Nathan Frankowski’s film “Te Ata,” fully financed by the Chickasaw nation, follows the true story of Broadway actress-turned-storyteller Te Ata, who was born Mary Frances Thompson. In the early 20th century, while Native Americans faced intense oppression and racism, Te Ata became an ambassador of native culture, eventually performing at the White House. She even became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt.

The renowned Chickasaw heroine is played by actress and activist Q’orianka Kilcher, who starred as Pocahontas in “The New World” alongside Colin Farrell at the age of 14. Now 27, Kilcher resides in Los Angeles, where she experiences similar instances of racism and disregard in the entertainment industry as her Native American character, who was also trying to make it in Hollywood 100 years ago.

Q’orianka Kilcher in “Te Ata.” (Marcy Gray/Paladin/Chickasaw Nation Productions)
Q’orianka Kilcher in “Te Ata.” (Marcy Gray/Paladin/Chickasaw Nation Productions)

Dipping into her own personal experience with race, Hollywood and activism, Kilcher gave Te Ata the depth and authenticity the Chickasaw legend deserved. Te Ata’s eponymous film is now in theaters.

Like Te Ata, she grew up biracial

Kilcher’s mom is Swiss-Alaskan, and her father is of Quechua-Huachipaeri descent from Peru. Toeing the line between white and Native American culture is one that both the actress and her character have learned how to do carefully.

“I’m never white enough. And sometimes, I’m never native enough,” says Kilcher.

Her character Te Ata faces overt racism, along with uncomfortable microaggressions at her school, the Oklahoma College for Women (now known as the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma).

She knows what it’s like to be rejected as an actress in Hollywood

Like Te Ata, who attended audition after audition to become a Broadway actress, Kilcher experienced the same kind of discrimination. There’s a scene in the movie that could’ve been pulled directly from Kilcher’s life.

“I really loved the themes of ‘Te Ata.’ When she’s in the audition room and she didn’t even get to open her mouth, and they’re like, ‘Next!’

I’ve experienced things like that before. I’ve literally been kicked out of the room before by this white casting director. He looked and shouted at me, ‘Out, out, out, out, out, out!’ I went out and opened this door to a room full of other actors, and I was so embarrassed.”

She, too, is an altruist and activist for the indigenous people. She even got banned from the White House.

In 2010, Kilcher’s younger brother poured a homemade mixture of non-toxic black paint over her to represent crude oil. Kilcher stood in front of the White House, protesting then-Peruvian president Alan García and his meeting with President Barack Obama, for what Kilcher describes as the “modern-day massacre in [Peru] in 2009.”

Q’orianka Kilcher chained to the White House fence in a June 2, 2010 protest of Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s visit with President Obama. (Courtesy of Carlos A. Quiroz/peruanista.blogspot.com)
Q’orianka Kilcher chained to the White House fence in a June 2, 2010 protest of Peruvian President Alan Garcia’s visit with President Obama. (Courtesy of Carlos A. Quiroz/peruanista.blogspot.com)

Indigenous people in Peru had been protesting García’s decrees that threatened their Amazon-way-of-life when the government retaliated with brutal violence — leaving both protesters and police officers dead.

After her White House demonstration, Kilcher was arrested, thrown in jail and banned from the building.

“I’m glad to say that the one time I have been [arrested], it wasn’t because of drinking or anything like that. It was for standing for something I believed in,” says Kilcher.

Like Te Ata, she’s spreading the stories of her family and friends

When Kilcher first got the script for “Te Ata,” she realized she’d have to come up with her own stories, songs and dances for the shoot. The script would say, “Te Ata tells a story,” but there wouldn’t be actual content there for her to act out.

Mackenzie Astin and Q’orianka Kilcher in “Te Ata.” (Marcy Gray/Paladin/Chickasaw Nation Productions)
Mackenzie Astin and Q’orianka Kilcher in “Te Ata.” (Marcy Gray/Paladin/Chickasaw Nation Productions)

So Kilcher choreographed dances from stories she collected. People like her great uncle and from the Navajo reservation gave her these pieces of history to pass on, just like Te Ata passed on the stories of other tribes.

“She was breaking down the cultural barriers and sharing traditional stories and knowledge at a time when native culture was being oppressed,” says Kilcher. “They were told they weren’t allowed to do their traditional dances. She found, very smartly, through art, a theatrical, beautiful way to still share the story, still share that knowledge, wrap it in a different candy wrapper so people could digest it at the time, and not know that they were necessarily eating their vegetables.”

She believes in the power of art

Kilcher, like Te Ata, is an ambassador of the creative arts, and she’s using it as a platform.

“I think of what Te Ata once wrote, ‘Art binds and connects us all.’ I really believe that. Also, in the film, she says she doesn’t see being Native American as a crutch. She sees it as an advantage, and I think that’s an important message, especially today.”

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