The Chautauqua movement

Traveling performances facilitate Te Ata’s growing fame in the early 20th century

The movement in entertainment and education known as Chautauqua began as Methodist camp meetings near Lake Chautauqua of western New York in 1874. These early meetings offered training to Sunday school teachers but would soon turn into a broader source of entertainment and education [1].

As the phenomenon became a national movement, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) was formed in 1878. In Oklahoma’s territorial period, the towns of Guthrie, Clarkson, Enid and others formed their own CLSC organizations as a form of self-improvement and education [1].

A national circuit formed for events that were known as “Chautauquas.” The most common use of the term applied to a traveling circuit following the paths of railroads to offer performances in small rural communities. These traveling shows were prevalent in Oklahoma by 1910 to 1912 [1]. The circuit Chautauquas sought to offer challenging, informational and inspirational stimulation to rural and small-town America [2]

Leaders of the time spoke fondly of Chautauquas. Theodore Roosevelt called it “the most American thing in America,” and Woodrow Wilson described it as “an integral part of the national defense” during World War I. It represented a chance for communities to gather for three to seven days and enjoy lectures and performances [2].

Chautauqua events in Oklahoma often included speeches from religious and political figures, musical performances, theatrical productions, magicians and oddities such as the Australian Bird Circus. Attending orators tackled issues such as prohibition, women’s rights and labor rights [1].

Across the country, audiences witnessed classic plays and Broadway hits, heard a variety of music, some saw their first movies. Overall, Chautauquas were a stimulating way to learn about and explore the important political, social and cultural issues of the day [2].

A Chautauqua “Golden Jubilee” in 1924 represents the movement’s height of popularity, attended by 35 million people. The onset of radio, motion pictures and automobiles lessened attendance. The last tent Chautauqua show was hosted sometime during the Great Depression [1].

At the turn of the 21st century, Chautauquas sponsored by local arts and humanities councils boosted popularity – primarily through the work of scholars who portrayed historical figures [1].

In modern Oklahoma, Chautauqua events are planned for summers. Historical figures such as Will Rogers, Amelia Earhart and Stonewall Jackson make appearances by way of reenactments from nationally known actors and scholars. Each Chautauqua event includes five characters, workshops and evening performances. Themes have included “A time for every purpose: America in the 1960s” and “Lincoln’s legacy of equality: Voices on the fringe” [3].

Te Ata’s involvement with Chautauqua

Chickasaw storyteller and Oklahoma Hall of Fame recipient Mary Frances “Te Ata” Thompson Fisher (1895-1995) was directly involved with the Chautauqua circuit. Her performances at events bolstered her growth into a First American performative educator known worldwide.

Curriculum produced by the Chickasaw Nation explains, “After college, Te Ata joined the Chautauqua circuit and traveled for several summers with fellow entertainers to provide arts education to rural areas of the country. Many people she performed in front of had never even seen a First American person before, and Te Ata loved sharing her stories with them. She especially enjoyed sharing her stories with the children” [4].

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, Te Ata worked on a Chautauqua circuit managed out of St. Louis. The circuit gave her an opportunity to develop her style of storytelling using various First American sources [5].

“Her readings, storytelling, and dance were often accompanied by classical and other music played on piano. She eventually also used small drums, rattles, and other common, traditional instruments,” Rodger Harris writes for the Oklahoma Historical Society.

U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who was a fan of Chautauqua shows, hosted Te Ata at his first state dinner in 1933. She would go on to entertain the Roosevelts again at their home in Hyde Park, New York, during a visit from the king and queen of Great Britain.

Te Ata, whose name means “Bearer of the Morning,” was born Dec. 3, 1895, near Emet, Oklahoma. She received her early education in Tishomingo, and eventually went to the Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha. While there, it was evident Te Ata had a natural talent for drama [5].

Her career as an actor and storyteller spanned more than 60 years. She worked as a storyteller to finance her acting career. She would tell Chickasaw legends, myths and chants in First American regalia.

Te Ata’s world-renown talent won her several honors including being named The Ladies’ Home Journal Woman of the Year in 1976, being named Oklahoma's Official State Cultural Treasure in 1987, being inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 1990 and having a lake near Bear Mountain in New York named in her honor [6].

[1] Linda D Wilson, "Oklahoma Historical Society," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 11 2021].

[2] Charlotte Canning, "The University of Iowa Libraries," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 11 2021].

[3] "Travel Oklahoma," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 11 2021].

[4] "The Chickasaw Nation," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 11 2021].

[5] Rodger Harris, "Oklahoma Historical Society," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 11 2021].

[6] "Chickasaw Hall Of Fame," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 16 11 2021].