Museum’s New Director Dr. Cynthia Chavez Lamar Says Her Goal Is ‘Listening, Being Respectful and Asking for Help’

Chavez emphasizes how she plans to maintain her cultural and communal ties while working in Washington D.C.

Cynthia and her husband Walter
Dr. Cynthia Chavez Lamar and her husband Walter Lamar (Wichita and Blackfeet) proudly wear their tribal clothing at the 2019 North American Indian Days in Browning, Montana.

  Photo courtesy of Walter Lamar

Dr. Cynthia Chavez Lamar (San Felipe Pueblo, Hopi, Tewa and Diné) is the new director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Chavez Lamar is the first Indigenous woman to lead a Smithsonian museum and will oversee the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. As part of her duties, Chavez Lamar will manage critically acclaimed exhibitionsextensive collectionsdynamic programs and a national educational initiative called Native Knowledge 360°, as well as oversee the staff at all three NMAI locations.

As an undergraduate, she studied Studio Art at Colorado College. After she graduated, she applied to graduate school and was accepted at the UCLA American Indian studies program. It was during graduate school in California that her interest in museums began. After UCLA graduate school she attended the University of New Mexico where she earned her doctorate in American Studies. She began her museums career at the Smithsonian in 1994 when she worked as an intern at NMAI, helping with research to open a gallery at the museum in New York City. In 2000, She returned to work at the Washington D.C. museum and was the lead curator for “Our Lives,” one of the 24 inaugural exhibitions in Mall Museum, when it opened in 2004. She left in 2005 to return to New Mexico where she served as director of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC) in Albuquerque, and later as director of the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe.

Cynthia poses with her father Richard Chavez and mother Sharon during the 2004 grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. Photo courtesy of Walter Lamar

In 2014 she returned to the National Museum of the American Indian to serve as the assistant director for collections and eventually serve as the acting associate director for collections and operations in 2021. Museum collections are a focal point to Dr. Chavez Lamar. NMAI has the most extensive collections of Indigenous Western Hemisphere objects in the world with more than 800,000 objects. Many are searchable online. According to the Washington Post, "Dr. Chavez Lamar pointed out two priorities moving forward: continued emphasis and engagement with Indigenous people and an increased emphasis on the collection to really make it a visible presence in a lot of the things that we do."

Cynthia, her mother and her sister Alissa take a moment from cooking to pose for a photograph during the May 1 San Felipe Pueblo feast. Photo courtesy of Walter Lamar

Dr. Chavez Lamar grew up in Katishtya, the Pueblo of San Felipe located halfway between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her family has strong roots in their Pueblo way of life. Her dad Richard and brother Jared are well-known jewelers. Her mother Sharon was a teacher at San Felipe's elementary school for many years, and she taught Cynthia how to cook foods important to their culture. Cynthia still travels back to New Mexico for her pueblo feast days and maintains a strong bond with her family and community. To get to know the cultural aspects of our new director, I asked her five questions about her communal ties. These are her responses:

DZ: What answer do you give when someone asks you “where is home?”

CCL: San Felipe, known as Katishtya in the Keres language. It is home for many reasons having to do with family, the cultural events that can only happen there, and the landscape, including the Rio Grande River that runs through the pueblo’s lands. Overall, my memories of people and place will always tie me to San Felipe and make it home to me because it is where I feel connected.

DZ: What was the reaction of your community when they found out you were selected as the new director of the National Museum of the American Indian?

CCL: I’ve received positive notes of congratulations and well wishes from San Felipe people and my other community of colleagues and friends. The overall response from Indigenous people has been heartwarming. I am grateful to have so many send their good thoughts and support.

DZ: Do you continue to participate in the activities in your pueblo?

CCL: The last two years of the pandemic have been hard at times because I have not participated in activities I usually do because San Felipe is working to keep residents of the pueblo safe, which I completely understand. Prior to the pandemic, I would go home 4-6 times a year to see family and participate in cultural activities. San Felipe’s annual big feast day is May 1, which pre-pandemic was open to the public. I always made an effort to go home to help with the cooking, serving of guests, washing dishes, and cleaning up after it was over. During these times we all have roles to play to support the ceremony and prayers taking place. It’s also a time to visit and enjoy time with family and friends.

DZ: How is food tied to your heritage and what foods and thoughts remind you of home?

CCL: The food that always comes to mind is red chile. I know most people prefer green chile, but I guess you had to have grown up in New Mexico to develop a taste for red. When there’s a cultural activity at home, there are always specific foods that are made, although it does vary by family. Beans, posole, oven bread, frybread, green chile stew, red chile and fluffy. Fluffy is what my extended family calls a dessert that is primarily made with Jello and Cool Whip. If I go way back to childhood one of my favorite food memories is breakfast and having Spam mixed with eggs, rolled up in a tortilla.

Cynthia’s family sharing the Pueblo delicacies prepared by them for the May 1 feast day. Photo courtesy of Walter Lamar

DZ: What responsibilities do you have to your ancestors as the new director of the NMAI?

CCL: This is a serious question in that it is more than just my ancestors, it is to the ancestors of all Indigenous people. I see the heart of my responsibilities as listening, being respectful and humble, and being open to learning and asking for help. My parents recently reminded me of this when I went home. I also recognize the responsibilities to the ancestors of all those whose spirit rests in the collection of the museum. We at the museum see ourselves as stewards of the collection and understand the importance of these items and materials to present and future generations.