Directed by: Nathan Frankowski/2016
Released October 6, 2017
Te Ata is the story of a fascinating woman named Mary Thompson Fisher, a member of the Chickasaw Nation who grew up in the Oklahoma Territory, and then State, listening to her father tell the tales of their people. She would grow up and take on the stage name Te Ata, a nickname from when she was young, which means “bearer of the morning”, where she would go on to perform for audiences around the world. Her humble beginnings, the struggle to fulfill her dreams, and the importance she played for the Chickasaw Nation makes her story an inspiring one to tell.
Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World) plays Te Ata, a strong and spirited young woman who dreams to one day be a performer on Broadway. Her parents, T.B. (Gil Birmingham-Wind River, Hell or High Water) and Bertie (Brigid Brannagh) Thompson, love and encourage their daughter to be the spirited woman that she is, but her father longs to keep her grounded in the practical world they live in, and not the idealistic one that they hope for. Her mother, being white, means that Te Ata has her feet planted in two cultures, while her heart is 100% Chickasaw.
The film demonstrates briefly some of the difficulties that this proud nation was having at the dawn of the 20th century. Mayor Douglass Johnston (Graham Greene-Wind River, Dances With Wolves), Te Ata’s uncle, has led the nation to being a model of society. Their crime rate is low, their educational standards are higher than those of the rest of the United States, and he has traveled to Washington, D.C., to ask for funds from the Chickasaw’s trust to be released to their nation so that he can maintain the programs they have instituted. He is met with masked racism from several senators who later step-up the enforcement of The Court of Indian Offenses, denying the money be used for the Chickasaw people, as they push for Oklahoma statehood.
Persecution by whites towards the Chickasaw people escalates around the time Te Ata is heading off to Oklahoma College for Woman, the first Indian woman to attend that University. She is ostracized by her peers until she is noticed by Miss Davis (Cindy Pickett-Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), a theater teacher who encourages her gift and sets her up with a prominent theater company in New York who initially dismiss her with a glance, noticing that she is an Indian. She boldly tells them that she has traveled over 1,000 miles and will audition, and with her performance is given a spot in the company.
While struggling as an actor in New York, she takes opportunities to perform for smaller gatherings, always focusing on the unique stories she has from her Chickasaw upbringing. These are the stories, and songs, that her father taught her as a child. At one such gathering, she meets Dr. Clyde Fisher (Mackenzie Astin), a college professor, who later becomes her husband. At this gathering is also a woman named Mrs. Roosevelt (Gail Cronauer-JFK). Mrs. Roosevelt’s husband is running for Senate at the time. It is this connection, and the impression her performance makes on Mrs. Roosevelt, that sets in motion the stunning opportunity Te Ata had to being invited to perform for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for his first state dinner at the White House, on his wife’s suggestion who had remembered Te Ata those years before in New York.
Te Ata is the first Indian to stay in the Lincoln bedroom, and she went on to perform for ambassadors, royalty, schools, and other venues for the rest of her life until her death in 1995. Her father, who loved his daughter but always wanted her to give up this fantasy of acting and come home to Oklahoma and raise a family, realized the impact her storytelling had after seeing her perform in their hometown. He realized the chance it gave the Chickasaw Nation to have Te Ata as one of their greatest ambassadors, and gave her his full support, impacting positively the whole of Chickasaw Nation, and other native American tribes, as the U.S. Government began reversing their policies over the coming decades, especially the Indian Court of Offenses.
The film on the whole is inspiring, and very family friendly. A murder is alluded to offscreen, with a lifeless body being discovered, but other than that, there is nothing to keep families from enjoying this film together. The production quality is more on par with a television movie, but they have some strong actors helping to move things forward when they can. As a biopic, this is pretty much straight by the numbers storytelling from screenwriters Jeannie Barbour and Esther Luttrell, who have just one writing credit each, prior to this film.
We see many of the eventual story arcs long before they happen, and the film would have been stronger had they dug a little deeper on some of the political angles of Mayor Johnston fighting to get the Chickasaw money, the effect it had on the people, and the eventual redemption by Te Ata. More could have been done to demonstrate the enormous pressure that was put on Te Ata and Dr. Fisher’s relationship due to their age and cultural differences, even in a supposed progressive town like New York City. They acknowledge these things in the film, with a few effect moments, but they immediately pull back to keep the whole affair a bit too sanitized. This works well for ensuring a safe family viewing experience, but it lessens the overall impact of the narrative.
Te Ata is a wonderfully inspirational figure, not just for the Chickasaw Nation, but for all Americans who have much to learn from the lessons she taught through her stories. The Chickasaw Nation had direct involvement with the making of this film, and as such are finding a new medium to tell their stories through. Q’orianka Kilcher’s portrayal of Te Ata demonstrates the vividness of these stories, and in this film we learn an important one that our nation still needs today:
“We may be different birds of many colors, but we are all just one bird”.
Te Ata’s legacy should remain intact, as we have much more to learn from her. This film is one small step to making sure that happens.