Born in 1895, the Chickasaw performer Te Ata came of age at a time when the United States prohibited public displays of Native American culture. Yet despite laws dictating that her indigenous performances remain private, Te Ata eventually acted and danced on Broadway and for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s White House. She became an advocate, through her own artistic excellence, for the inherent dignity that the federal government denied American Indians — fittingly, her stage name means “bearer of the morning.” Te Ata’s life story is now the subject of Nathan Frankowski’s film “Te Ata,” which goes for the sweep of an epic despite a tight budget.
As depicted, Te Ata, who died in 1995 at the age of 99, grew up as Mary Frances Thompson in the Indian Territory that later became Oklahoma. She devoted her life to relaying the Chickasaw legends she had learned in childhood, in addition to the stories that were shared with her by the diverse American Indian audiences she met on tour.
Produced by Chickasaw Nation Productions, “Te Ata” valorizes this little-known hero, introducing elements of myth like a wandering white wolf to mark Te Ata’s life as its own Chickasaw legend. The film sprawls from the Oklahoma plains to old New York, murkily conveying the passage of time and her rising social status. But the movie’s driving force is its mythic performance scenes, which are choreographed, sung and acted with clear, balletic conviction by the film’s star, Q’orianka Kilcher, who collaborated with Chickasaw researchers and advisers. In the film’s most compelling parallel, just as Te Ata grew to be a voice for American Indians who lacked representation, Ms. Kilcher offers her star power on behalf of the Chickasaw.
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