CHICKASHA, Okla. – “Ho! I have said it!” is how Te Ata closed her stories after each performance. Although it’s been more than 10 years since the passing of Mary Te Ata Thompson Fisher, Chickasaw storyteller and Oklahoma’s first designated state treasure, the audience for the Aug. 5 opening of JudyLee Oliva’s “Te Ata” heard the storyteller speak once again.
Everything about the production reflected Te Ata’s life experience. Upon entering the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma’s Trout Hall – home of the newly dedicated Te Ata Memorial Auditorium – family photos from Te Ata’s life were on display, as well as pictures of cast members juxtaposed with photos of the actual people the cast members would portray on stage.
The stage is a combination of elements from the natural and manmade worlds, with trees and brick joining together, reflecting Te Ata’s struggles to place the Native and white worlds in balance. Included in the set design was a backdrop of a ground-level view of skyscrapers for the New York and Pittsburgh, Pa., settings and a backdrop of constellations for the closing scene, reflected in part by Te Ata’s marriage to Clyde Fisher, curator of New York’s Hayden Planetarium.
Te Ata’s story is told through the elder Te Ata, played by Sac and Fox storyteller Donna Couteau Brooks, reflecting back upon her younger days as portrayed by Cherokee DeLanna Studi. In addition to the acting, much of the progression of the play is told through song and dance and through the actual letters of Te Ata.
Her inner struggles are what give the story much of its depth as well, where the audience learns that Te Ata was not with her father upon his death, and that she said upon entering graduate school at Pittsburgh Carnegie Tech: “I don’t belong here.”
Another source of Te Ata’s struggles had to do with her desire to perform Native storytelling to audiences, such as those at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state, who didn’t always see Native people as human beings. Posters hung up during these scenes reflected this attitude, such as one entitled, “Authentic Injun Storyteller Te Ata.” According to production notes in the program, Te Ata would sometimes use broken English in performances and would refer to herself in terms such as “Indian princess” in jest among her husband and friends.
However, it was in the Chautauqua scenes where Studi as Te Ata would tell stories that would, in a sense, make jabs at this kind of thinking, giving renditions of Chickasaw stories such as “Why Owl Don’t Like Rabbit” and “How White Man Came to Be.” These were the stories that the “Te Ata” opening audience appeared to enjoy the best. “I did not preach to them,” the character of the elder Te Ata said. “I told them their stories.”
The mostly-filled house present for the opening included members of Te Ata’s extended family and Chickasaw Nation dignitaries such as Gov. Bill Anoatubby and the three Chickasaw Nation princesses dressed in regalia.
“I think it was wonderful,” said Anoatubby. “We’ve been waiting, and it was everything I hoped for it to be. The actors seemed so well suited for what they were doing. Knowing the life of Te Ata, knowing what it meant to everybody, especially the people in the audience – it was a dream come true.”
Also in attendance was Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. Although “Te Ata” is the first of Oklahoma’s official centennial events, Cole’s attendance as both a congressman and Chickasaw tribal member was much more than official – it was also highly personal, as Cole grew up with “Aunt Te Ata” as the family matriarch.
For Cole, the play “was exactly would have wanted,” he said. “She would have wanted her story told artistically. It was beautifully done, it was well acted, and it was wonderfully written. For me, I remember her telling me the stories. I remember ‘The Owl and the Rabbit.’ A lot of memories floated back. It was very powerful.”
One person who enjoyed Te Ata’s story of living in two different worlds was Marcelene Mahsetky Rogers, Comanche, who attended with her family.
“I just felt like a lot of things that she said, we can relate,” she said. “It’s like you’re living two lives, like you’re living in the Indian world and you have our traditions, and then you’re trying to succeed in the white man’s world. You remember all these things you were taught, and it never goes away. You just try to incorporate them into modern times that we don’t ever let our traditions slip away.”
<b>Congressman talks about ‘Aunt Te Ata’</b>
Many people throughout her nearly 100 years knew Te Ata as a storyteller and performance artist. But to Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., she was simply “Aunt Te Ata,” with that title of respect remaining from his childhood through adulthood.
“That’s what I called her as an adult,” he said, “when it wasn’t ‘yes, ma’am.’”
Cole further elaborated that she was the individual who held their extended family together and encouraged all members of her family to succeed in life.
“She was, in a personal sense, the great matriarch of our family,” he said. “She was the one who was not only successful, but never forgot the rest of us. She was always helpful. If anybody could get to college, she was going to make sure they had a way to get it paid for. She was that person who raised us all up to her level and never made you feel like she was doing it when she did.”
For Cole, Te Ata is one of Native America’s greatest heroes because she embraced Native heritage at a time when non-Indian America saw Native culture as vanishing.
“She resented people that saw Indians as a vanishing race or as something of the past,” he said. “She thought they had a very rich and diverse cultural history, but she thought it was a culture that could speak to everybody at all times. She always thought in terms of the future as much as the past in terms of providing opportunities, hope and vision for Indian people.”
During her lifetime, Te Ata traveled and performed all over the globe, including both Europe and South America. She was also widely honored and accepted as one of Oklahoma’s greatest ambassadors in her lifetime, being inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1957, as well as the first inductee into the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma Alumni Hall of Fame in 1972. In 1987, the Oklahoma Arts Council selected her as the first official Oklahoma State Treasure. Four years before her death in 1995, she became the third person inducted into the Chickasaw Nation Hall of Fame. NBC’s “Today” show also chose Te Ata to be its focus interview for the Oklahoma segment of their U.S. bicentennial coverage in 1976.
According to Cole, Te Ata could have lived anywhere in the world upon retiring, but chose to return to Oklahoma, her cultural and spiritual center. Upon her passing, Cole’s mother and cousin scattered her ashes by the banks of Pennington Creek so that she could always be close to her childhood home of Emet, near the old Chickasaw Nation capital of Tishomingo.
Te Ata’s life and legacy continue to inspire her extended family, including Cole himself. Prior to the opening of “Te Ata,” Cole attended a Te Ata family reunion held in their honor on the USAO campus in Chickasha.
“We all still live in her reflective glory,” Cole said, “and we don’t have any doubt about it. She brings us together in death, honestly, just as much as when she was alive.”