LAKSHMI SINGH, HOST:
The film "Te Ata" tells the true story of Mary Thompson Fisher, who is considered one of the greatest Native American performers. And it was produced by the Chickasaw Nation, which started a film production arm to tell its own stories, as Graham Lee Brewer reports.
GRAHAM LEE BREWER, BYLINE: The film "Te Ata" begins when Mary Thompson Fisher was a little girl growing up in pre-statehood Oklahoma, before she took the stage name Te Ata and traveled the world telling the stories of native peoples. Screenwriter Jeannie Barbour recalled that shortly after joining the Chickasaw Nation's multimedia department, she met Te Ata just before her death in 1995 at the age of 99.
JEANNIE BARBOUR: She was just an elegant lady. Even at her advanced age, she was just beautiful. And she was decked out in this wonderful Seminole skirt. And she had a little crown in her hair. And she just commanded the room.
BREWER: For Barbour, who is Chickasaw, the chance to bring the story of one of her people's greatest figures, as well as a personal hero of hers, to the big screen was exciting. It also gave her an opportunity to push back against the stereotype of indigenous peoples in Hollywood she and many Native Americans have long despised.
BARBOUR: It is frustrating to see those stereotypes continue even today when we know that they are wrong yet Hollywood continues to perpetuate.
BREWER: Gil Birmingham, a Comanche actor who has been in such films as "Twilight" and "The Lone Ranger," played Te Ata's father in the film. For Birmingham, working on a film written and produced by the very tribe it portrays was a gratifying experience.
GIL BIRMINGHAM: Hollywood will take its licenses with characters and storylines, but it's so much more encouraging and inspiring to hear the stories told from a tribe that originated the stories from the beginning.
BREWER: Director Nathan Frankowski, who is also directing the tribe's next film, "The Chickasaw Rancher," said the story of "Te Ata" itself is relevant to the current discussion about native representation in popular culture. He pointed specifically to a scene in which Te Ata, played by Q'orianka Kilcher, enters a movie theater in 1920s New York and sees a cartoon depicting Native Americans as savage brutes.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TE ATA")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) (Unintelligible)
NATHAN FRANKOWSKI: Here she is trying to present Native American culture, and yet, it's just thrown in her face what people think of Native Americans. And so she comes head-to-head with our culture. So she had to take the reins and redefine what a Native American person is.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TE ATA")
Q'ORIANKA KILCHER: (As Te Ata Thompson Fisher) That's how they see me?
BREWER: It's then, with the help of her soon-to-be-husband, Clyde Fisher, Te Ata decided to leave traditional stage acting and begin telling the stories of native peoples. That scene has resonated with audiences, particularly Native Americans. Vicky Gold, a Chickasaw, said seeing not just a Native American but a Native American woman accurately represented in a lead role showed her there are new possibilities for native peoples in popular culture.
VICKY GOLD: Just being a woman and Chickasaw Native American, to me, that meant a lot because the Chickasaw Nation got to tell the story their way. It wasn't the old cowboy-and-Indian way. It was our story. We, the Chickasaws, Native Americans, we are Broadway performers. We are actors. We are doctors. We are lawyers. We're not just an Indian in a movie like you see with the head dress. We're just like you.
BREWER: "Te Ata" opened in theaters last week. And the Chickasaw Nation is working on two more films about the tribe's history, including one about its involvement in the French and Indian Wars. For NPR News, I'm Graham Lee Brewer in Norman, Okla.
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