Te Ata statue installed on USAO Oval

Te Ata statue installed on USAO Oval


In 1919, Mary Thompson graduated from the Oklahoma College for Women, located in Chickasha, and set out for New York, determined to fulfill her dream of becoming a stage actress.

On Jan. 9, 2014, she returned to the campus now known as the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, immortalized in monumental bronze in her legendary incarnation as Te Ata, “Bearer of the Morning.”

Members of the campus community braved the chilly winds for several hours to watch as installation technicians worked with ropes and even a crane to carefully place the statue of one of USAO’s most celebrated alumna on her pedestal just outside of Troutt Hall.

A formal dedication ceremony for the monument is tentatively scheduled for later this spring.

The Te Ata statue project was set into motion by a generous gift from OCW alumna Nan Bilbrey Willett and her husband John. Willett, a graduate of the class of 1957, says that the gift was motivated by a dual love for the university and Te Ata herself.

“My mother graduated from there and I started attending various productions there when I was just four or five,” Willett says. “My mother knew Te Ata. The other alumna and I felt like if Te Ata was going to be memorialized, it needed to be on our campus.”

“I wanted to leave a mark on USAO in remembrance of my mother; and now I am able to do it in a way that honors her, Te Ata and the women of their generation.”

The installation of the nine-foot tall bronze statue was overseen by project artist, sculptor Jon Hair, of North Carolina.

 “I hope that she will inspire people to be the kind of person she was,“ Hair said. “I feel honored and privileged to be the sculptor that was chosen to memorialize this fantastic woman.“

Hair is best known for his 35-foot bronze and steel sculpture, “Olympic Strength.” The sculpture of four athletes lifting a globe on their shoulders was commissioned by the United States Olympic Committee to adorn the grounds at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

He was selected after a rigorous nationwide search that began in August of 2012 when President John Feaver commissioned a committee with representatives from statewide arts organizations, the Chickasaw Nation, the donors and various university groups to build a consensus on the nature and scale of the project.

“Te Ata’s remarkable legacy in the arts demands an artist of impeccable reputation and peerless mastery to capture her essence,” said USAO President John Feaver. “And we are grateful to have found that in Jon Hair.”

Born and raised near Tishomingo, Te Ata attended Indian schools until she enrolled at OCW, now USAO. Te Ata married Dr. Clyde Fisher in 1933.

Her unique persona was born when she left traditional theater and crafted a one-woman show to illustrate and teach American Indian culture. Dressed in buckskin costumes with authentic props and acting out various roles, the striking and elegant actress presented well-researched and sensitively interpreted legends, songs and history of Indian tribes.

Desiring a name more representative of her heritage, Te Ata formally adopted her Chickasaw name, which means “Bearer of the Morning.” The name was given to her as a child by an aunt.

She performed across the United States, Canada and Europe sharing stories of many American Indian tribes and was a frequent guest of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. She was selected to entertain an audience including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England when they visited President Roosevelt’s estate in Hyde Park, New York.

Te Ata was named as the first “Oklahoma Cultural Treasure” in September 1987 by Gov. Henry Bellmon. The award was created “in recognition of people resources, bestowed on individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the state,” reported the State Arts Council, which developed the award. In addition, Te Ata was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1957 and into the Chickasaw Nation Hall of Fame in 1990.

The Te Ata statue is a component of the university’s comprehensive grounds master plan, one of four projects being funded by the Ready, Set, NOW Campaign.

Launched by the university in 2012, the campaign seeks to raise $4.85M in private gifts to fund an ambitious five-year scholarship plan, update and renovate Austin Hall, make improvements to Nash Library and develop a comprehensive master plan for the campus grounds.

The campaign, which entered its public phase in November of 2013, has met more than two-thirds of its goal and is scheduled to conclude in November of 2014.

Committee members include: Debbie Williams, director of Oklahoma Art in Public Places; Kim Baker and Amber Sharples, past and current executive directors of the Oklahoma Arts Council; Jeannie Barbour, award-winning artist and creative director of the Chickasaw Nation; Helen Bolton, former member of the USAO Alumni Association Board of Directors and Leslie Hudson, who served on USAO’s Board of Regents from 2008 to 2013.

Other members are: Shayna Pond, former graphic designer with USAO’s Communications and Marketing office; Layne Thrift, assistant professor of art and director of the Nesbitt Art Gallery; as well as the Willetts.

Dr. Michael Nealeigh, vice-president for university advancement, chairs the committee.