Published May 21, 2016
BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS – Emerging from a portable movie theater during the second annual film festival bearing this city’s name, Margarita Fontana clutched a handful of tissues. The Rogers, Arkansas, resident’s wide smile spoke volumes about her experience after viewing “Te Ata.”
“Absolutely fantastic. I had to wipe away tears several times,” she said, opening her palm to show tissues. “(The movie) just sucks you in. It makes you feel like you’re part of the family. From the storyline to the sympathetic notes of the music that are reminiscent of drums, it just tugs at your heart.”
Fontana is Apache and Hispanic. Her Apache father was a storyteller just as Te Ata’s father, Thomas. “I loved it when he told stories,” she recalled of her father, sadly adding he now has passed. Fontana laments the inability to search her Native American roots through him.
“As a woman, she (Te Ata) spoke to me. (Te Ata) shows you can be true to yourself, strive toward personal goals and become something more,” Fontana explained. “It was a tear-jerker. It was great.”
Another Rogers resident, Lydia Jones, said the message most emotionally moving for her was “staying true to yourself” even as changing tides and unforeseen forces pull you in differing directions. “It was fantastic,” she said of the movie, adding scenes most precious to Native Americans “seemed like a mirage” of Indian life in the early 20th century.
Living in Two Worlds
The movie is a Chickasaw Nation production filmed entirely in Oklahoma in 2014. It concentrates on the early career of famed Chickasaw storyteller and actress Te Ata Thompson Fisher.
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said the Chickasaw Nation produced the film as part of an effort to tell the story of the Chickasaw people and Chickasaw Nation.
“Te Ata’s life story helps illustrate the important role Chickasaw people have played in America,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “As a performing artist, Te Ata was a significant part of a movement that helped members of the public view Native Americans as a vital part of American society. Her performances touched the lives of thousands of families who learned to better appreciate the positive contributions Native Americans have made to this great country.”
Woven within is a sub-story of how Native Americans struggled to remain viable and sovereign; holding steadfast to culture, heritage and traditions while political policies were passed to eliminate tribal existence through assimilation and acculturation.
Te Ata witnessed it and lived it.
Born in Emet, Indian Territory, in 1895, Te Ata’s ambition was to perform on Broadway.
Her worldwide acclaim came as an actress telling stories of Native American heritage to audiences across the United States and Europe.
Te Ata did not limit herself to Chickasaw stories exclusively. As her popularity grew and her performances became more frequent, other tribes sought her out to tell the stories of their heritage.
Te Ata embraced them all.
The message that resonated with Arkansas festival attendees was Te Ata found fame by staying true to core beliefs.
The movie illustrates how immensely difficult landing a Broadway role was for young, aspiring actresses in the 1920s. Te Ata did find success on Broadway, but her pay and the roles were both less significant than Te Ata envisioned.
It was love that led the way for Te Ata: love of her tribe and love for a man instrumental in convincing Te Ata she was “meant” to act and tell stories of Native people. She would wed Dr. Clyde Fisher, a New York City scientist and first director of Hayden Planetarium, in the early 1930s.
Family Film, Tough Issues
Te Ata is a family-friendly movie. It is a love story about the strength and determination of a dynamic Chickasaw woman. To Native Americans, family is the glue holding together a way of life under assault for centuries.
“Te Ata” gives audiences a peek into the tough issues facing Native Americans in the early 20th century.”
In one scene, Te Ata slips away in the night to a ceremonial stomp ground of her childhood. Unused for years, the revered four directional arbors dilapidated, she weeps … and dances.
Te Ata’s dancing was a crime.
According to the 1893 Code of Indian Offenses, it was unlawful for American Indians to practice ceremonial dances or centuries-old rituals.
Another “Te Ata” scene shows a stern Gov. Douglas Johnston, played by Oscar-nominated actor Graham Greene, forcefully beseeching Washington, D.C. politicians to release funds dedicated to educating Chickasaw children.
By in large, “Te Ata” dwells in the world of a young woman with big dreams and the individuals who guided, advised and lovingly directed her along life’s path.
“The movie is inspiring. I gave it very good marks,” Fontana said, smiling as “Te Ata” actor Gil Birmingham autographed the back of a “Te Ata” T-shirt she wore. “I think the movie does a superb job of showing how we sometimes achieve greater things than what we originally set out to accomplish.