Published April 24, 2016
ADA, OKLAHOMA – April 22 marked the 83rd anniversary of the first White House performance by the Chickasaw storyteller Te Ata.
Te Ata performed at the first State Dinner of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency on April 22, 1933. As a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Te Ata was a guest at the dinner honoring British Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald. After dinner Te Ata changed from her evening gown into a white buckskin dress for a 30-minute performance.
This was an early highlight of a career which spanned six decades as Te Ata earned international fame presenting a unique one woman show of American Indian heritage and culture to audiences across the United States, Canada and Europe.
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said that Te Ata was a “remarkable talent.”
“Te Ata touched lives worldwide as she showcased Native American culture and traditions,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “She once wrote that art binds all people together. Her career bears testimony to the truth of that noble idea. She was a great ambassador for Chickasaw people and for all Native Americans.
“Her life’s work helped bridge the divide between diverse cultures. She is a shining example of the power of artistic expression to change hearts and minds.”
Te Ata performed a second time for President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor in 1939 at the family home in Hyde Park. On this occasion, which was the first time a sitting British Monarch visited the United States, she also performed for King George and Queen Elizabeth. There, Te Ata had the opportunity to speak at some length with the queen about the preservation of Indian culture.
Quite an accomplishment for a girl who was born in the tiny town of Emet in the Chickasaw Nation a dozen years before Oklahoma was carved out of Indian Territory. While her birth name was Mary Thompson, she was given the name Te Ata, which means “bearer of the morning,” by an elderly aunt.
Te Ata first learned of the beauty and wisdom of Indian culture from her father, Thomas, who told her a variety of Indian stories, and her mother, Bertie, who taught her about useful and medicinal plants.
A fairly ordinary student at Bloomfield Academy for Chickasaw Females, Te Ata felt the need to find some area where she could excel. A Tishomingo High School teacher, Muriel Wright, daughter of Choctaw Chief Allen Wright, provided a role model of a successful Indian woman and inspired Te Ata to continue her education.
While it was unusual at that time for a Native American female, or any female, to attend college, Te Ata gained reluctant support from her father to attend the Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha.
Francis Dinsmore Davis, a drama and expression teacher at OCW recognized Te Ata’s talent and encouraged her to strive for a career in the theater.
After earning her degree in drama, Te Ata continued her training at the prestigious Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Te Ata later moved to New York, where she appeared in several Broadway productions. Upon first arriving in New York, Te Ata stayed at the Three Arts Club, a boarding house for aspiring actresses.
It was there she first met Eleanor Roosevelt, who was one of the wealthy “housemothers” who engaged the actresses for private performances at their homes. Many of Te Ata’s performances in the early 1930s were in summer camps for inner-city children.
In 1932, Mrs. Roosevelt, then First Lady of New York, named Lake Te Ata in honor of the performer who had given her time to educate and enlighten the children of New York.
Te Ata continued performing across the U.S. for decades.
Inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1957 and the Chickasaw Nation Hall of Fame in 1990, Te Ata was awarded the Oklahoma Governor’s Arts Award in 1975 and declared Oklahoma’s first “State Treasure” in 1987.
A feature film about Te Ata produced by the Chickasaw Nation was accepted into competition at the Bentonville Film Festival.