Dance of the Smoki People

“Who’s tweeting in here?!” someone yelled from the back of the Smoki Museum of American Indian Art and Culture in Prescott, Arizona.

I popped my head out of the exhibit room where I’d been…tweeting.  The woman who had yelled was standing just a few feet away, arms akimbo. She looked a little fierce.  “That would be me,” I said, wondering if I’d committed some faux pas. I had confirmed that I could take photographs when I’d come in.

She smiled.  “Hi.  I’m Cindy, the director.”

“Hi.  I’m Susan, the History Tourist.”

The “Smoki” (pronounced “Smoke Eye”) of the Smoki Museum is the name of a fake Native American group who founded the museum.  In 1921, a group of (white) Prescott, Arizona businessmen decided to participate in a Wild West show as a fund raiser for the local rodeo. They learned the Hopi snake dance from a member of the Hopi tribe, dressed in costumes approximating Native American wear, darkened their skin, and performed for the rodeo.  It was so popular that the participants decided to make their group and activities permanent.  They gave themselves a name – The Smoki People (and I couldn’t find where Smoki came from) — and convinced a local historian to concoct for them a tribal history.

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Their hearts were in the right place.  Their mission to raise money for the rodeo morphed, in later years, into a mission to preserve southwestern Native American culture. They opened a museum of Native American artifacts and allowed Native artists to sell there. This was during a period when the federal government forced Native children into Indian Schools and tried to eradicate native languages and culture.  But the Smoki’s most public expression – performing a snake dance dressed in what was, effectively, the Native American version of blackface – grew less acceptable as the years went by.

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The Hopi began to more loudly object (because they’d been objecting since the 1930s) to their sacred dance being used for entertainment about the same time that younger generation of Prescott whites became uninterested in participating. In 1990, the dancing ended (let’s hope that the make-up ended long before) and the museum became a nonprofit.

The first thing we noticed when we pulled up in front of the museum was its eye-catching building, constructed in 1935 as the Smoki clubhouse.  It was based on a Hopi pueblo and built of local materials by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The inside of the building is just as stunning: plaster walls, sandstone flag floors and pine ceilings with 30,000 latillas.

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Of course, I went straight to the animal themed objects. This big-horn sheep head is one of two that they found at the Prescott Rodeo grounds, which was once the site of an ancient pueblo. Big-horn sheep weren’t native to the area, so the museum isn’t sure where they came from or what they were for, a volunteer docent told me. They think that the Prescott people either saw them when they went further afield to trade and liked them enough to make a likeness of them, or some other group — the Hohokam, perhaps — made them and traded them to the Prescott people.

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Cindy the Director was not upset at the tweeting.  She was, in fact, quite enthusiastic, and was kind enough to take us through some of the exhibits.  Mr. HT and I were particularly interested a the room that contained an exhibit on the Smoki.

The museum doesn’t shy away from the controversial history of its founders and the exhibit lays out their history. The museum neither defends nor apologies for them.  Their approach is that these were well-meaning people acting on (what we now view as) the misguided mores of their time. But their underlying mission was to preserve Native American art and culture and for that, concludes their brochure, “The Smoki Museum and Research Library is part of the lasting legacy of the Smoki People.”

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9 Responses to Dance of the Smoki People

  1. museummutt says:

    I’ve been there too but didn’t tweet!

  2. I’ll bet the word Smoki was just playing with Moki (or Moqui) which was the old-fashioned name for the Hopi in the 19th century.

    • That’s interesting — I didn’t know that (and I grew up close to a Hopi reservation). That makes sense, since the Hopi were the people they were emulating. Thanks for the information.

  3. nerdtrips says:

    I liked that big horned sheep. How fun that social media connected you to a real person in real time!

  4. How interesting. It’s nice that they don’t try to gloss over the history. That building is really cool, but looks like you must be cold!

  5. Donald Michael Hall says:

    My dad Robert Albert Hall was a smoki indian how do I find more info. Mke Hall

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