SIDNEY — Representatives of the Chickasaw Nation, of Ada, Oklahoma, were in Sidney, Friday, to collect information for a documentary film.
Rick Thompson, senior producer for Chickasaw Nation Multimedia, and Jason Alexander visited the Ross Historical Center and interviewed local historian Rich Wallace on camera about George Clyde Fisher, a Sidney native who married a Chickasaw woman, Te Ata, the subject of the documentary.
Tilda Phlipot, director of the Shelby County Historical Society which operates the Ross Center, said it’s not unusual to see people from so far away.
“People come all the time from all over the world searching for their roots,” she said. “But it’s unusual for a group making a documentary to come to Shelby County.”
Jeannie Barbour, creative development director of the Chickasaw Nation and content supervisor of the film, and Tony Choate, executive officer of media relations for the Chickasaw Nation, talked with the Sidney Daily News by phone from Oklahoma about the project.
“What we’ve been working on since before 2012 — we have decided to create full-length motion pictures for entertainment and documentaries for education,” Barbour said. An entertainment movie about Te Ata is in the post-production stage. The documentary is being researched and filmed.
“We were very excited to hear that you all have a museum that has information about (Clyde Fisher),” she said.
Te Ata was born Mary Frances Thompson in 1895 in Emet, Indian Territory. Oklahoma had not yet become a state. She graduated from high school in Tishomingo and from the Oklahoma College for Women in 1919 with a theater degree. After a year of additional schooling at Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and studies in New York City, she hoped for a Broadway career.
Fisher, 17 years her senior, was born in Sidney in 1878. He attended Orange Township Schools and studied for three summer terms at Ohio Normal University, which became Ohio Northern University. He earned his Bachelor of Science in botany from Miami University in 1905 and his Doctor of Philosophy in botany from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1913.
Fisher began to teach in the Orange Township Schools when he was 16. He also taught in the Troy City Schools.
“He married Bessie Wiley, from Sidney, in 1905,” said Jane Bailey, Ross Center curator. “He had taught her in 1898. He taught her and his sister.” Before going to graduate school, the Fishers moved to Florida, where Clyde served as principal and later acting president of Palmer College Academy in DeFunick Springs.
Eventually, the couple moved to New York.
“In 1913, he was on the scientific staff of the American Museum of Natural History. He was an expert nature photographer,” Bailey said.
Clyde and Bessie had three daughters, Ruth Anna, Beth Eleanor and Katherine. But the couple divorced sometime after 1925 and it was during his tenure at the natural history museum that he met Te Ata.
Thompson had appeared in several Broadway plays but she made a name for herself by performing and lecturing about Native American culture. She called herself Te Ata.
“From a very early age, she was exposed to a lot of different Chickasaw stories and folklore,” Barbour said. “She went on the Chatauqua circuit and learned more stories on the road from other tribes. So she had a huge repertoire of Native American lore. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was hugely popular to see Native Americans. She was giving a performance and he met her after the performance,” Barbour said of Fisher.
They married in 1933. They never had children.
“I suspect it was because their careers were so important,” Barbour said.
Te Ata and Fisher traveled widely throughout North America, South America and Europe. He gave lectures on astronomy at colleges across the country. He was involved with the building of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum and served as its lead astronomer. She gave Native American performances. Sometimes they traveled together, but more often, they did not.
“They wrote letters to each other every day. She saved them and gave them to (the Chickasaw Cultural Center). So we have hundreds and hundreds of letters, publicity stills, in the archives of the tribe,” Barbour said.
The Ross Center has, on long-term loan from the Fisher family, a scrapbook of news articles and other information that Clyde kept.
“It’s an honor to have the information in our collection on a man that has made such a huge contribution. It’s an honor that his family respects the Ross Center at a level to allow us to be the custodian of this information,” Phlipot said.
Te Ata performed in Europe for King George VI of England and gave dolls to his children, one of whom is the current queen of England, Barbour said.
“She performed at the White House at (Franklin D. Roosevelt’s) first state dinner,” Barbour added.
The couple made their home in New York City and moved in academic circles. They were friends with Albert Einstein and John Burroughs. They met Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Eleanor Roosevelt was Te Ata’s personal friend.
Fisher died in 1949. His ashes are buried in Graceland Cemetery. Te Ata died a month prior to her 100th birthday, in 1995. Her ashes were scattered among the wildflowers along Pennington Creek in Tishomingo.
Barbour and Choate plan to make the documentary available to schools throughout Oklahoma. They hope the movie about Te Ata will receive wider distribution. Both will be available to researchers who visit the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824. Follow her on Twitter @PASpeelmanSDN.