There is no local story more provocative, potent or fundamental to understanding Prescott history than that of the Smoki People. Now the inheritors of their naive and confounding legacy are quietly remolding it into a modern lens for understanding our region's native peoples. In many ways it's returning to and updating the mission its founders meant to claim.
“People here will always call it 'the Smoki,'” admits Manuel Lucero IV, assistant director of the Museum of Indigenous People, which till February of this year was the Smoki Museum. The rechristening culminates over 16 years of effort by the organization to come to terms with its past, to repair and build new relationships with the native people it was meant to celebrate at its founding in 1935.
When we met in May, Lucero conducted this reporter through the old rock-walled museum, where masked volunteers were working to clean decades of dust and debris from the latilla ceiling for the first time in living memory. The symbolism was inescapable — the workers, like Lucero, were all of native heritage, clearing the detritus of history from an institution long cobwebbed by conflicting motives and insensitivity.
As an aside, I knew the territory pretty well. In 2005, under John Tannous, the museum's first professional executive director, I participated in the production of Raindance in a Storm, a documentary on the Smoki People by Jerry Chinn. The museum commissioned the film to begin healing the 85 years of insult to native people that the group and its facilities represented. I was also asked to build the permanent exhibit on that subject, which Lucero and his crew were in the process of moving from the museum to the adjacent Pueblo, the old Smoki gathering space.
The biggest thing in Prescott
Every story on the museum today has to begin with at least a summary of its astonishing past.
The Allotment Act of 1887 established a national policy of forced assimilation of native people, attempting to break up the reservation system and the nations themselves through land reallocation and systematic suppression of language and culture. Romanticism and paternalism led many white Americans to take it upon themselves to help “preserve” native culture in the decades before the policy was officially abandoned in 1934.
In the early 1920s the ranchers, miners and businessmen of Prescott joined in by adapting their blackface amateur minstrel shows with native motifs. The first shows were Wild-West-style romps in support of the annual rodeo. They caught the imaginations of local “preservationists,” including artist Kate Cory, who spent a great deal of time living among the Hopi people, observing and painting them.
Cory became the director of the early shows, coaching the exclusively white and male members in the outward forms of Hopi dances and designing their costumes. The group took its name from the old Spanish name for the Hopi (Moqui, mispronounced 'moke-eye') and added a wink to their brownface makeup and black wigs: Smoki. They took Indian-style names as secret identities not shared outside the club, and created their own fraternal ceremonies and complex hierarchies.
The annual one-night Smoki show became one of the biggest tourist attractions in the Southwest, regularly drawing 5,000 people to the Fair Street rodeo grounds with elaborate sets, costumes and dances parodied from native traditions across the country. At its peak around 800 families were involved, women and children danced too, and, as the old members say, “if you weren't Smoki, you weren't anybody in Prescott.”
The show went on for nearly 70 years, until the written protests from the Hopi elders turned into protest marches in Prescott in 1989 and '90. By then rising public consciousness and changing times had reduced membership so much that the show was no longer sustainable.
Lucero emphasizes that the organization is not trying to erase its Smoki past. Sitting on one of the built-in side benches in the older building, he says, “This will always be the Smoki Pueblo. This was their meeting place, and it will always be full of their ghosts and stories.”
Making space for story
'Story' is a core component of the museum's updated mission “to instill understanding and respect for the indigenous cultures of the southwest.” That commitment is easily evident in the new children's exhibit room, where visitors can take in video of native speakers and dancers demonstrating their traditions and insights.
The artifacts on display for decades have been carefully vetted for culturally appropriate use, and those that didn't pass muster have been removed and repatriated. "This is now a 100% NAGPRA-compliant museum,” says Lucero with clear satisfaction, referring to the standards set out in the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1990.
The museum collection, reclassified as “cultural resource materials” and the largest group of native artifacts in the region, is no longer the organization's core focus. New programs will bring in native scholars and speakers, classes in native arts (some in partnership with Prescott's 'Tis Gallery and its STEPS for Kids program), and more generally present native people in ways that better reflect and honor their traditions, sensibilities and lives, past and present.
A good example is the museum's January-June exhibition, Daughters of Turtle Island: A Tribute to Native Women, celebrating the stories of women whose contributions and leadership cover the spectrum of culture, from the arts and sciences to civil rights and politics.
A lively place to learn and grow
Looking forward, the museum's calendar prominently features lively, family-friendly events for the public, including Indian Games at the Pueblo in August, sponsorship of the Prescott Powwow at Watson Lake in September, and special arts demonstrations for Indigenous People's Day in October.
While it provided opportunity for a good cleaning, the pandemic interrupted the museum's spring exhibit plans. Currently staff expects to reopen to the public on July 11. It also sparked new relationships, as Prescottonians spontaneously made the museum a dropoff point for donations of masks and supplies to the reservations.
Museum leadership has been evolving along with its mission. Today most of its board directors have native heritage, as do about a third of employees and many volunteers. Lucero offers props to Executive Director Cindy Gresser, who has been involved since 2002 and played a central role in driving the organizational changes. “She's the first non-native who really grasped what to do to right the wrongs.”
Hopi artist Filmer Kewanyama joined the museum's native advisory board in 2004, and he served as a trustee from 2010 to ‘14. He says for him it’s been a very positive relationship, crediting the organization for “trying to do the right thing.” “Smoki has been good to native people since I've been here. It has been very supportive of native programs like Powwow, and it’s trying to integrate every tribe in the Southwest. It’s been instrumental in promoting native artists, and that in itself is a good step.” The museum, he says, “helps us teach non-natives about who we are.”
When Lucero, who grew up in Oklahoma of Cherokee heritage, first heard about the museum and its background, he vowed to his family, “Well, we'll never go there!” Ten years later he's helping guide it into the future, enthusiastic and optimistic. “It's never too late to make things right,” he says with a smile.
Steven Ayres is editor of 5enses.
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