Originally Published: July 5, 2010 10:25 p.m.
Editor's Note - This is the second in a two-part series about the Smoki People and the museum.
PRESCOTT - In 1921, a group of prominent Prescott businessmen and politicians dressed in Indian regalia and simulated Hopi and Zuni religious dances during Prescott Frontier Days rodeo.
The performance was a hit and the Smoki People were born. The exclusive club dominated Prescott's social scene for the next 70 years. Smoki have distinctive, and discreet, tattoos on their left hands.
Although audiences, predominantly white Anglo Saxons, loved the annual snake dance performed in "the dark moon of August," some Native Americans, particularly the Hopi, were not amused.
"It was an affront to Hopi people to have others try it or mimic something very sacred to all of us," said Donald Nelson, a Hopi that attended junior and high school in Prescott and now serves on the Native American Advisory Council at the Smoki Museum.
"I always thought we were honoring Native Americans," said Irene Winter, who served as the second-to-last Chieftess before Smoki disbanded in 1991.
Smoki (pronounced smoke-eye) started as a moneymaker for the annual rodeo, but then Smoki leaders said that in addition to helping Prescott's economy, the group also was trying to preserve native dances that seemed destined to disappear from native cultures.
Hopi (pronounced hope-ee) did not see it that way. Hopi leaders as far back as the 1930s lodged complaints with Smoki leaders, primarily centered on the Smoki's snake dance.
In 1989, the Smoki invited tribal and clan leaders from several tribes to watch the ceremony.
"We started to see men coming out of the ground in some kind of tribal regalia," said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma in the Smoki documentary, "Borrowed Dances: Cross Cultural Reflections on the Smoki People." He attended that fateful performance. "It was supposed to represent a kiva, which is a sacred ceremonial chamber to Hopi."
Once the antelope dancers were assembled in the rodeo arena, the snake dancers emerged with bull snakes clinched in their mouths. The 100 Native Americans in the visiting delegation at first watched in "stunned awe," but then began laughing at the antics of the white men and women chanting and dancing around the arena.
The delegation left without any minds changed about organizing a formal protest of the 1990 snake dance.
"A lot of people thought of Prescott as this weird little town where this weird thing happened," said Richard Sims, former director of Sharlot Hall Museum, in the documentary. "But a lot of older Hopi people remembered that Smoki were good to them. Money traveled to help families, especially in the 1930s during the Depression."
In August 1990, Native Americans descended on Prescott and staged peaceful demonstrations and protests.
"I put it in the perspective of if Hopi were to perform Christian rituals, dress in priests' clothes and build a fake church, how would this society react," Nelson said. He participated in the 1990 protest, which ultimately led to the Smoki disbanding after the 1991 performance.
"I'm not questioning their (Smoki) sincerity in the beginning, and this is my opinion, I'm not speaking for the Hopi," Nelson said.
While the Hopi viewed their protest as a victory in shutting down the Smoki People, others say it was bound to end sooner or later, regardless of the protest. Smoki membership had dropped from more than 400 active members, to slightly more than 100 by 1991.
"It took 400 people to put a show together," said Perry Haddon, a second generation Smoki. "We could see the writing on the wall."
Although it's been nearly 20 years since the last Smoki performance, bad feelings still linger between some tribal members and former Smoki.
Cindy Gresser, executive director of the Smoki Museum, is working with Nelson and the Native American Advisory Council to open a dialogue with tribal leaders and smooth out any lingering animosity on both sides of the issue.
"We're working hard to overcome the controversy," Gresser said.
"You've got to look at Smoki in the context of the times," Nelson added.
The museum's current exhibition, "The Sign of Smoki: Art & Artistry of Prescott's Smoki People," displays Smoki clothing, arts and crafts, historical documents and other artifacts. Gresser wants the public to see firsthand the enormous talent and skill of the Smoki in recreating native regalia, and help people to separate fact from fiction about the Smoki.
Before Gresser opened the exhibition, which runs through August, she and Nelson removed any Smoki displays that tribal members could find "objectionable."
"The Hopi appreciated on one hand that white men worked so hard to replicate their ceremonies," Sims said. "On the other hand, they resented that white men worked so hard to replicate their ceremonies."
Ann Oudin wrote an Internet blog after reading a newspaper story about the Hopi protest in Prescott. "It (snake dance) is the most mesmerizing thing I ever saw," she wrote. "Once you see them, you will never forget them."
"Save your own culture, not ours," read a poster during the protest.
"It was a lot of fun. We were like a family," Winter said. "It was a big loss when we stopped.
"It was like something was taken from our lives. I still miss it every August."
The museum and pueblo, built in the early 1930s, are located at 147 N. Arizona Ave., in Prescott. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays. The telephone number is (928) 445-1230, and its website is www.smokimuseum.org.
More like this story
- Editorial: Smoki People had good intentions
- Smoki: The beginning - Controversial group 'basically saved the rodeo'
- Storytellers at the Smoki event returns to Prescott museum for third year
- Goldwater's ghost: Arizona's favorite son could be among those who haunt Smoki Museum
- Days Past: Prescott's gentle snakes challenge the Federal Government