December 2, 2018

1921: The Birth of the Smoki People

As the end of the 20th century approached, Smoki ceremonies, performed by anglos disguised as Native Americans, became increasingly controversial and were finally discontinued. 

However, the first of their performances were held as fund raisers to save the cash-strapped Frontier Days, and were called the “Way Out West” show. In these, the Smoki were only a portion of the festivities.

According to their 1964 Souvenir Program, the Smoki people were “composed of local business people and residents, originated as a means of assisting a financially-faltering Prescott Frontier Days Association, which found itself without funds to continue the rodeo, which was the first commercial show in the United States with beginnings in the 1880s.” 

The first show was held May 26th, 1921. “Local talent was called in to furnish the program which included everything from a fake tight-rope walker to a Model T Ford with eccentric front-wheels.” The newspaper described it as “the biggest and best attraction ever pulled off in northern Arizona.” There was a grand parade featuring 40 band members, 40 clowns, and 40 Smoki Indians. There was comedy, magic, boxing matches, and races of burros, bicycles and boys.

Reportedly, the event was well documented at the time. Tom Bate, photographer, was “there to take exposure of everything and everybody,” and there was even a “moving picture machine to take every little movement.” (Oh, to find that film today!)

“At that time,” the program explains, “the Hopi Indians were known as the ‘Moquis’ and their reservation as the ‘Moqui’s Reservation.’ In August, (it was common) to (go) see the Moqui Snake Dance.”

“Since it was planned to do a take-off on the Moqui dance, the citizens' group billed themselves as the ‘Smoki Snake Dance’ pronouncing the sound like ‘smoky.’ This name stuck for the first two years, but the third year the pronunciation was changed to ‘smoke-eye’ and has remained unchanged since that time."

The story of the work done in the Prescott (AZ) National Forest by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 to 1941. Much of the work they accomplished is still in use today.

“The Smoki had been drilled by a woman who lived among the Hopi for a number of years,” the Phoenix paper explained. “The costumes, music and movements of the Indians were faithfully reproduced by the Prescott youths, it was said by those who have seen the Hopi ceremony. Other events of the day presented a burlesque of the Frontier Days events.” This burlesque included many of the Frontier Days leadership being impersonated and satirized. It was all considered to be in good fun.

The woman who taught what she knew of these customs was “Mrs. George Tumber who (also) directed the performance…It was (her) knowledge together with her skill in imparting it to the Smoki, that made the dance the success it was,” the paper related.

But before a Snake Dance could be performed, there was the matter of procuring the snakes. “Originally it had been planned to use realistic rubber snakes, but none were available,” the program explains. “The problem was almost unresolved until a carnival man arrived with a cage full of live bull snakes." 

"It took a great deal of persuasion and demonstration to convince the Smoki that they could perform with live snakes, but eventually the group gave in, and the performance proved to be the high point of the first show.” It was none other than JS Acker, of park and festival fame, who played the Great Chief at the first Smoki performance.

Despite their initial aversion to the reptiles, the bull snakes became beloved by the Smoki. They referred to them as “little brothers” and took care to return them to the wild each year.

The story of the Fred Harvey dairy and ranch at Del Rio Springs, AZ. From 1912 to 1929 the ranch supplied diary and meat for the famous Harvey Houses from Albuquerque to the west coast.

“The following year, 1922, the rodeo association again found itself in financial difficulty and another ’Way Out West’ show was staged. This time the Smoki appeared in the guise of Plains Indians waylaying an emigrant wagon train and burning one of the wagons, but the climax and finale of the show was again the snake dance.” Due to the popularity shown the first year, Mayor Morris Goldwater declared the second Way Out West a village holiday.

By the time 1923 rolled around, Frontier Days was back on solid financial ground. The clowns and burlesque of the first two Way Out West shows was dropped and only the Smoki performed. Additionally, money raised by the Smoki would be kept and used by them to produce their annual shows until the mid 1990s.

It was the sincere intention of the Smoki people “to perpetuate the culture which has continued to disappear with the advancement of the white man’s culture.” Today the Smoki Museum lives on to faithfully accomplish that.

Come see the Smoki Exhibit at the Western Heritage Center
156C Montezuma (Historic Whiskey Row)


Drew's book is now available!


Now Available!
The New Book by Drew Desmond and Brad Courtney:
"True Tales of Prescott" 

Follow the blog in one of the following social media to be sure you get the latest article!

Want more Prescott history? Join the "Celebrating Historic Prescott" group.
(Daily pics and featured articles.)
Drew Desmond is on Facebook (For the latest article and posts about Drew's writing.)

Follow the Prescott AZ History Blog on Twitter @PrescottAZHist
(Daily pic featured at 7 am and featured articles.)

Prescott AZ History is on Pinterest
(For the latest article.)

Follow PrescottAZHistory on Instagram

“The Smoki People” Souvenir Program, 1964. (Prescott’s Centennial Year)

No comments:

Post a Comment