Mary “Te Ata” Thompson Fisher is a cultural icon for many Native Americans. Te Ata, an enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was a master storyteller and entertainer who took her talent across the globe, singing and dancing for presidents and kings.
One of those instances will be a key moment in a new Bill Murray movie, Hyde Park on Hudson, which was released Dec. 7. The film centers on the historic 1939 meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, King George and Queen Elizabeth of England at FDR’s home in New York. It was during that meeting Te Ata performed for the dignitaries and also represented Native American culture to the world leaders.
Playing Te Ata is an actress with Choctaw and Japanese heritage, Kumiko Konishi.
Before getting the part, Konishi said she wasn’t familiar with Te Ata. However, she soon began to research her and learned she was an important figure not only in Native American culture but to Americans and to women in general.
“What was kind of crazy in not knowing about her was how rounded she was in her accomplishments and as a person,” Konishi said. “In that time, to have such an education and such a worldliness to be able to travel on her own, on her own accord to spread the word and educate people on our culture. I felt there was a beauty inside of her and a regalness. She had an energy that apparently emanated from wherever she went.”
Konishi said from what she later learned about Te Ata, she was a humble person but one who attracted attention to who she was and what she was performing.
“She was one of those people that when she walked into a room, people would turn their heads,” the actress said of Te Ata. “And it’s not just the fact that she was a beautiful woman. She had a presence about her. It was her strength, her poise, her education and her experience in life that emanated from her but in a very humble way, which I thought was really nice to bring to the role.”
In the film, Te Ata is seen dancing for FDR and the English royalty. While there isn’t much film of Te Ata during those days, Konishi said she was able to see one silent movie of Te Ata which she used as inspiration for her performance.
“Because we didn’t have specifics of the type of things she did there, we focused more on the dancing,” she said. “We knew that she often shared dances from different tribes … and that she wore traditional buckskin.”
While Konishi’s part is a small one in the movie, she said she knows there is so much more to Te Ata that today’s audience doesn’t know.
“Hopefully, the film will pique their interest and (they will) ask, ‘Who was this woman?’” she said. “I want people to know there was somebody besides Pocahontas in our culture.”
Konishi said anytime she tells people of her Native American heritage, the first response is that she would make a great Pocahontas.
“So, it is nice to show that there are other historical figures,” she said. “Te Ata was an astounding woman. She did so many things as a person, especially during that time to go against the grain. She was versed in Shakespeare. She was on Broadway. She knew how to take advantage of the skills she had and to focus them on changing the mindset of people back then.”
At that time, Konishi said, most people thought of Native Americans as depicted in western movie and being shown as “the savages who attack the white man.”
“She was trying to change people’s viewpoints through entertainment because that was the only portrayal people were seeing of native people at that time,” she said. “It is important to see that there are other significant people who had a very big influence on our native people.”
Konishi said she believed Te Ata saw this appearance as a great opportunity to tell the story of Native Americans. She had the world stage at that moment and thought since they would be looking at her anyway, she might as well teach them something.
“It was like she wanted to show these people our culture, our dance, our music,” she said.
Starring in the movie are Academy Award nominees Bill Murray and Laura Linney. The story centers on the meeting between the two world leaders. It marked the first visit of a reigning British monarch to America as Britain was facing imminent war with Germany. Seen through the eyes of “Daisy” (Linney), Franklin’s neighbor and intimate, the weekend produced a special relationship between two great nations.
“Even being on the set felt very real,” Konishi said. “It took you back to that era.”
Konoshi said she is very excited for the movie to come out and introduce a new generation to Te Ata — if even briefly.
“It’s a big film and I’ve yet to see it myself, so I am very excited,” she said. “There are some phenomenal actors in this film. It was great to be around them, who are all so well trained. It was a highlight for me as an actor just to be around them.”
For more information about the film and to watch a trailer, visit: http://focusfeatures.com/hyde_park_on_hudson.