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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Cynthia Chavez Lamar has been named the incoming director for the National Museum of the American Indian. Her position is historic as she is the first Native woman to be a Smithsonian museum director.

Chavez Lamar is a citizen of San Felipe Pueblo, and a maternal ancestry of Hopi, Tewa and Navajo. She said she is excited to begin her tenure on Feb. 14. 

“I am looking forward to leading and working with the museum’s experienced and dedicated staff. Together, we will leverage the museum’s reputation to support shared initiatives with partners in the U.S. and around the world to amplify Indigenous knowledge and perspectives all in the interest of further informing the American public and international audiences of the beauty, tenacity and richness of Indigenous cultures, arts and histories,” she said in a press release.

She will supervise the museum’s three facilities: the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York and the Cultural Resources Center in Maryland.

“Dr. Chavez Lamar is at the forefront of a growing wave of Native American career museum professionals,” said Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “They have played an important role in changing how museums think about their obligations to Native communities and to all communities. We look forward to Cynthia’s leadership as the NMAI enters a new phase of service to the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.”

Chavez Lamar’s journey with Native art began as a child with her family. Her father Richard Chavez is a celebrated jeweler, her brother is a jeweler and her mother taught her and her sister the processes of working with clay.

Chavez Lamar started out as a museum intern for the National Museum of the American Indian in 1994. She said it left her with the hope to work there again. With her eventually returning as a curator in 2000 for five years, it was that position which planted the idea of possibly being the director of the museum one day.

“I do have a long history with NMAI and of course that's grown into a love for NMAI so I am just thankful to NMAI for helping me become the museum professional I am today,” she said.

From 2014 to 2020, Chavez Lamar was the museum’s assistant director for collections and in January 2021 was the acting associate director for collections and operations.

She oversaw the museum's collections, facilities, safety and information technology departments. In addition to the museum’s collection of objects and photographs, she was in charge of more than 500,000 digitized images, films and other media documenting Native communities, events and organizations.

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(Related Op-Ed: How the Smithsonian spawns Lenape erasure)

She said the leadership position helped her explore being a mentor, advisor and support system for other workers and hopes to continue that as the director.

“I’ve learned how impactful it can be when you’re able to support the work and the initiatives of staff that report to you, and I've gained a lot of fulfillment,” she said.

Chavez Lamar also hopes to facilitate that access to Indigenous peoples of the Western hemisphere in order to collaborate and partner with them. In her long career she has worked with countless tribes and said that it taught her how to be flexible and find good humor in the work.

“Sometimes in museum work we might take ourselves too seriously and some of the best times I've had in working in collaboration with Native and Indigenous peoples is when we're just sitting around the table and we're having a bite to eat and we're laughing about something,” she said.

She said she realizes the significance of being the first Native woman to be a Smithsonian museum director and how it’s opening opportunities for others.

“The outpouring of heartfelt and warm wishes has been really meaningful to me,” Chavez Lamar said. “I have to give thanks for where I'm at because it's not through my efforts alone – my ancestors before me, people before me have paved the way for me to be here, and I won't be the last one.”

Her other qualifications include being the director of the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico from 2007 to 2014; director of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico from 2006 to 2007; a presidential appointee to the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development in 2011; a governor’s appointee as a commissioner to the New Mexico Arts Commission from 2009 to 2012; and currently sits on the advisory group for Indigenous North America at the Princeton University Art Museum; and a member of the advisory board at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College in studio art, a master’s degree in American Indian studies from UCLA and a doctorate in American studies from the University of New Mexico. She also received an honorary doctorate from Colorado College for her contributions to the museum field.

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