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Star-Watching on Set of 'Te Ata' in Oklahoma City

ICTMN visits the set of Te Ata, where Q'orianka Kilcher, Graham Greene, and Gil Birmingham are filming the life story of a Chickasaw icon.

Films such as Smoke Signals and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner set major milestones for Native acting, writing and directing. They are examples of a common theme that is repeated in magazine and newspaper interviews of Native artists—the need for Native people to tell their own stories.

However, there has been one area of Native filmmaking that has seen limited growth. This would be the role of executive producer, providing complete funding or securing funding from private investors. Yet, for the Chickasaw Nation, they are gaining a high level of experience in the creation of their own stories. Their first film production, Pearl, debuted in 2009, and told the story of Chickasaw aviation pioneer Pearl Carter Scott.

Chairs for the stars on the set of Te Ata. Photo by Brian Daffron.

Currently, the Chickasaw Nation is finishing production on bringing a larger-than-life figure to the silver screen with Te Ata. The movie is based on Te Ata Thompson Fisher (1895-1995), a Chickasaw storyteller and dancer whose performances ranged from the Chautauqua shows to the White House and whose stories took her all over the world. Her legacy of service continues through one of her nephews, Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole.

RELATED:All-Star Native Cast Begins Filming Te Ata: Greene, Kilcher, Birmingham

Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with the Te Ata production while they were shooting train depot scenes at the Oklahoma Railway Museum in Oklahoma City on September 23. Extras in 1930’s period clothes blended with the crew, who wore black t-shirts that simply said “Te Ata.” Racks filled with vintage luggage stayed out of camera shot. Smoke machines added to the atmosphere, creating the illusion of a Tishomingo, Okla. train stop.

Actor Mackenzie Astin on the set of Te Ata. Photo by Brian Daffron.

In between takes, the cast for the movie could be seen visiting with the crew and other visitors. Q’orianka Kilcher, who plays Te Ata, had her make-up reapplied between takes. Mackenzie Astin, playing the role of Te Ata’s husband, Dr. Clyde Fisher, drank a can of Mountain Dew out of camera shot while dressed in his brown suit and hat.

The director, Nathan Frankowski of the Ben Stein documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, asked for several takes for the train scenes. Some of them were as simple as Te Ata saying “Hi Momma.” Other scenes were between the characters of Fisher and Te Ata. Other retakes were to keep anachronisms such as cell phone towers and planes flying overhead out of the film. Orders such as “Background” to cue the movement of extras preceded “Action.”

Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby talks with actor Graham Greene on the set of Te Ata. Photo by Brian Daffron.

With locations throughout Oklahoma such as the original Chickasaw Nation capital of Tishomingo, the Oklahoma Railway Museum and the Masonic Temple in Guthrie, it is definitely much more of Oklahoma than Graham Greene saw with his first trip to the state.

“I was here 40 years ago, but I drove through at night,” Greene said. “I didn’t see a whole lot.”

Greene is cast as Chickasaw Nation’s Governor Douglass Johnston, an uncle of Te Ata.

“The description I got from him--he was a quiet, soft-spoken man,” said Greene. “But don’t get in his way. He’s determined. He will get what he is after. That’s the way I approached it. I hope I do it justice.”

Greene said he draws upon much of his own experiences for the role, which include dealing with prejudice and bringing attention to civil rights issues.

“I’ve had my civil rights violated,” said Greene. “So have the Chickasaw people. It’s the biggest violation I can think of on the North American continent—thrown off your land and made to walk to your new home.”

Mackenzie Astin and Q'orianka Kilcher weave among members of the crew on the set of Te Ata.

The cast’s resume is overall quite impressive. Greene’s Oscar nomination, Kilcher’s critically acclaimed performance in The New World, and the recognition of Gil Birmingham through his role in the Twilight franchise are well known. Astin is also recognized not only for his work but also as a second-generation actor, being the son of John Astin and Patty Duke.

However, all of these actors showed respect when one particular man paid a visit to them—Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby. The governor had a chance to share information about Te Ata and her significance with these Indigenous stars.

“She did such a great job of putting us—all of us—in a very positive light,” Anoatubby said.

Now, the Chickasaw Nation gets to return that Light to Te Ata.