The Smoki Museum is Now… Museum of Indigenous People

by Cindy Gresser, Executive Director, Museum of Indigenous People

Over sixteen years ago, as our Native American Advisory Committee met, we formally changed the mission of the museum to: “To instill understanding and respect for the indigenous cultures of the southwest.” 

At the same time, discussions on whether to change the museum’s name was also considered. However, we had a story to tell – that of Prescott’s “Smoki People” – founders of our institution. Our advisors told us to tell that story – openly, factually, honestly, and from many different points of view, and we have. 

What the Smoki People did is now part of Prescott’s unique history, and this institution will continue to preserve their story so that future generations may learn from it. But as an institution, we are no longer about a group of Anglo citizens that sought to replicate Native ceremonies. 

Today, we view ourselves as an institution of education, where our primary responsibility is to present Native art, history and culture of the southwest from Native speakers, educators, and authorities. We do not hold a “collection” but rather care for cultural resource materials in the most respectful ways possible.

We took a lesson from the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. They started as a repository of Diné (Navajo) ceremonial items. Once the ceremonial objects had been repatriated to the Navajo People, they still had valuable resources to share and educate the public. After several iterations, a new name solidified their purpose and goals.

Development of our new name came about through a series of meetings with members of our Native Advisory Committee, Native board members, staff, community leaders, and marketing professionals. Words like “Native,” “Indigenous,” “Indian” and many more required careful and thoughtful discussion. We acknowledge our presence upon the land of the Yavapai People, and honor their culture. Our cultural resource materials are about many different cultures over a vast time period, from California to Texas and Colorado to Mexico.

Manuel Lucero IV (Cherokee), Assistant Director, said of the name change, “The new name accurately reflects who and what the museum is today and going forward into the future.” 

In museums across the country, a new buzz-word is “decolonization” — in other words, changing the voice within museums from that of the academic or outsider to that of the people represented. As staff listened to a recent presentation on the subject, we learned that as an institution, we have actively engaged in that process for well over a decade. 

However, having an institution with a made-up name, having no meaning to the people we represent, was contrary to our goals and objectives. The Board of Trustees agreed, committees were formed, and meetings held. On Dec. 12, after a unanimous board vote to approve the new name, the “Smoki Museum” sign on Gurley Street fell down in a cold winter’s wind. 

From Barb Karkula (Potawatami), Vice President, Board of Trustees, “It lifts my heart to know we are moving forward, shaking the dust of the past off our feet.”