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Q’orianka Kilcher

“TE ATA” My rating: B 

105 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

Knowing that it was made by Chickasaw Nations Productions and follows the life of a famous Native American storyteller, one might be excused for avoiding “Te Ata” as an earnest endeavor of the sort to make a cynic’s skin crawl.

In truth, this modestly-budgeted, high-impact true story is inspirational in most of the right ways.  A few so-so performances and a couple of clunky moments cannot blunt its emotional power.

The subject is Mary Frances Th0mpson (1895-1995), born in Indian Territory (eventually to become Oklahoma) to a Chickasaw father (Gil Birmingham) and a mother (Brigid Brannagh)  of German descent.

Raised in a thoroughly Anglicized environment — her uncle (Graham Greene) was governor of the territory and, later, the state —  young Mary Frances was only tangentially aware of her tribal culture, thanks mostly to her father’s retelling of traditional fables.

As a young woman Mary Frances (Q’orianka Kilcher) became the first Native American to attend the Oklahoma College for Women, where a drama instructor (Cindy Pickett) encouraged her to forego the usual recitations from Shakespeare in favor of  the girl’s own rich cultural heritage.

This led to a stint on the chautauqua circuit, where she adopted the stage name Te Ata (Bearer of the Dawn) and donned a traditional buckskin costume for performances that embraced native dances, song and storytelling.

After further studies at Carnegie-Mellon, and a brief and unfulfilling career as a Broadway actress, Mary Frances/Te Ata turned once again to tribal storytelling. Eventually she would become a household name and a visitor to Franklin Roosevelt’s White House.

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