If you or your family are going to see one movie this year, I urge you to see the beautiful, hopeful, uplifting “Te Ata.” It’s based on the true story of one of this country’s most remarkable people, Te Ata, a Chickasaw Native American who grew up in Oklahoma and performed in the White House, throughout the United States and in other countries.
This movie seems to me exactly what youngsters and families need right now: encouragement! When I mentioned it to a family member, she asked, “Is this going to make me feel guilty as a white person?” My answer was an immediate, strong, “No!”
Te Ata, also known as Mary Thompson Fraser, lived a classic, complicated American life. She grew up in Oklahoma. She’s unsure what to do with her life. Her father, a Chickasaw, asked her to stay close to home. He worried about what could happen to her in the wider world, at a time when the official U.S. Government policy was that Native American languages and cultures were not to be promoted. Her mother, who’s white, encouraged her to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress. Her name, given to her by an aunt, translates as “Bearer of the Morning.”
Te Ata was the first Chickasaw to attend a nearby college. She was often lonely, since many students stayed away from her, at least in the beginning. Her real life teacher, Francis Densmore Davis, became her lifelong friend and mentor. Miss Davis, as she was known, asked Te Ata: “What stories do you have to tell? What could you show me that I haven’t seen before?”
Te Ata continued her education in Pittsburgh and then was in a Broadway show. But she got few parts and was frustrated. She began doing one-woman presentations about her people and culture. Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to do this at the family home.
Later she’s invited to present at the White House. You can see a 60-second trailer of a documentary featuring the real Te Ata here: https://bit.ly/30AANFW. In it, she recalls that she was invited to spend a night at the White House in the Lincoln Room: “It was the hugest bed I ever saw.”
She goes on to present throughout the country and world, winning many awards, and living to age 99. An amazing life!
Wanting to learn more, I contacted the Chickasaw Nation. Jeannie Barbour, creative development director, department of communications at the Chickasaw Nation and content producer for the film, told me that “‘Te Ata’ came from a vision of Bill Anoatubby, Governor of the Chickasaw Nation.” She explained, “We’ve been story-tellers throughout our history. The Governor said this is a way we can continue that tradition, preserve our legacy and build new relationships.”
The movie stars Q’orianka Kilcher, an award winning actress, as Te Ata. Graham Green and other terrific performers, along with more than 200 members of the Chickasaw Nation, have roles in the movie. It focuses on the late 1880s through the Great Depression – a time of change and challenge in the U.S. Sound familiar?
“Te Ata” features strong, positive messages. To youngsters: Follow your dreams. To people of all races: Sometimes we fear what we don’t know — but our lives can be enriched by learning more about each other.
Barbour told me that based on awards and reactions from throughout the world, “It’s a film that seems to speak to a lot of people.” I completely agree.
The tribe has produced curriculum materials for schools and several more movies about remarkable members of their nation. One of them, “Pearl” describes the true story of girl who at age 12 became the youngest person certified to fly airplanes. Information about ordering “Te Ata” and other films produced by the Chickasaw Nation is here: https://bit.ly/3nsO7oc.
I grew up in Kansas, close to the Chickasaw’s tribal headquarters in south central Oklahoma. But I knew nothing about them, their 70,000 members or Te Ata, until this month. I found the movie on Netflix. It’s opened up a vast, new, encouraging world for me. I think it will do the same for you and your family.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org or @JoeNathan9249 on Twitter.