Interviews: New feature film ‘Te Ata’ tells the story of trailblazing Native American woman storyteller

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Q'orianka Kilcher stars in the title role of the famed Chickasaw storyteller in the film "Te Ata." Photo provided by Chickasaw Nation Productions

Q’orianka Kilcher stars in the title role of the famed Chickasaw storyteller in the film “Te Ata.” Photo provided by Chickasaw Nation Productions

The story of a trailblazing Native American storyteller is coming to the big screen with “Te Ata.”

As I reported on my BAM’s Blog, the biopic chronicles the childhood, early career and rise to international prominence of Chickasaw storyteller Te Ata (Q’orianka Kilcher, Terrence Malick’s “The New World”), who was born Mary Frances Thompson in Indian Territory, near Tishomingo, Oklahoma, and grew up steeped in the tales of her people. At the Oklahoma College for Women, she was encouraged not only to study drama but also to incorporate American Indian stories into her performances. She picked the stage name “Te Ata,” meaning “bearer of the morning,” to reflect her Native heritage.

Although she had the chance to pursue a promising Broadway career, Te Ata opted instead to use her gifts to share Native American stories – a path that took her all the way to the White House, where she performed in 1933 at the first state dinner given by President Franklin Roosevelt. She continued to tell to tell those stories even as the federal Code of Indian Offenses prohibited American Indians from practicing their culture.

“It was during a time when there was that risk that we were going to lose some of these stories and songs because of assimilation policy … so I think that’s one of the very most poignant and maybe courageous things that Te Ata did was that she took these stories and told them during a time when it was discouraged,” Jeannie Barbour, a Chickasaw historian and author who is the film’s content producer, told me in a recent interview.

The film was produced by the Chickasaw Nation, which is based in Ada, Oklahoma. “Te Ata” was shot entirely in Oklahoma, with locations in Sulphur, Tishomingo, Guthrie and Oklahoma City. The production used the Oklahoma Film Enhancement Rebate Program and represented a chance for the Chickasaw to tell the story of one of their most well-known and beloved citizens from their viewpoint.

“The mission of all our films and what we hope to achieve, is to tell our story from our perspective, to show that Chickasaws have had an impact on not only our history, Native American history, but also on history that encompasses the United States and world history, for that matter,” Barbour said.

Q'orianka Kilcher stars in the title role of the famed Chickasaw storyteller in the film "Te Ata." Photo provided by Chickasaw Nation Productions

Q’orianka Kilcher stars in the title role of the famed Chickasaw storyteller in the film “Te Ata.” Photo provided by Chickasaw Nation Productions

In addition, Barbour said it was important for women to frame the story of the famed storyteller for the film. Although the movie was directed by Nathan Frankowski (“To Write Love on Her Arms”), Barbour spent two years researching Te Ata’s life before co-writing the film’s story with Esther Luttrell (“Lithium Springs”), who penned the script.

“I’m not sure if a man could have written Te Ata’s story,” Barbour said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love male writers, but most of the time men just don’t have the ability to write women very well. They don’t understand how we see things. They lack, I guess, the feminine perspective. They can’t help it, it’s just the way things are, so I think that writing ‘Te Ata’ required a woman writer.”

Although “Te Ata” is the first feature film devoted to the renowned storyteller’s story, it’s not her first appearance in the movies. Kumiko Konishi played her in 2012’s historical comedy-drama “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which centers on the 1939 weekend when the King and Queen of Britain visited FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in upstate New York. Te Ata performed during the royals’ visit to the Roosevelts’ country estate.

A portrait of Te Ata is part of the Oklahoma Capitol’s art collection, and a statue in her honor stands at her alma mater, now known as the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. The performer was named The Ladies’ Home Journal Woman of the Year in 1976, inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1957, designated Oklahoma’s first Official State Treasure in 1987, and inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 1990.

Mackenzie Astin, left, and Q'orianka Kilcher costar in the film "Te Ata." Photo provided by Marcy Gray, Chickasaw Nation Productions

Mackenzie Astin, left, and Q’orianka Kilcher costar in the film “Te Ata.” Photo provided by Marcy Gray, Chickasaw Nation Productions

Mackenzie Astin (TV’s “The Facts of Life”), who plays Te Ata’s husband, Clyde Fisher, in the biopic, said it was an honor to be part of the effort to tell Te Ata’s story from a Chickasaw viewpoint. Part of a family of actors – his parents are John Astin (TV’s “The Addams Family”) the late Patty Duke (an Oscar winner for “The Miracle Worker”) and his older brother is Sean Astin (“The Lord of the Rings” movies) – the Los Angeles native said he didn’t know anything about her story before he was cast.

“Growing up in Los Angeles, my exposure to a lot of Native American history was sort of limited by what I was able to get from the television, which wasn’t always the best representation, and from history books in school, which also is probably not the most thorough telling of Indian stories,” Astin told me in an interview. “Once we got to the actual set for production, I got so lucky to meet a bunch of people who knew her and who were more than happy to share their stories of her. It was really something that I just felt kind of lucky to find myself involved with. So, I didn’t know anything about her, and by the time we finished, I knew quite a bit but also wanted to know more.”

He was also excited to be a part of depicting a marriage that “might have been sort of advanced for the time,” especially considering how supportive Fisher was of his wife’s career.

Fisher, who was the head of the Hayden Planetarium and former curator of the American Museum of Natural History, encouraged Te Ata to continue her performances of Native American stories, even when it meant traveling far and wide without him.

“She was very much in love with him, and of course, he was in love with her. And they had an interesting marriage really,” Barbour told me. “He lectured and was gone for long periods of time out of the year, and of course, she had performances that she did. They both traveled extensively, but they were usually not traveling together. So, they wrote letters to one another … that we also used as part of the research to get an idea of what that relationship was about, and the letters are just very sweet and just very passionate for one another. So, it was really a treasure to be able to read some of these letters.”

To read more of my feature on the film “Te Ata,” click here.

To read my review of “Te Ata,” click here.

After a film festival run that included a best picture win at the Orlando Film Festival and screenings at the Heartland Film Festival in Indiana and Geena Davis’ Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas, “Te Ata” opened Friday in several Oklahoma theaters. Beginning Oct. 6, it will expand to additional theatrical markets around the country. It is set to open in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 13.

For a list of theaters where the movie is playing, go to http://teatamovie.com.

Since Te Ata died in 1995 just shy of her 100th birthday, Barbour said the filmmakers had to decide what aspects of her life to focus on with the biopic, and actually ended up producing simultaneously a documentary titled “Bearer of the Morning” that is coming soon.

-BAM

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