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May I Suggest ... 'Te Ata: Chickasaw Storyteller, American Treasure'

WASHINGTON ñ Rep. Tom Coleís office is one of the best-appointed on Capitol Hill, but itís not immediately clear why. Colors of earthy red and mahogany with subdued Native accents matter, but it would take an art critic to figure out why. His inner office, where he gives interviews, holds a small number of artworks and historic objects of great interest and beauty, elegantly framed. But itís the same in quite a few congressional offices.

The fortunate visitor who gets to wait a few moments for the busy congressmanís time will face a trio of paintings across from the office chair. One, by Chickasaw artist Tom Phillips, commemorates the Chickasaw tribal building on the 100th anniversary of its construction. In the sky behind the building are two figures, one Tishimingo, tribal war chief during the ìremovalî era of the 1830s and afterwards, when Southeast tribes, the Chickasaw among them, were relocated against their will to Indian territory (later Oklahoma).

The other figure is a woman. She is Te Ata, also portrayed in two framed portraits beneath the Phillips painting. One of them is a magazine illustration of a romantic Indian princess, a perfect stereotype (Te Ata, the model, didnít like it). The other is a photograph, taken in London in 1930, that is surely on the short list of the most striking women ever committed to film. Te Ata performed as an Indian folklore artist between the two worlds of stereotype and high art, arguably transcending both as a pan-Indian ambassador.

More than an artist in the technical term that describes certain preoccupations and temperaments, she had the gift of art ñ something in her culture had awakened it. She was also an aunt of Tom Coleís, and her presence in the family gene pool undoubtedly helps to explain the congressmanís office.

But the explanation of what sheís doing in that painting is a longer story, known to almost every Chickasaw. Now Richard Green has told it for everyone in the University of Oklahoma Press publication, ìTe Ata: Chickasaw Storyteller, American Treasure.î Itís a gem of a book, offering a glimpse of full lives and of one privileged life that moved among them as a friend and inspiration. For anyone somewhat familiar with the fine points of Indian life in the last century, Cole signs the book with the last word in review: ìShe believed in our peopleís future when some of us didnít believe in it ourselves.î

She had to believe in herself first. How did that happen with a little girl in a patriarchal setting, a country girl on the cosmopolitan stage, an Indian woman in a white-manís world? Green gathered the documentary record into a smooth narrative of childhood, youth and maturity, offering many insights along the way.

A couple of insights stood out.

Mary Frances Thompson received two names in early girlhood, sometime after the turn of the 19th century. One, Native words for ìHandsome Woman,î she never used. But Te Ata was supposed to mean ìBearer of the Dawn.î It doesnít mean anything in modern Chickasaw (this probably explains the ambiguity in pronunciation, as Chickasaws who ought to know have been heard to pronounce it TAY-awe-tuh and TEE-awe-tuh). But it must have meant a great deal to the young girl on the Oklahoma plains, for she began to introduce herself by that name in the little skits she put on for her family.

Itís an interesting pair of names, one suggesting the beyond-her-years beauty that Te Ata would grow into and master; the other some kind of fiction suggesting a communicable vitality, an enlivening presence.

Not too many years later, Te Ata overheard the reading of a Shakespeare sonnet, and again came under the spell of language; when she went to work years later, saving for college, her first paycheck went to a down payment on a volume of Shakespeare. Then, for reasons unknown but likely related to the familyís financial condition, her college plans fell apart. But two years later, she went to college and immediately became the darling of the drama department. One suspects those family skits had given way to Shakespeare improvisations during the two lost years (they would prove significant later).

Te Ataís next stop was the Chautauqua movement, the glorified Christian camp-outs that became popular in the 1890s, along with the Boy Scouts and various nature conservation societies, after a famous historian declared the frontier closed. Americans of the time conferred a folkloric nobility on Indians as the living vestige of a virile American past, and Indians who could perform the outdoorsy lore about Indians could make a living at it. The still photographs of her apprenticeship there live up to every stereotype of the ìIndian princess,î but the audiences of the day wouldnít have known or cared that we consider her stereotypical.

Te Ata would have been performing, heart and soul, and the crowds would have responded in kind. Significantly, Te Ata was also bringing Indian stories she had heard from her elders into her repertoire and getting a good response ñ a practice on which she would expand. Overall, the experience had to have been invaluable.

In transition to the East Coast for more comprehensive dramatic training, Te Ata didnít know so much as how to catch a bus. And for other, familial reasons, she showed up at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh well after admissions had closed. She talked her way into a stage audition and swept into the class with a performance that left no question as to whether a place would be found.

