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