2024 Paul Chaat Smith

P.C. Smith

In the 1970s, Smith was an activist member of the American Indian Movement (AIM). There, he witnessed brutal government repression—but also, as he bitingly observes, AIM’s own descent into dysfunction and irrelevance. Fleeing to New York City, he began writing about culture and art, and in 1996 published, with Robert Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, the standard book on the Red Power movement even today. 

In 2001, Smith became a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, working first on the permanent history exhibition, Our Peoples, and then turning to Native American art.  Among his major exhibitions are James Luna: Emendatio, conceived for the 2005 Venice Biennale; the 2008/09 blockbuster show Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian; and in 2009, Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort, one of the most visited and acclaimed shows in the history of the museum. His second book, gleefully titled Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong, frames issues of Native presence and absence that structure his current permanent exhibition at NMAI, Americans (2018), which takes visitors through deconstructive histories of Pocahontas, Thanksgiving, the Trail of Tears, and the Little Big Horn. 

Smith’s career is full of such brilliant works of public scholarship, framed in his distinctive style: deeply intelligent, with a dry wit, cynical sense of irony, and taut balance between passion and skepticism. His exhibitions and writings nurture critical thought on the part of visitors and readers alike. For all that he has brought to the intersection of public history and Native American history, the Society of American Historians is honored to recognize Paul Chaat Smith with the Tony Horwitz Prize.