Storytelling With Te Ata (2016)


We watch a lot of biopics around here at Frock Flicks HQ. It comes with the territory, being historical and all. But I can’t remember the last biographical movie I watched about a Native American woman, other than incredibly fictionalized tales of Pocahontas (always in luuuuuuurve with Captain John Smith). So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across Te Ata (2016) on Amazon because it’s set in the early 20th century, with decent costumes, and only has a mild (and not fictional) romance subplot.

Mary Frances Thompson (1895-1995) used “Te Ata” as her stage name, and she was a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation who became widely known for performing Native American stories, songs, and poetry to white audiences. She introduced countless schoolchildren to her tribal art and culture, and Te Ata famously performed for Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt several times, as well as for European royalty.

Te Ata (2016)

This movie was produced and funded by the Chickasaw Nation, and historic locations such as the Chickasaw Nation Capitol building in Tishomingo and the Chickasaw White House in Milburn, both in Oklahoma, were used. Te Ata begins during Mary’s childhood right as her hometown of Emet becomes subsumed in the new state of Oklahoma. Her uncle was Douglas H. Johnston, governor of the Chickasaw Nation, and the horribly unjust dealings of the U.S. government towards the Native American people are shown through Johnston’s activities, including an unsuccessful trip to Washington D.C.

Te Ata (2016)

A behind-the-scenes photo of the extended family.

Te Ata (2016)

Mary as a little girl wears her hair down, but also, as an active kid, her hair is up or in braids, out of the way. Appropriate for an era before short haircuts on women.

Te Ata (2016)

When Mary is grown up (far right), she puts her hair into a 1910s-esque knot at the base of her neck. Also, her younger sisters have their hair up or in braids. Yes, we harp on this stuff because big-budget flicks get it wrong, but it’s really simple & adds to the historical feel.

Te Ata (2016)

The costumes aren’t elaborate, but there are tons of nice, simple. white shirtwaist blouses for the teens period look, shown here on Mary (left) & her mother.

Mary attends Oklahoma College for Women, where she realizes her talent for performance, and she’s encouraged to tell her own Chickasaw stories by a teacher, Frances Dinsmore Davis. This is where she begins to develop a stage repertoire of Native American song, dance, and art.

Te Ata (2016)

As part of Mary’s traveling outfit, she carries a purse with fringe & beading that evokes her Native American heritage.

Te Ata (2016)

Actual hairpins spotted on Mary’s college roommate! Yes, they can be used!

Te Ata (2016)

OK, so that’s a zipper in the back of Mary’s dress. But at least the college girls all have their hair up & are wearing 1910s-appropriate outfits.

Te Ata (2016)

However, there’s zero evidence of corsetry in this movie, as made obvious by teacher Miss Davis’ bustline. Though she has some teens details on her skirt.

A summer performing tour leads to New York City where Te Ata tries to make it as an actress on Broadway.

Te Ata (2016)

It’s during the tour that we first see Te Ata in Native American outfits. I’m going to assume that they’re pretty accurate since the Chickasaw Nation was so heavily involved in this movie. She wears different outfits for each performance too, which is lovely.

Te Ata (2016)

She meets people from other tribes & learns their stories, which she incorporates into her performances.

Te Ata (2016)

On arriving in NYC, Mary wears a typical 1910s linen suit. It was probably early/mid-1920s at the time, & I think it feels realistic that her wardrobe for these scenes mixes ’10s & ’20s items. She’s not wealthy, so of course she would keep using the same clothes.

Te Ata (2016)

The little purse with her suit has a woven pattern reminiscent of Native American textiles.

Most of the story is set in the 1910s right up to 1933, and the costumes, while not elaborate, are overall accurately done and convey the passage of time. I seriously doubt any of the women are corseted in the early decades depicted, but everyone has their hair up! This probably wasn’t the biggest budget of frock flicks, but the costume designer Beverly Safier (whose resume is mostly modern TV) did a good job of giving characters appropriate outfits in historical styles, complete with hats and other accessories.

Te Ata (2016)

I like how she has her braids wrapped up into loops — not every woman in the ’20s bobbed her hair. This plaid dress looks just like the “one-hour dress” patterns that were so popular in the period.

Te Ata (2016)

Yes, there’s a love interest, but it’s not an overwhelming part of the story.

Te Ata (2016)

She wears this sporty ’20s outfit on a visit home.

Te Ata (2016)

The adult Mary is played by Q’orianka Kilcher, who starred as another Native American in the title role of Princess Kaiulani (2009). Unlike the earlier film, Te Ata doesn’t fall into romantic cliches or myths. This is a straightforward telling of her early life, showing how she found her passion for storytelling and honed her craft.

