Sunday, September 6, 2015

Smoki Museum in Prescott, AZ

Smoki Museum traces roots from parody to preservation


The Smoki Museum in Prescott, Ariz., tells the history of a group of performers who, through their burlesque acts, preserved the histories of Native American groups in the Southwest.

            A memorial service for Charles Krauskopf, a close friend and colleague, was held recently at the Smoki Museum: American Indian Art and Culture in Prescott, Ariz., where he and his wife, Joan, had retired sometime after 25 years as faculty at the University of Missouri. Krauskopf pitched in as a curator at the museum for a time, and both he and his wife were avid volunteers who presented programs expanding knowledge about American Indian life, artifacts and art objects.

            The day before the memorial service, we explored the museum, where an American Indian volunteer eagerly explained how the museum came to be. He first pointed to a statuette of a white man in an Indian costume and darkened face in a dancing pose. The figure was Barry Goldwater, later an Arizona senator and presidential candidate.

            We were surprised to learn the Smoki people were not a American Indian tribe but instead were a group of Caucasian Americans who, in 1921, started performing in shows featuring Indian dances and songs. These performances were somewhat similar to the blackface entertainment of the day. No one at the time understood that this group would preserve a large segment of American Indian culture.

            The Hopi Indians were offended by this use of their sacred ceremonies. Especially difficult for them to accept was the fact that the U.S. government forbade Indians to practice their own rites and rituals. The Hopi response was: If we can’t do our rain dance, why can they?

            The Prescott merchants and professional men had started the Smoki performances to save their “world’s oldest rodeo” from oblivion and raised money by arranging performances about the Hopi Indian snake dance. The “Way out West” program began as burlesque, but soon became a serious authentic business and saved the rodeo.

            This was a time when the U.S. government was still taking Indian children from their parents and putting them in schools where they could not practice any of their tribal rituals and could speak only English. By 1923, the Smoki were on the road to seriously recreate the traditional historic Indian ceremonial dances. Their goal at this time was to “instill an understanding and respect for the indigenous cultures of the Southwest.”

            The museum was constructed in 1935 by the Civil Works Administration using rocks that made it look similar to Hopi pueblos. In 1990, the white Smoki stopped performing traditional American Indian dances, but with the satisfaction of knowing they had preserved many important rituals.

            The museum volunteer gave us a guidebook on the contents of the 25 display areas, each called tags. The first five tags were of pottery: how it was made and how it was traded, much of it originating in distant settlements. Tag 7 featured footwear, hair care and clothing preserved by having been left in dry caves. The range of materials used to make sandals was interesting and included various skins, yucca and bear grass.

            Tag 8 had objects made from stone — mortars, axes and pestles — with descriptions of how they were made, flaked and knapped.

            Tag 11 had jewelry and adornments made with materials such as sea shells and turquoise that came from hundreds of miles away.

            At Tag 20, Hopi and Papago baskets showed us the many purposes baskets can serve.

            All in all, we saw a wonderful display of artifacts that probably would not have been saved if it were not for a group of Caucasians who started out burlesquing American Indian ways.

            It always makes us feel good to note how productive friends and acquaintances are during their lives and in retirement. His contribution here is only one of the many legacies left by Charles Krauskopf.

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