Te Ata | Movie Review

The recognizable mainstream imagery associated with indigenous peoples is frequently disrespectful or hollow; if they’re represented at all.

Lampooning the rituals, and culture is such deeply ingrained part of American culture, people don’t register that the constant appropriation is the legacy of deliberate attempts to stifle and suffocate an entire nation of people unto death.

Te Ata is based on the true story of a Native American Icon, Mary Thompson Fisher. Born in 1895 in the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), her life story is the journey of the Chickasaw people. This film folds the trails and tribulations faced by Native American’s at the turn of the century in a country intent on forced assimilation and voracious land expansions into “Indian Territory” into the life story of a young inquisitive girl who grows into one of the preeminent storytellers of natively myths and legends in the world.

Her story is told against a backdrop as beautiful as the simplistic and straightforward style employed by the director to drive the narrative forward through the stages of her life. Mary Thompson is a child of change at a time when the world would see the tribal spirit snuffed out completely. She is a highly intelligent girl who adventures away from the safety of home – much to her more cautious father’s dismay – to seek higher education. This film follows her from the relative safety of her life on the reserve and into the white man’s world. As she encounters unexpected allies, discovers her strengths and embraces her calling, the world changes around her and very little of it is good for her people.

Te Ata is the tale of one woman’s decision to become the voice of her people and share their stories with the world. Her choice was not without risk or danger because singing native stories or performing their dances were considered crimes in the US. This movie is shot in such a fashion that it lends clarity to her bright-eyed view of the world and cast light (and shadows) at a time when open fields, waterways, and forests held a meaning deeper than merely being land just something to own. The film refers to the negative treatment and plight of native people in America more by inference than as an active part of the story I think more screen time should’ve been given to the political flux and hostile forces working against people like Te Ata because sometimes, using inference isn’t enough to get through to the deliberately oblivious. But despite the choice, to step lightly around these topics in the movie, these themes are subtly prevalent in how the film handles the passage of time and the progression of her life in the white world. 

This movie is shot in such a fashion that it lends itself to her clear-eyed view of a world at a time when open fields, waterways, and forests held a meaning deeper than merely being land just something to own. The script doesn’t take advantage of what are clearly important events in the greater world beyond the specifics of Te Ata’s life but overall, you walk away with an idea of some of the conflict occurring in the background without it shifting the focus from her.

It’s a compelling look at the life of a figure from this country’s past that shouldn’t be forgotten. The 1900s come to life in the hands of this cast as they throw their weight behind the marvelous Q’orianka Kilcher as she infuses her portrayal of Te Ata with grace and dignity. How she triumphed over adversity and persevered to make her dreams come true is truly inspiring. Seeing threads of history from the perspective of the “conquered” was highly educational in a way just reading dry facts about the Trail of Tears could never be.

I feel like this is more a tribute than a true biopic and as a tribute, it does a stellar job. I hope it leads to more in-depth depictions of her life and stories of more hidden figures like her.

Te Ata is currently playing in select cities. You can check here to see if Te Ata is screening in your area. If it is, it’s worth a trip to the theater.