Life of Famed Chickasaw Performer Found in Museum Archives
The American Museum of Natural History in New York houses a unique Te Ata collection that details much of her life while married to Clyde Fisher, the first chairman of the Hayden Planetarium.
Te Ata was the famed Chickasaw dancer, actress and performer who spread Indian culture throughout the U.S. and the world in the 20th century. She performed for presidents, kings and queens and was acknowledged as one of the most unique artists of her day.
Te Ata was also a devoted and loving spouse who assisted her husband on many projects. From accompanying her scientist husband on expeditions to South America to receiving messages of condolence upon his death, the married life of Chickasaw princess Te Ata can be found in filing cabinets filled with photographs, letters, news clippings and telegrams.
When first approached about researching the museum’s archives, noted astrophysicist and current director of the planetarium Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson said that Te Ata’s story as a Chickasaw and as Fisher’s wife was “a bit of American history about which I knew very little.” Thomas Baione, director of library services at the museum, confirmed that indeed there were many items in the library’s research area that either featured or mentioned Te Ata. “We have much additional information in the AMNH Library on Clyde Fisher and Te Ata in the form of photographs and even a film where Mrs. Fisher makes an appearance,” Mr. Baione said. “I have to admit I don’t know much about Te Ata, especially after Clyde Fisher died so I am happy to see that she lived a long time after Clyde Fisher.”
One of the most interesting collections is a series of photographs taken while Te Ata was on an eclipse expedition to Peru in 1937, conducted by the museum and led by Fisher. While there, Te Ata often met dignitaries in her native dress. In one photo, Te Ata is given a special flute by a local Quechua Indian in Peru. She is pictured taking a lesson on how to play the flute. Other pictures on file show Te Ata getting ready to board the S.S. Santa Clara, standing with a young Panamanian boy who is holding a crab, and even raising the flag of The Explorer’s Club at the eclipse station building in Peru.
The library also contains a silent film of a trip she took to Mexico when Fisher and other scientists filmed an erupting volcano. Te Ata is difficult to make out and is only featured possibly one time. However, the film credits her as one of the primary photographers. Archivists at the library speculated that it is likely Te Ata photographed much of the action so the scientists on the expedition could have footage of them doing their work.
But there is more in the museum’s library that may even tell a greater story of Te Ata and her connection to the museum through her husband. News clippings indicate she was a popular hostess for many events promoting construction of the Hayden Planetarium. Te Ata and her husband also were part of the intellectual and artistic community in New York during the 1930s. Among the notable friends was famed scientist Albert Einstein. During this period, Te Ata was asked by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to perform for the King and Queen of England. Buried in the filing cabinets were eight boxes of letters, cards, clippings and other notes that were sent to Te Ata or her husband during the years he led the planetarium’s efforts. Many of the letters are requests for appearances or thanking them for participating in events.
One particularly sweet note found tucked away in one of the many files of papers was a note to the Reader’s Digest dated Dec. 8, 1937, from W.M. Faunce, vice director of the museum: Dear Mr. Duble: Enclosed is a check for $2.26 covering a Christmas gift subscription to The Reader’s Digest from Dr. Clyde Fisher to Te Ata – 41 W 72nd Street, New York, NY.
“It would easily take someone spending a week to go through everything we have to locate more Te Ata items,” Mr. Baione said. “There are thousands of files where she might be included.”
Among the most poignant items found in the files were the clippings and letters of condolence to Te Ata upon Fisher’s death from fellow scientists and museum leaders. On Feb. 3, 1949, the museum’s board unanimously adopted a resolution to Te Ata. In part, it reads: Dear Te Ata: Resolved, that the Trustees of the American Museum of Natural History desire to express a deep and sincere sense of loss in the death on Jan. 7, 1949, of Dr. Clyde Fisher, Honorary Curator, Department of Astronomy and the Hayden Planetarium…Because of his unflagging efforts to establish a planetarium in new York City, Dr. Fisher has been identified as the man who “brought the stars to America.” Dr. Fisher’s death takes from his colleagues at the Museum and the Hayden Planetarium a respected scientist, an irreplaceable teacher and a lovable man. The Trustees wish to extend their deepest sympathy to his family in this time of bereavement.
And on Aug. 1, 1949, Te Ata sent a telegram to the museum to be read to the Council of the Scientific Staff expressing her appreciation for the letter received from the museum expressing its sincere regret of the death of Dr. Fisher.
Dr. Fisher retired from the museum shortly before his death. Other than a few notes to Te Ata expressing sympathy, pictures and other information on her are not to be found.
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