Navigating the liminal space between Native (First) American and white communities, Mary Frances “Te Ata” Thompson Fisher was raised on the stories and songs of her Chickasaw culture. Te Ata was born December 3, 1895 in Emet, Oklahoma. Her father was the last treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation and her uncle, the last governor.
The first Native American woman to receive a theatre degree from the Oklahoma College for Women, Te Ata worked a Chautauqua circuit and developed her storytelling style using readings, music, and dance. Te Ata eventually moved to New York City where she performed in several Broadway shows before leaving to develop her own one-woman show of Native American songs and stories. Te Ata became a highly sought-after entertainer for the city’s elite. Indeed, in 1933 she performed for Franklin Roosevelt’s first state dinner, and again at their Hyde Park home on the occasion of a state visit from the king and queen of Great Britain.
An extensive tour of Europe saw Te Ata perform for heads of state and royalty, and her travels throughout the US and South America allowed her to collect hundreds of stories and traditions from numerous native populations which she incorporated into her performances.
In 1976 Te Ata was awarded Woman of the Year by The Ladies Home Journal, and was the first person to be named an “Oklahoma Treasure” in 1987. By popularizing Native American oral traditions, Te Ata became an unwitting civil-rights activist and icon during a time of overwhelming racism and discrimination against American Indians.
Te Ata Fisher was 99 when she passed away in Oklahoma City in 1995. Her performances live on in the film God’s Drum, and in 2017 the Chickasaw Nation released a film based on her life, simply titled Te Ata. She leaves an enduring and indelible legacy in Oklahoma and beyond and cemented the importance of a vibrant Native American culture that has endured for centuries.