Ballet’s legacy in the Osage culture

Anna Jefferson | Freelance writer

PAWHUSKA — In some instances, a well-kept secret such as a favorite business or a historic site, which is known only to the local populace, might be considered a good thing. It solely belongs to its community. But in the case of WahZhaZhe, an Osage ballet, established in Pawhuska, whose first performance was in 2012, everyone needs to know about it. It is a unique experience of art, education and preservation of history — the Osage Nation’s history.

On Sept. 8,of this year, the WahZhaZhe ballet will perform in Rolla, Missouri. This comes about because of a relationship Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear has been establishing with Missouri Gov. Eric Greitans.

In 1825, a treaty between the Osages and the United States removed the Nation to a small reservation in southeastern Kansas. A result of this removal left Missouri’s citizens missing parts of its Native American history. During the Standing Bear administration, the Osage Nation and the state of Missouri have been working on discovering the Osages’ cultural relationship with that ancestral homeland.

A project called Osage Trail Legacy is constructing a monument, which according to its website is in celebration of “the history and legacy of the Osage Nation.” The structure, 35 feet tall and 80 feet long, will be dedicated this fall in Cuba, Missouri. The WahZhaZhe ballet, part of this celebration, will perform at the Leach Theatre at Rolla.

In an interview with Randy Tinker-Smith (Osage/Cherokee), the director of the WahZhaZhe ballet, she talked about the legacy of ballet in the Osage culture. It is a surprise to some that in the small, rural community of Pawhuska, a classical ballet was created. Tinker-Smith did her research so the information about the Osages’ history was accurate. She was respectful to the Osages, in that way, as well as consulting with tribal Elders about what could be used. She too was reverent to the memories of Osage ballerinas, Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, who left the Osages with this rich artistic gift.

Tinker-Smith talks about the Tallchief ballerinas to students at the Dance Maker Academy and why their history is important to the Osages. She will speak words in Osage, too.

WahZhaZhe ballet is an outreach that presents the Nation’s history from pre-contact to present day. Osage fine artist Wendy Ponca designed the dancers’ apparel. After the interview, Tinker-Smith showed off the outfits on clothing racks in the lobby. Through the dances, music and clothes, the audience gets a real sense of emotions the Osage people experienced.

Osage dance regalia is colorful and unique to the individual. These types of outfits were on one end of the clothes rack. On the opposite end were jackets made of heavy material, brown and plain. Dresses for the girls were white and sterile. It was heart-breaking to realize that small children were forced to leave the world of their people for a new, foreign life. But that is want art can reveal. The WahZhaZhe ballet is beautiful, real and moving.

The company has traveled to a variety of cities to perform. In 2015, they were the only Native American performance on the day stage at the Festival of Families. The attendance at that festival was half-a-million people and the Pope was present, even waving at them.

To learn more about WahZhaZhe ballet and the upcoming performance in September, find Osage Ballet on Facebook or check out their websites, www.dancemaker.net or www.osageballet.com. To learn more about the Leach Theater in Rolla, Missouri or to request tickets, please visit their website at http://leachtheatre.mst.edu/.

Anna Jefferson is a freelance writer of Osage/Pawnee/Sac and Fox descent. She has a liberal arts degree from Rogers State University, and was previously employed at the Osage Nation as the communications photojournalist and visitor center interpretive specialist.