During a pivotal scene of the new biopic “Te Ata,” the titular character goes on a date to the cinema. Gazing at the silver screen, Te Ata, a Chickasaw woman, is brought to tears by a cartoon of tomahawk-waving Indians dancing around a fire and attacking pilgrims. All around her, white moviegoers laugh and laugh at the animated stereotypes.
In the film about Te Ata’s life, this moment become a turning point when the actress and storyteller leaves behind her Broadway ambitions. Instead, she devotes her life and performance to telling native stories with dignity, strength and beauty. In doing so, she became a cultural ambassador to audiences ranging from inner city children to President Franklin Roosevelt’s state dinner guests.
Almost a century later, the Chickasaw Nation is telling Te Ata’s story as a way of achieving the same goals.
“Te Ata stands as a shining example of how artistic expression can change hearts and minds in a way that helps bring diverse cultures together. … We believe film is a great way to tell our own story and preserve the legacy of Te Ata and other Chickasaws who have made a difference in the world,” said Bill Anoatubby, Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, in an interview with ivoh.
A production of Chickasaw Nation Productions, Te Ata feature scored numerous awards on last year’s film festival circuit and was released in theaters this fall. Ongoing screenings are limited, but the film can be rented or purchased online.
The movie opens in the early 1900s during Te Ata’s childhood in Chickasaw Indian Territory. Steeped in the traditional stories of her father and other Chickasaw elders, Te Ata shows an early aptitude for performance. Later, she attends the Oklahoma College for Women, where she studies drama. Despite her father’s desire for her to return home to her family, she ventures to New York City to pursue a theater career. The visuals in the film underscore these different pulls on Te Ata.
“Te Ata’s home (has) wide vistas, loaded with beautiful nature, lots of natural light, and wider camera lens. As Te Ata moves further from home … the visuals become more claustrophobic, lots of artificial light, and no nature,” said Director Nathan Frankowski in an interview with ivoh. “It speaks to Te Ata’s desire to return home, not necessarily in a physical sense, but in a spiritual way. Home is her core foundation, her calling, and even if she’s not physically home, she takes that light everywhere she goes.”
Throughout Te Ata’s journey, viewers see the challenges endured by American Indians on a personal and community level: the tribe’s land is taken over, white legislators ban Indian customs, and Te Ata faces exclusion and prejudice at school and in the theater.
But as her conviction to tell her people’s stories strengthens, so does Te Ata’s individual voice. “My name is Te Ata, bearer of the morning. I am a Chickasaw Indian from the state of Oklahoma and also a storyteller,” she declares in a performance for children a few days after her experience with stereotyped animations at the movie theater.
“Indians are the natives of this land. They belong here. Everything that they learn, they learn from nature,” she continues as she moves into a tribal song.
Frankowski, who is not Chickasaw, said he connected with Te Ata’s courage and her struggle to tell the story within her. “… sometimes the world doesn’t want you to tell that story. So they place obstacles in your way, or tempt you to tell another story. Te Ata overcomes those obstacles and temptations and tells the story she was meant to tell.”
Frankowski also said he spent lot of time going over each word, action, and design element with the film’s Chickasaw producers and writers to ensure that it resonated with their vision. Among those producers was Chickasaw historian and artist Jeannie Barbour.
Actress Q’orianka Kilcher, who plays Te Ata and is of indigenous Peruvian descent, also worked closely with Barbour, as well as some of Te Ata’s family members. In the film, Kilcher incorporates songs and dances that draw on multiple American Indian cultures, as Te Ata’s performances did. Kilcher told Slate’s Represent podcast that she was “overjoyed” to receive letters and messages from Te Ata’s relatives praising her portrayal of the Chickasaw heroine.
Te Ata passed away in 1995, but some of the issues she tackled persist. Hollywood and other media industries still rely heavily on stereotypes in portrayals of American Indians. In 2015, for instance, a dozen native actors walked off the set of an Adam Sandler movie in protest of its disrespectful script.
By creating their own films, Chickasaw Nation Productions is continuing Te Ata’s legacy of strength-based storytelling. “Te Ata” is the second feature film produced by the company. The 2010 film “Pearl” told the story of teenager Pearl Carter Scott, who in 1928 became the youngest licensed pilot in the United States. A third film, “The Chickasaw Rancher,” is now in post-production.
“While these movies are about Chickasaw people, they have universal themes, such as the importance of family and perseverance in the face of adversity. We hope Chickasaw Nation Productions will produce films that will have a positive impact and serve as an inspiration to our audience,” said Anoatubby.