Maria Tallchief was born Betty Marie Tallchief on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, her father an Osage Indian, and her mother of Irish and Scottish descent. She spent the first eight years of her life in the Osage Hills near Tulsa, Oklahoma. The family relocated to Los Angeles, where Maria upon taking music lessons discovered that she had perfect pitch. Dance, however was what captured Maria's heart, and she studied under dance pioneer Bronislava Nijinska for five years. Then she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo where she danced in a variety of roles, soon achieving solo status.

George Balanchine first saw Maria dance in the operetta Song of Norway and fell in love with her. They were married in 1946, and she was the inspiration for several of his works, including Symphonie Concertante, Sylvia: pas de deux, Orpheus, Night Shadow, The Four Temperaments, and Scotch Symphony. Balanchine brought Tallchief to his Ballet Society, the company that would become New York City Ballet where she became immensely popular with the public. Balanchine worked her incredibly hard, sometimes featuring her in eight performances a week.

Tallchief recieved rave reviews from critics and the public alike with her innate subtlety and delicacy. She made technically difficult ballets look easy. She was in fact, the living embodiment of a Balanchine ballet. But this partnership ended when George's interest moved on to another dancer, and another wife. Maria moved on and joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo as a guest artist in 1955 and 1956, famously receiving the highest salary ever paid any dancer. She remarried in 1956, took her only leave from ballet in order to become a mother in 1958, returned briefly to the New York City Ballet to create Balanchine's Gounod Symphony, then joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1960. She was Rudolf Nureyev's partner of choice in the young Russian defector's American debut in 1962, on television.

In 1965 Tallchief retired from active dancing. She said she had no intention of dancing past her prime and wanted to pass her love and respect for her art to younger dancers. She became the artistic director and beloved teacher of the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet in 1975. Tallchief once said: . "New ideas are essential but we must retain respect for the art of ballet--and that means the artist too--or else it is no longer an art form.".

Maria wrote her life story in Maria Tallchief America's Prima Ballerina with Larry Kaplan. In the book she tells of growing up with an alcoholic father, how her mother encouraged and pushed her and her sister to excel in music and ballet, and how she overcame many barriers.