Route 66 Arizona Wikipedia
Route 66, seen here in Arizona, is known for its greasy diners, artsy roadside attractions, and kitschy souvenirs.

Adding a Native Voice to Historic Route 66

Alysa Landry

Route 66 is known for its greasy diners, artsy roadside attractions, wide-finned Cadillacs and kitschy souvenirs.

Affectionately known as “America’s Mother Road,” this 2,400-mile byway stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles and has inspired artists, authors, musicians, filmmakers and even a clothing brand in the nine decades since it was established.

One of the original roads in the U.S. highway system, Route 66 was replaced by interstates and now is considered a National Scenic Byway. Because of federal revitalization efforts, sites along the route—often marked by neon signs or historic plaques—continue to be destinations for tourists seeking a peak at the past.

Historic Route 66 spans from Illinois to California. (National Park Service)

But there are other stories about Route 66 that are missing from the official narrative. These are the stories told by the nearly 30 tribes with homes along the road and connections to the chapter in U.S. history that included the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, mass migration westward and an economy that blossomed almost overnight along the route.

A new project designed by the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association and backed by the National Park Service aims to add the Native voice to the story. The $50,000, grant-funded project will produce a guidebook that highlights significant tribal sites along the route and shares stories about how Natives were affected by traffic and commerce.

“We’re working to give character to the route,” said Virginia Salazar-Halfmoon, public lands partnership coordinator for AIANTA and project lead for the Route 66 endeavor. “Before now, the information and publicity have been the Hollywood version, the stereotyping, the war bonnets.”

Tourists who stop at roadside attractions see cement teepees and sometimes expect Indians to wear feathered headdresses, Salazar-Halfmoon said. The Route 66 project, which also includes a website presence available to tourists, will bust those myths.

“What we want to do is put a face on tribal nations that are separate and distinct, and give them an opportunity to say what Route 66 meant to them,” she said. “We also want to offer an authentic opportunity for people who want to travel the route.”

The authentic story replaces the stereotypical images with truths about how the road impacted individuals and entire tribes. These are stories about how the federal government used Route 66 in the Indian relocation program of the 1950s and the migration of children to Indian boarding schools. Other tribes tell stories of dirt paths Indians used for generations before the government paved over them and called it a highway.

Salazar-Halfmoon envisions the guidebook as a resource that will identify tribal nations by name and include background, traditional languages and locations of the tribes today. In many cases, tribes no longer exist along the route—the result of government actions.

Significant populations of urban Natives live at both ends of the highway, in Illinois and California, Salazar-Halfmoon said. She wants the guidebook to shed light on how those populations got there.

“There are more urban Indian people in cities than on all the reservations combined,” she said. “I think that’s a symbol that the efforts of assimilation did not succeed and the people in urban areas are examples of resilience in terms of maintaining identity.”

AINATA already has worked with the National Park Service to identify 14 parks with ties to tribes. The NPS plans to add interpretive information to park curriculum, Salazar-Halfmoon said.

Perhaps the most endearing part of the project, however, is the personal stories of individuals with ties to America’s Mother Road. These are people like 73-year-old Mary Lowden, of New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo, who recalls walking to Route 66 in the 1950s to sell pottery from roadside stands.

“We would walk to the highway in the morning then come home before it got dark,” she said. “We took a lunch, sat around and visited with tourists who asked us if we were really Native.”

Mary Lowden, of New Mexico’s Acoma Pueblo, displays a photo of her mother and aunt. (Lisa Snell/Route 66 Project)

Lowden stopped selling pottery in her early teens when she went to boarding school in Albuquerque.

“Grandma said no more selling pottery,” she said. “We were shipped to boarding school because there were too many boys who stopped on the highway to see us.”

When the government widened Route 66 and installed rest stops, the roadside pottery business disappeared, Lowden said. No physical evidence remains of those roadside stands, but Lowden retained her memories and when she turned 66, she even bought herself a T-shirt with the Route 66 logo on it.

“It was fun growing up there,” she said. “I wanted to be forever 66.”

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tmsyr11's picture
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
So many families to the regional southwest have had unfortunate and tragic events along the US Route 66 - I-40 corridor coming and going to Albuquerque. This is what stands out the most.