Mary Frances Thompson “Te Ata” Fisher
In the early 20th century, as the western U.S. was settled where Native tribes once lived, obviously the latter were relocated often onto reservations. While they tried to begin their new lives, there was one popular belief in American culture, that would take many years to fade out. This was the assumption that Native people were savages or primitive, and this attitude hampered young people who needed to succeed in their own culture, and also in non-Native society.
And one of those to do this was a young Chickasaw woman named Mary Frances Thompson Fisher who proved successful in combining her culture while she educated and entertained her fellow Americans. In addition, she accomplished this as an actress, and a storyteller under the professional name of “Te Ata” as she performed even at the White House and before royalty.
Mary Frances Thompson was born in December, 1895 among the Chickasaw people in Oklahoma, her father a merchant and tribal official. Her mother was part Osage and had a local reputation as a herbal doctor. And though Mr. Thompson did not see that his children learned the Chickasaw language they did learn many of the stories of their tribal traditions.
Young Miss Thompson attended a tribal school near her hometown and then was enrolled in an academy with tribal influence. She acquired what would be her professional name of Te Ata, meaning “bearer of the dawn” at age seven from an elderly aunt, according to one source. However, another source states that the name was actually a Maori (New Zealand Indigenous) name and not Chickasaw.
At a time when some Native tribes lived in poverty and illiteracy and/or often ignorance of their tribal heritage, Mary Frances grew up in an atmosphere of education in academic subjects, as well as in tribal culture. Indeed, one of her instructors encouraged her to continue to collect and remember the oral traditions of her people, as well as to be proud of her Chickasaw heritage.
Mary Frances graduated from high school then in 1915 then enrolled in the Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) in Chickashaw, Oklahoma. While there she worked as an assistant for the theater instructor Frances Dinsmore Davis who encouraged her to use her Native stories in a senior performance. In fact this appearance was well received and she was invited to appear in other venues. She graduated in 1919 then she joined a touring Chautauqua show.
At the time the Chautauqua series of touring shows, were a popular American form of education and entertainment, especially for rural and small town areas. Consisting of speakers, singers, actors and comics the show would travel and appear around the country usually in areas where entertainment was often sparse—before radio and movies. In this atmosphere Te Ata developed a program telling Native stories as well as singing and dancing and playing Native musical instruments. Also, as she toured she made it a point to seek out other Natives in the vicinity of her shows, to collect stories and cultural features to include in her presentations. In addition, she later studied drama at Carnegie Institute.
Then in 1922 Miss Thompson moved to New York City where she appeared on stage in Greek tragedies—and even appeared on Broadway. Then she began to perform as a one-woman show so that non-Native audiences could learn about her culture. At this time she made many high placed friends, one of whom was Eleanor Roosevelt, at that time wife of the New York Governor. She was then invited her to appear at the governor’s home in Albany.
In 1924 Miss Thompson was featured on the cover of a national magazine but apparently disliked that she was to pose in a feathered war bonnet and with what she thought was inappropriate makeup. This was because she considered all this as a stereotype of Native appearance, yet when the magazine came out the cover was proudly displayed in stores windows in her hometown.
By this time the Roosevelt’s were in the White House and Mrs. Roosevelt arranged for Te Ata to appear at the Executive Mansion in 1933. She stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom, saying later it was the largest bedroom and bed she’d ever seen. Then in 1939 Te Ata appeared as a guest of the Roosevelt’s’ Hyde Park New York home when Britain’s King George and Queen Elizabeth were visiting the U.S. The monarchs were so impressed with her performance that they invited her to later to appear in England.
Due to Mr. Fisher’s s position, he and his wife often traveled widely, and Te Ata sometimes appeared before many prestigious audiences in the cities they visited. This often included performing before monarchies, and also important heads of state. She particularly enjoyed sharing her Native culture with her stories with those in other nations.
Mrs. Fisher’s representations of her Chickasaw and other Native cultures brought many honors. For example, in 1958 she was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and in 1976 was named “woman of the year” from a national women’s magazine. She returned to live in Oklahoma in 1966 in retirement, but continued to make presentations. She died in 1995—living to be till almost 100.
Mrs. Fisher’s career as presenter of Native stories and traditions would eventually span 60 years, and her performances also featured many traditional stories from her own and other tribes. Among these tales were “The Creation of Mankind” as told to her by her father, and others titled “How Death Came into the World,” “The Corn Ceremony,” The Blue Duck” and “Baby Rattlesnake.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.