Monthly Archives: November 2014

Naming, Race, and Gender in the “Stuff You Missed in History Class” Podcast: A Focus on Ballerina Maria Tallchief

I often listen to podcasts during my commute, and today, I listened to a podcast from “Stuff You Missed in History Class” that I’m planning to use as material for my social diversity class.  Before getting into the specifics, I want to note that many of these podcasts supplement undergraduate sociology classes fabulously because they are relatively short, as well as covering fascinating historical figures. Often, these figures face, and sometimes overcome, adversity relating to inequality in their societies.  Many of the podcasts also work well for illustrating how norms and values change depending on both location and time period. The podcasts allow for students to connect the individual experiences of these figures to the societal context that influenced their lives. They’re great for illustrating C. Wright Mill’s concept of sociological imagination.  (I also listen to these podcasts to get story ideas for my creative writing, although that is less relevant to this post.  I recommend that writers listen to these for character and setting ideas.)

A recent episode covered Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in the United States, who happened to be Native American, a part of the Osage Nation.  She traveled the world and won many awards.  I find that it helps when teaching concepts to my students to bring in people’s narratives.  One of the concepts that I cover is that of naming.  We discuss naming at an individual, personal level, as well as at a societal level. For example, my students discuss times when they’ve had difficulties with their first or last names due to ethnicity (e.g. teachers refusing to learn to pronounce their names).  Others will discuss family tensions over whether or not to change a her last name when she marries.  Then, we discuss how categories of people choose to change their names over time, often to avoid stigma.  For example, today, we often use persons with disabilities instead of a term like handicapped. This will likely change in the future.

Although named Elizabeth Marie Tall Chief, according to the podcast, children (and others) had a difficult time with her last name. They constantly wanted to know which one was really her last name.  Although she was not an immigrant, her experience reflected one that many immigrants to the U.S. face. Many immigrants would shorten or change their last names to fit into the racial hierarchy in the U.S. Her choice likely related to her performing career. This podcast would also work in terms of showing the story of a relatively recent minority woman’s success in her career field. Her family was wealthy so it’d also be interesting to discuss how that may have impacted their ability to have her in dance schools from such an early age. (This blogpost will tell you more so you can decide if you want to listen to the podcast.)

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