She finally made her way, as any dramatic actress of rare powers would have in the 1920s, to New York City. And now those two years taken out of her early career in Oklahoma, probably over a family financial downturn, turned out to be the very thing that saved her for Indian country. After a few years of scrambling for mainstream stage parts, she found herself ever so slightly old for starring roles, according to the theatrical demands of the era.

With ìtalkiesî terrorizing the silent film industry, her voice, such an asset on the stage, was found to be a little low-pitched for film. It couldnít have helped her chances that she eschewed couch-casting, the rather unglamorous sexual transactions that helped the careers of quite a few actresses. Here again were character traits that would secure her services for Indian country.

Te Ata turned to the role that was working for her, that she seemed to have been born for: the role of an Indian folklore dramatist. As one of the finest among them, Te Ata performed for President Franklin Roosevelt and the first lady (who named a New York lake after her), for the king and queen of England and for countless Americans, making a film and national television before retiring in her 80s. She performed before Indian people who couldnít get service on their own hometown street, a fact that helps to illuminate how much it must have meant for them when Te Ata, a minor celebrity nationally but a major figure in Indian country, walked with them on those streets, then visited them at home and valued their stories and memories. Some of them she continued to incorporate into her repertoire.

As an Indian folklore artist, she testified to vestiges of Indianness that white folks found appealing even at the high tide of the American century, when racism toward brown-skinned peoples was obligatory in almost every cultural expression. And she uplifted Indian people in enduring ways throughout a career that reached from the 1920s, when Indian traditional ceremonies were banned outright, to the termination era and on into the 1970s.

Green summed up her legacy in quick but powerful sentences: ìOf the hundreds of thousands of Americans who saw Te Ata perform live, few left the venue unmoved. She gave dimensions to Native American life and thought that few non-Indians knew about. Only then were some Americans able to develop an appreciation for the immense loss that native people had sustained across the American continent ... Thousands of tribal members, from the Seminole in Florida to the Salish in Washington, were proud that this Chickasaw represented them in such an artistic and honorable manner.î

Te Ata died in 1995, a little more than a month short of 100, rich in days and honors. She had lived to see her induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame; she had lived to see Gov. Bill Anoatubby, whose fervent reverence for her became ìvenerationî as he made her acquaintance, begin to lead a great era of Chickasaw restoration that continues to this day; she had lived to see the stirrings of a Native renaissance on this continent after helping to preserve the very possibility of such a thing. Like many of her ancestors and unregarded Indian contemporaries, she had lived to create beauty.

