Mary Frances “Te Ata” Thompson Fisher
Best known by her stage name “Te Ata” (Bearer of the Morning) , Mary Frances Thompson was a famed actor, storyteller and author. She was a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. For more than 70 years, she entertained royalty, heads of state, acted on Broadway, toured America and Europe and entertained Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt when he was New York Governor and later U.S. President .
Born Dec. 3, 1895, in Emet, Indian Territory, to T.B. and Bertie (nee’ Freund) Thompson, she attended schools in Tishomingo and later Bloomfield Academy, a Chickasaw boarding school for women. She graduated Tishomingo public schools as salutatorian . “Te Ata” received her stage name from an elderly aunt – likely Mary Harkins .
Tishomingo drama instructor Muriel Wright  was a major influence on “Te Ata,” encouraging her to embrace her First American heritage through storytelling and acting. When enrolled at the Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha, Oklahoma in 1915, drama instructor Francis Davis recognized and encouraged “Te Ata” to continue her performances of First American storytelling and acting. Davis was instrumental in securing “Te Ata’s” participation in traveling Chautauqua circuits and her continued education at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania .
Upon completing her education at Carnegie Institute, she moved to New York City and performed in several Broadway productions; accepted an invitation to perform for Governor and Mrs. Roosevelt in the New York statehouse; and began perfecting her one-person performances of First American songs and stories from tribes throughout the nation. In 1939, she entertained Britain’s King George and Queen Elizabeth at the first state dinner hosted by the Roosevelts in their Hyde Park home. The king and queen invited her to perform in England. She also toured Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Peru, Guatemala, Canada and Mexico, entertaining royalty and audiences on her ventures .
Photo courtesy of the Chickasaw Council House Museum
“Te Ata” married famed astronomer Dr. Clyde Fisher on Sept. 28, 1933, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Fisher was instrumental in developing the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. When it opened in 1935, Fisher was curator for the planetarium and the American Museum of Natural History Department of Astronomy. After retiring in 1941, Fisher and “Te Ata” traveled the world. "Te Ata” toured Europe, giving performances for royal families and heads of state. The Fishers traveled in South America and extensively in the United States, often observing First American ceremonies and learning different traditions. “Te Ata” incorporated these experiences in performances later in her storytelling. In 1949, Fisher died in New York City .
“Te Ata” was honored as the state of Oklahoma’s first “State Treasure” in 1987. Additionally, in 1958, “Te Ata” was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, and in 1976, she received the Governor's Award from Henry Bellmon and was named “Woman of the Year” by “The Ladies’ Home Journal.” Her performances are preserved in a film, “God’s Drum” (circa 1971), and on a video recording of a storytelling festival sponsored by the Oklahoma City Arts Council. She was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 1990 .
Chickasaw playwright Judy Lee Oliva wrote a play based on her life entitled “Te Ata,” which won the Five Civilized Tribes' Best American Indian Musical Award in 2000. It premiered at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (formerly Oklahoma College for Women) in 2006 and was performed at the Smithsonian Institution in 2012. In 2012, “Te Ata” was portrayed by actress Kumiko Konishi in the film “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which centered on the 1939 meeting of the Roosevelts and England’s royalty. In the film, “Te Ata” performs for the king and queen as she did in 1939 .
Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society
Her alma mater presented "Te Ata” with multiple honors. In 1972, she became the first inductee into the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma (USAO) Hall of Fame. In 2006, USAO renamed its auditorium in Trout Hall "Te Ata Memorial Auditorium." In 2014, she was honored with the dedication of a statue in her likeness at the center of the campus.
“Te Ata” died in Oklahoma City in 1995 at age 99 .
Video courtesy of the Chickasaw Nation
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