USAO News Bureau

Te Ata [A.K.A. Mary (Thompson) Fisher)

Thursday, October 26, 1995

 

Just days before her 100th birthday, Oklahoma's most famous Native American storyteller, known simply as "Te Ata", died Oct. 26, 1995, in Oklahoma City.

 

A memorial service is scheduled at 2 p.m. Saturday at Guardian West Funeral Home in Oklahoma City.

Few Oklahomans have garnered as much attention around the world as Te Ata, recognized for a lifetime of achievement by governors, presidents, kings and her alma mater, the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.

 

She was born Mary Thompson and raised in Tishomingo, the daughter of a treasurer of the Chickasaw tribe, niece of a tribal governor. She attended Indian schools until she enrolled at the Oklahoma College for Women, now USAO. After graduation, she took her drama degree to New York and appeared on the New York stage.

 

But her unique persona was born when she left traditional theater and crafted a one-woman show to illustrate and teach Indian culture. Dressed in buckskin costumes with authentic props and acting out various roles, the striking and elegant actress presented well researched and sensitively interpreted legends, songs and history of Indian tribes. She joined the vaudeville and Chautauqua circuits, appearing on educational and entertainment programs which included, at that time, the oratory of William Jennings Bryant.

 

Te Ata was named as the first “Oklahoma Treasure” in September 1987 by Gov. Henry Bellmon. The award was created “in recognition of people resources, bestowed on individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the state,” reported the State Arts Council, which developed the award.

 

She was named to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame on Statehood Day 1958.

 

She was named in 1972 to the Alumni Hall of Fame at her alma mater (now USAO).

 

She was honored in 1976 by the State Arts Council with special recognition for her lifelong contributions to the arts in Oklahoma

“Te Ata” is a Chickasaw Indian name which means “bearer of the morning.” This name captures the bright and hopeful character of her storytelling, described as “breathtaking,” “majestic” and “full of grace” by reviewers in The New York Times, the Daily Oklahoman and dozens of other media.

 

Te Ata has performed across the United States, Canada and Europe sharing stories of many American Indian tribes. She performed several times before European royalty and was a frequent guest of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. It was in her honor that the Roosevelts named “Lake Te Ata” in upstate New York. She was selected to entertain an audience including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England when they visited Hyde Park, New York.

 

A 1919 graduate of the Oklahoma College for Women (now USAO) in Chickasha, Te Ata followed a dream to New York where she won roles in Shakespearean and Greek dramas. She appeared on Broadway in “Trojan Women” and in many other theatrical productions elsewhere.

“Art binds all people together,” she wrote.

 

After college, she continued her education in theater at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pa; and studied ethnology at Columbia University in New York.

 

Te Ata was born Mary Thompson near the old Chickasaw capitol town of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, on Dec. 3, 1895. She celebrated her 99th birthday on Dec. 3, 1994, with a crowd of friends and family, including her niece, Sen. Helen Cole, whose middle name is Te Ata.

Her life is the subject of one film and three books. The film, which earned state awards for art design and direction, was first developed in 1973 by Oklahoma's best known director, Shawnee Brittan. It was dramatically updated in 1995 with new footage and enhanced imagery, made possible by new technology.

 

In recent years, a series of colorful children’s books has been produced retelling Te Ata’s favorite stories in a format suitable for small children.