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Smoki: The beginning - Controversial group 'basically saved the rodeo'

Smoki Museum/Courtesy photo<br>
Smoki dancers rehearse at the Prescott rodeo arena before a performance in this undated photograph.

Smoki Museum/Courtesy photo<br> Smoki dancers rehearse at the Prescott rodeo arena before a performance in this undated photograph.

Editor's Note - This is the first in a two-part series about the Smoki People and the museum.

PRESCOTT - Like most legends, the story of the Smoki People is a combination of fact, fiction, rumor and speculation.

And like most legends, there are two sides to the story.

On one side are the remaining Smoki (pronounced smoke-eye,) and on the other side are the Hopi (pronounced hope-ee,) Apache, Zuni, Yavapai and other native tribes.

"I always thought we were honoring the Native Americans," Prescott resident and bank employee Irene Winter said.

Winter was the second-to-last Chieftess before the group disbanded in 1991. "We never thought we were belittling the Indians. I never heard anyone (Smoki People) say anything like that."

"It's simple," said Donald Nelson of the Native American Advisory Council for the Smoki Museum. "The snake dance is very sacred to the snake clan. It's a religion issue."

The controversy and animosity between some tribes and the people of Prescott started in 1921. That year, Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo was broke and in dire need of money.

A group of prominent businessmen and politicians decided to put on an "Indian" show in the hopes of bringing in more customers. Their show, billed "Way out West Show," was a roaring success.

They dressed in native attire, danced, beat drums, chanted and performed what appeared to be Native American rituals.

"They basically saved the rodeo," said Cindy Gresser, executive director of the Smoki Museum. Although Smoki muscle, money and the Civilian Conservation Corps helped build the museum in 1935, the museum is a separate entity from the Smoki organization.

Smoki was part history, Hollywood, social club and a who's-who of Prescott society in the early years: Gail Gardner, Barry Goldwater and Grace Sparkes were members; and Sharlot Hall wrote a scathing editorial when a California newspaper criticized Smoki.

Smoki historians say that even though the dances and performances may have started out as a money-making operation, their philosophy turned more lofty after they legally formed the Smoki group in 1923.

"At the time, people truly believed that Native Americans were a vanishing race, which caused people like Edward Curtis to try and document them before it was too late," Gresser said.

Smoki historians and former Smoki members adhere to the belief that the original intention of Smoki to emulate or duplicate some Southwest and Plains Indians' dances was because they thought they would be helping to preserve a vanishing culture.

The Smoki performed at various times throughout each year, but the snake dance, performed during "the dark of the moon" in August, was the highlight of their performances and ultimately led to their downfall.

It was not easy getting into the Smoki, and it was hard work once a person was in.

"The initiation was the great equalizer," said Perry Haddon in the documentary film, "Borrowed Dances: Cross Cultural Reflections on the Smoki People."

"It was an elaborate initiation," artist Bruce Fee said in "Borrowed Dances."

"I can't tell you about the initiation," Winter said.

"The most important thing I ever did was being chief," Fee said. "Gail Gardner said he never worked so hard or had more fun than being a Smoki."

Comprised almost entirely of Caucasians, Smoki bought body paint and make-up from Hollywood, and did meticulous research into the design of the costumes, which were either bought or made.

"They were made in an authentic manner with realism," said Nelson, who is a Hopi and went to junior and high school in Prescott before attending Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "The level of their artistry and craftsmanship is amazing."

The Smoki Museum houses more than 3,000 books in its library, and many are from the American Bureau of Ethnology that Smoki members used to research dances, costumes, jewelry and face-painting styles.

Smoki performed their famous, or infamous, snake dance at the Prescott rodeo grounds. In the area to the right of the announcer's booth, from the grandstands, the Smoki built a pueblo-like structure that served as a background prop for performances, dressing rooms, and entrances to a myriad of tunnels and man-made caverns underneath the rodeo arena.

Smoki was not about religion, according to some of its former members, it was about entertainment and preservation of native culture.

The entertainment aspect caused Smoki to employ some of the most creative minds in the area to produce Smoki "magic."

Snake dance audiences could see artificial lightning, rainbows, winged men flying into the arena and Smoki maidens jumping into a "lake" and disappearing in the middle of the rodeo grounds.

For the "Mist of the Maiden" lake dance, a female Smoki would jump from a stand into a pond in the rodeo arena and would not surface, as if she had drowned.

"We had a cable underneath the water, and she would follow the cable to a berm, and crawl over the berm into a tunnel and go into the pueblo," Fee said.

"It was like a big family," Winter said. She and her husband Mike, a snake dancer, joined in the early 1980s, and her mother, father and sister quickly followed suit.

"We worked all year to do one performance," she said.

By the end of the 1980s, fewer people were applying to join Smoki, and Hopi pressure was starting to build until it climaxed at a protest in 1990.

To the Smoki, they were performing a noble gesture with their dances and performances. To the Hopi and some other tribes, they were performing an insult and sacrilegious "mimicking" of their cultures and lives.

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