Chickasaw historian Jeannie Barbour co-wrote the script with Esther Luttrell. In an interview with The Oklahoman, Barbour explains the importance of Te Ata’s work and why the film focuses on this time period:

“It was during a time when there was that risk that we were going to lose some of these stories and songs because of assimilation policy … so I think that’s one of the very most poignant and maybe courageous things that Te Ata did was that she took these stories and told them during a time when it was discouraged.”

Te Ata (2016)

The film seemed to only be shown on the festival circuit when it was first made and received mixed reviews, calling it “sentimental” but also praising the “driving force” of the “mythic performance scenes.” I think I agree most with the Seattle Times review that says:

“Though it often resembles an innocuous Hallmark movie, the biographical drama “Te Ata” proves an illuminating, sometimes moving intersection of history, family conflict and the sort of rising, individual destiny that can nudge a nation along in its progress.”

Considering we’ve had decades of sentimental biopics about white men, that this one movie about a Native American woman gets a little mushy in the telling doesn’t diminish it to me. I was engaged for the whole 105 minutes, and I learned about someone in a time and place that I knew nothing about. The story is told entirely from Mary’s point of view, showing how she has agency in her life and uses her talents to help improve the world’s understanding of her people.

Te Ata (2016)
Te Ata (2016)

Performing at a New York summer camp, something Te Ata did throughout her life.

Te Ata (2016)




Check out Te Ata on Amazon and see for yourself!


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

7 Responses

  1. Northcountrygal

    Q’orianka Kilcher actually played Pocahontas in The New World – she was excellent. Looks like this is a film I need to see. Thank you!

  2. Saraquill

    #$%%^& I’m not Chickasaw, nor am I familiar with their clothing, so I don’t have much to say about the leather regalia.* I do want to know why is she randomly wearing Seminole style clothing, complete with patchwork?! That’s one of our distinctive features, and I have no idea why a Chickasaw woman would wear it.

    I do like the elk teeth on the brown topped dress. Very posh.

  3. Lily Lotus Rose

    Whoa! I never heard of this film, but I definitely want to check it out! It looks great! Like someone else mentioned, I saw this actress in The New World, and I really admired her talent and beauty. In your post you mentioned thinking that her Broadway stage costume was probably correct because of the involvement of the Chickasaw Nation in the filming. I’m going to (kinda) disagree with you on that. I think it’s a 50-50 chance of being either a “correct” version of Chickasaw clothing OR a “correct” version of an “Native American Broadway costume” of that era (which, sadly, is probably exactly like an “Native American Broadway costume” of today’s era). For the rest of the scenes in which she’s in Native clothes, like you, I assume they’re “correct.” These kinds of stories are so important. Thanks for letting us know about this film. Also, if you’re interested, Sidedoor (the podcast for the Smithsonian) did a story last year (I think) on Native American storytellers and storytelling. It was really interesting, and the corresponding exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian was very good too. The exhibit is probably virtually available on the web!

  4. Orian Hutton

    Thank you for alerting me to this film. Definitely going to watch. Still, I am just waiting for the cultural backlash over an actress of Peruvian-Swiss-German descent playing a Chickasaw Native American. Just joking. I loved her in ‘Pocahontas’.

  5. Natasha Rubin

    This looks pretty dang good! It’s sadly rare to find movies about Native Americans that don’t fall into the same tired old stereotypes.

  6. Aleko

    Here’s a picture of Te Ata in one of her performance outfits, which shows that the production actually got it pretty close:

    That doesn’t of course necessarily mean that Te Ata’s outfits were 100% traditional. A tradition of costume is much more easily broken than a tradition of storytelling and music, especially in an age before everybody had access to a camera. If the Chickasaw had been bullied or persuaded into ‘dressing like civilised people’ in, say, the 1850s, (I don’t know they were, I’m just hypothesising here) it’s quite possible that when she started performing at college she had only a vague notion of what Chickasaw women used to wear, and just made her best shot at what she thought it might have been, perhaps using elements from other tribes’ costume that had survived into the 20th century to help out.

    There’s also a good possibility that directors and producers said to her, ‘Sorry, love: white Americans know what they think a ‘squaw’ looks like, and they aren’t going to pay to see you unless you conform to their stereotype. Show them something they’re familiar with’.

    Also, she learned and performed other tribes’ songs and stories too, didn’t she, so perhaps she did deliberately mix those other tribes’ styles into her costumes; which would account for the Seminole elements Saraquill mentions.