But to undo something that shouldn't have been done in the first place feels so nice."
The reinstallment plans for the Five Moons will also feature repositioning the statues to face the opposite direction.
All five will be turned so that they face directly into the light of the afternoon sun. The spotlight on them, once again.