Te Ata: Chickasaw Storyteller, Performer & Educator --Women's History Month


Today I am going to share about Te Ata or Mary Frances Thompson Fisher. What an amazing woman who I hadn't heard of until recently. She was a Chickasaw and became a world-renowned storyteller, performer, and educator. At a time when the non-native people saw Native Americans as savages, warriors, etc. (mostly from Wild West Shows and films), she became dedicated to share more of the Native American culture and educate the nation. 

Photo Source: "Te Ata" Fisher | Hall of Fame (

Mary Frances Thompson was born on December 3, 1895, near Emet, Chickasaw Nation near Tishomingo, Oklahoma. Her father was Thomas B. (T.B.) Thompson, the last treasurer of the Chickasaw Nation and operated stores in Tishomingo. Her mother was Lucy Alberta "Bertie" Freund Thompson, who was part Osage. The local community knew her mother for her knowledge of herbal medicine. Mary Frances was one of nine children. Her uncle was Douglas H. Thompson, the last governor of the Chickasaw Nation. Her father refused to teach his children the Chickasaw language but did share the old tales of Chickasaw's oral tradition. 

She attended an Indian Day School near her house and went to an Indian boarding school, Bloomfield Academy, that the Chickasaw had some influence over. At age seven an elderly aunt gave her the name Te Ata, which means "bearer of the dawn." She attended high school in Tishomingo. She encountered white children for the first time. She was encouraged by a teacher, Muriel H. Wright, to continue to collect and share the traditional oral stories. She graduated in 1913. In 1915 she enrolled in the Oklahoma College for Women (now the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma) in Chickasha. She took a loan using her own allotment land as collateral. While there it was apparent, she had a talent for acting. She was encouraged by Francis Densmore Davis, a researcher and writer on Indian Cultures. Davis encouraged her to use Te Ata to reflect her Native American culture. Te Ata was the first Native American to graduate from Oklahoma College for Women. 

Te Ata began to work for the Chautauqua Circuit. She developed her own style and told Native American stories, sang songs and danced. She was usually accompanied by classical piano. She eventually transitioned to using drums, rattles and other traditional instruments instead. While performing with the Circuit she traveled the United States and with each stop would seek out Native Americans to learn their stories and culture to incorporate into her act. With encouragement from Davis, Te Ata went on to study at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1922 she moved to New York City where she performed in Shakespeare plays and Greek tragedies which included a performance on Broadway. She soon developed her one-woman show which she hoped to give her non-Native audiences a better understanding and appreciation for Indian cultures. One of Te Ata's biggest fans was Eleanor Roosevelt. Eleanor repeatedly invited Te Ata to perform at the governor's mansion, while Franklin Delanor Roosevelt was the governor of New York. In 1924 Te Ata was featured on the cover of McCall's Magazine. She was reluctant to wear the make-up and war bonnet provided for her. She did not want to follow along with the stereotypes of Native Americans. However, when she returned home to Durant, Oklahoma, all of the businesses were displaying the cover proudly in their windows. 

Source: 1924 McCall's Magazine Cover ~ Indian American Woman, Vintage Magazine Covers (

In New York Te Ata met Clyde Fisher. He was a scientist at the American Museum of Natural History and the founder of the Hayden Planetarium. They married in 1933. Clyde traveled quite a bit for his work and sometimes Te Ata traveled the world with him and others she stayed home. While they were apart, they wrote each other frequently. The world travel also helped Te Ata connect with indigenous people all over the world and learn their stories.
Te Ata and Clyde Fisher Source: "Te Ata" Fisher | Hall of Fame (

Eleanor Roosevelt invited Te Ata to perform at the White House in 1933. Te Ata had the honor of staying at the White House and slept in the Lincoln Room. She apparently got to choose the room she where she slept out of several rooms and picked the Lincoln Room. She said it was the largest room and largest bed she had ever seen. In 1939 Eleanor Roosevelt asked Te Ata to perform at a picnic held for King George and Queen Elizabeth at the Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park. Te Ata is even featured in the film Hyde Park on the Hudson, about the Roosevelts.

Te Ata traveled South American and extensively in the United States with Clyde. She toured in Europe and performed for monarchies, head of states and more. Her favorite audiences however were children. She loved watching the children learn about Native American culture as well as the enjoyment they have. 

Te Ata at the lake named after her Source: Girl Scout Finds Inspiration in Legendary Entertainer Te Ata - Girl Scout Blog (

She has been honored in many ways including being inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1958. In 1976 she received the Governor's Award in Oklahoma and was named The Ladies' Home Journal Woman of the Year. She became the first person to be named a "State Treasure" in Oklahoma in 1987. Then in 1990 she was also inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. Eleanor Roosevelt also had a lake near Bear Mountain named after Te Ata. Te Ata performed for underprivileged kids at a camp there. The Girl Scouts also named a camp after her in New York. In 1971 her performances were preserved in a film called God's Drum. I have not been able to find a way to watch it though. The proceeds from it, however, have benefited the Te Ata Scholarship fund for Native American students at her alma mater, University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. The university also erected a statue of her. 

Te Ata Statue at University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma Source: She's Tall, Dark, And Beautiful And Standing In Front Of Troutt Hall | The Trend ( 

On October 26, 1995, Te Ata died in Oklahoma City. She was just shy of 100. She had returned to Oklahoma in 1966. She however had continued to perform until 1980. Throughout her life she worked to educate society about the culture of Native Americans as well as advocate for them. She was an amazing woman!! 

Resources & Sources: 

I watched both of these movies and found three of the books (all except the two on the right) at my local library and used all of them as resources for this post. The movies are extremely educational and kid friendly. Although Te Ata is only based on her life and has a few changes from what I can tell. 

You can watch the first film, Bearer of the Morning Documentary Film, for free. The second movie, Te Ata, is available on Netflix or can be rented or purchased through Amazon, Apple and Google Play as well as the Chickasaw Market.

The last book in featured is for adults. You can purchase it through the Chickasaw Press.

Also check out The Chickasaw Nation's Te Ata Curriculum Secondary for free.

Additional Sources: 


  1. Thank you for this wonderful article! I am African-American and a teacher. I watched the Netflix documentary and I was so moved to tears by how inspirational Te'Ata was. I love how God used her to tell the story of Native Americans, what a blessing!

  2. Te Ata had a Special Gifted Spirit


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