WASHINGTON ñ Rep. Tom Coleís office is one of the best-appointed on Capitol Hill, but itís not immediately clear why. Colors of earthy red and mahogany with subdued Native accents matter, but it would take an art critic to figure out why. His inner office, where he gives interviews, holds a small number of artworks and historic objects of great interest and beauty, elegantly framed. But itís the same in quite a few congressional offices.The fortunate visitor who gets to wait a few moments for the busy congressmanís time will face a trio of paintings across from the office chair. One, by Chickasaw artist Tom Phillips, commemorates the Chickasaw tribal building on the 100th anniversary of its construction. In the sky behind the building are two figures, one Tishimingo, tribal war chief during the ìremovalî era of the 1830s and afterwards, when Southeast tribes, the Chickasaw among them, were relocated against their will to Indian territory (later Oklahoma). The other figure is a woman. She is Te Ata, also portrayed in two framed portraits beneath the Phillips painting. One of them is a magazine illustration of a romantic Indian princess, a perfect stereotype (Te Ata, the model, didnít like it). The other is a photograph, taken in London in 1930, that is surely on the short list of the most striking women ever committed to film. Te Ata performed as an Indian folklore artist between the two worlds of stereotype and high art, arguably transcending both as a pan-Indian ambassador.More than an artist in the technical term that describes certain preoccupations and temperaments, she had the gift of art ñ something in her culture had awakened it. She was also an aunt of Tom Coleís, and her presence in the family gene pool undoubtedly helps to explain the congressmanís office.But the explanation of what sheís doing in that painting is a longer story, known to almost every Chickasaw. Now Richard Green has told it for everyone in the University of Oklahoma Press publication, ìTe Ata: Chickasaw Storyteller, American Treasure.î Itís a gem of a book, offering a glimpse of full lives and of one privileged life that moved among them as a friend and inspiration. For anyone somewhat familiar with the fine points of Indian life in the last century, Cole signs the book with the last word in review: ìShe believed in our peopleís future when some of us didnít believe in it ourselves.îShe had to believe in herself first. How did that happen with a little girl in a patriarchal setting, a country girl on the cosmopolitan stage, an Indian woman in a white-manís world? Green gathered the documentary record into a smooth narrative of childhood, youth and maturity, offering many insights along the way. A couple of insights stood out. Mary Frances Thompson received two names in early girlhood, sometime after the turn of the 19th century. One, Native words for ìHandsome Woman,î she never used. But Te Ata was supposed to mean ìBearer of the Dawn.î It doesnít mean anything in modern Chickasaw (this probably explains the ambiguity in pronunciation, as Chickasaws who ought to know have been heard to pronounce it TAY-awe-tuh and TEE-awe-tuh). But it must have meant a great deal to the young girl on the Oklahoma plains, for she began to introduce herself by that name in the little skits she put on for her family.Itís an interesting pair of names, one suggesting the beyond-her-years beauty that Te Ata would grow into and master; the other some kind of fiction suggesting a communicable vitality, an enlivening presence.Not too many years later, Te Ata overheard the reading of a Shakespeare sonnet, and again came under the spell of language; when she went to work years later, saving for college, her first paycheck went to a down payment on a volume of Shakespeare. Then, for reasons unknown but likely related to the familyís financial condition, her college plans fell apart. But two years later, she went to college and immediately became the darling of the drama department. One suspects those family skits had given way to Shakespeare improvisations during the two lost years (they would prove significant later).Te Ataís next stop was the Chautauqua movement, the glorified Christian camp-outs that became popular in the 1890s, along with the Boy Scouts and various nature conservation societies, after a famous historian declared the frontier closed. Americans of the time conferred a folkloric nobility on Indians as the living vestige of a virile American past, and Indians who could perform the outdoorsy lore about Indians could make a living at it. The still photographs of her apprenticeship there live up to every stereotype of the ìIndian princess,î but the audiences of the day wouldnít have known or cared that we consider her stereotypical. Te Ata would have been performing, heart and soul, and the crowds would have responded in kind. Significantly, Te Ata was also bringing Indian stories she had heard from her elders into her repertoire and getting a good response ñ a practice on which she would expand. Overall, the experience had to have been invaluable.In transition to the East Coast for more comprehensive dramatic training, Te Ata didnít know so much as how to catch a bus. And for other, familial reasons, she showed up at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh well after admissions had closed. She talked her way into a stage audition and swept into the class with a performance that left no question as to whether a place would be found. She finally made her way, as any dramatic actress of rare powers would have in the 1920s, to New York City. And now those two years taken out of her early career in Oklahoma, probably over a family financial downturn, turned out to be the very thing that saved her for Indian country. After a few years of scrambling for mainstream stage parts, she found herself ever so slightly old for starring roles, according to the theatrical demands of the era. With ìtalkiesî terrorizing the silent film industry, her voice, such an asset on the stage, was found to be a little low-pitched for film. It couldnít have helped her chances that she eschewed couch-casting, the rather unglamorous sexual transactions that helped the careers of quite a few actresses. Here again were character traits that would secure her services for Indian country.Te Ata turned to the role that was working for her, that she seemed to have been born for: the role of an Indian folklore dramatist. As one of the finest among them, Te Ata performed for President Franklin Roosevelt and the first lady (who named a New York lake after her), for the king and queen of England and for countless Americans, making a film and national television before retiring in her 80s. She performed before Indian people who couldnít get service on their own hometown street, a fact that helps to illuminate how much it must have meant for them when Te Ata, a minor celebrity nationally but a major figure in Indian country, walked with them on those streets, then visited them at home and valued their stories and memories. Some of them she continued to incorporate into her repertoire.As an Indian folklore artist, she testified to vestiges of Indianness that white folks found appealing even at the high tide of the American century, when racism toward brown-skinned peoples was obligatory in almost every cultural expression. And she uplifted Indian people in enduring ways throughout a career that reached from the 1920s, when Indian traditional ceremonies were banned outright, to the termination era and on into the 1970s.Green summed up her legacy in quick but powerful sentences: ìOf the hundreds of thousands of Americans who saw Te Ata perform live, few left the venue unmoved. She gave dimensions to Native American life and thought that few non-Indians knew about. Only then were some Americans able to develop an appreciation for the immense loss that native people had sustained across the American continent ... Thousands of tribal members, from the Seminole in Florida to the Salish in Washington, were proud that this Chickasaw represented them in such an artistic and honorable manner.îTe Ata died in 1995, a little more than a month short of 100, rich in days and honors. She had lived to see her induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame; she had lived to see Gov. Bill Anoatubby, whose fervent reverence for her became ìvenerationî as he made her acquaintance, begin to lead a great era of Chickasaw restoration that continues to this day; she had lived to see the stirrings of a Native renaissance on this continent after helping to preserve the very possibility of such a thing. Like many of her ancestors and unregarded Indian contemporaries, she had lived to create beauty.