Courtesy AIANTA
A faded Route 66 sign is shown in front of historic Summit Inn diner, located at the southern end of the Cajon Pass—the trail linking the desert with the California coast through San Bernardino.

Adding an Indigenous Narrative to the Incomplete Story of Route 66

Alysa Landry

Get ready for a road trip that promises to challenge every stereotype about Native American history.

Travelers preparing to hit the road can take along a new guidebook produced by the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, funded by a National Park Service grant and released just in time for summer vacation. “American Indians & Route 66” is a 65-page, magazine-style guidebook and complementary website that add the indigenous narrative to the story of America’s most famous highway.

“Route 66 is known as a symbol of America, and it can tell just about any story of America in the first half of the 20th century,” said Kaisa Barthuli, manager of the National Park Service’s Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. “But a lot of the stories to date have been coming from travelers’ perspectives, from people driving the route, not the perspective of those living along the route.”

The 2,400-mile road, which stretches from Chicago to Santa Monica, was an officially commissioned highway from 1926 to 1985. Affectionately called “America’s Mother Road,” the route gained a reputation for greasy diners, wide-finned Cadillacs and an array of American Indian-themed tourist destinations.

More than half of the highway—roughly 1,370 miles—lies in Indian country, yet the attractions too often perpetuated a monolithic view of the American Indian, said Cherokee writer Lisa Snell, who spent a year traveling the route, interviewing residents and writing the new guide.

An Indian Territory marker is seen just south of the Kansas border, off Route 66 north of Quapaw, Oklahoma. (Courtesy AIANTA)

In Oklahoma, for example, a sign for the Cherokee Trading Post depicts an Indian in a Plains-style war bonnet (which the Cherokee did not wear). In Arizona, a Navajo trading post boasts the “World’s Largest Tepee” made of sheet metal. (The traditional Navajo dwelling is a hogan). And a chain of seven historic “Wigwam Motels” along Route 66 each featured a cluster of tipi structures.

Route 66 still represents the nostalgia of the first half of the 20th century: the Dust Bowl, westward migration, post-World War II optimism, and the era when Americans first started traveling by automobile. It also has inspired voluminous references in popular culture—from fine arts to clothing brands—but stories of the 30 tribes that live along the route are missing from the official narrative, Snell said.

“The story is incomplete,” she said. “This is not just the happy-go-lucky version of history you get from the songs and popular references.”

Instead, Snell said, the Native stories are about eminent domain and how construction of Route 66 robbed tribes of land and appropriated their cultures for commercial gain. In some instances, like New Mexico’s Isleta Pueblo, the Natives put up armed resistance when Route 66 began cutting through their land.

In other areas, the Native narratives are about forced removal to reservations, boarding schools, land allotments or relocation to cities.

“As I was talking to people, the story that consistently came out was loss,” Snell said. “It wasn’t just land, but culture, architecture, arts and crafts and identity being used.”

In the 1930s, for example, the Fred Harvey Company hired Pueblo Indians to serve as guides on the famous “Indian Detours.” These guides were outfitted in uniforms of feathers and buckskins, and looked for all the world like Plains Indians, Snell said.

In 1931, Pueblo Indians were employed by the Fred Harvey Company’s Indian Detours as tour guides. They were often outfitted in “uniforms” of feathers and buckskins reminiscent of the dress of the Plains tribes. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

“These were people doing a job,” she said. “Because of the socioeconomic reality of the time, they were playing Indian as a way to survive, but the road helped perpetuate the image of this homogenous, one-size-fits-all, buckskin-wearing, Hollywood version of the Indian.”

The new guidebook aims to replace the stereotypical images with the truth. The romance associated with Route 66 came largely from American Indians, Barthuli said. Now tribes can use the road’s reputation to change the way road-trippers view history.

“Travelers were introduced to Native American culture via the road trip and so often Route 66 was promoted by the tourism industry, so we have all this misconception about tribal culture,” she said. “What makes this project so important is that it’s an opportunity for tribes to provide accurate information. Now travelers can still drive the road, but they can visit and learn about the Native nations the right way.”

The Acoma Cultural Center is seen from the top of “Sky City,” a tribal tourism destination along Route 66. (Courtesy AIANTA)

The guidebook, which starts in Illinois and follows Route 66 through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, includes historical narratives of American Indians who lived along the route. It also provides contact information for tribes, along with lists of events, attractions and accommodations available for travelers—and rules of etiquette for outsiders visiting tribal lands.

For Sherrie Bowman, of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, the guide validates the Native experience. As a child living near Route 66 in the 1960s, Bowman remembers tourism along the highway being a significant part of the economy.

“We all hung out on the south side of the village,” she said. “Route 66 came right through the middle, and we could always spot a tourist because they drove really slow. They would approach us [and] pay a dollar to take our picture.”

A digital copy of “American Indians & Route 66” is available here.

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Charles Shillingburg
Charles Shillingburg
Submitted by Charles Shillingburg on
Yes, it is time for more accurate representations of Indians across America, and America is ready for it. As mentioned at the end of the article, Rt 66, Fred Harvey and others' depiction of all Indians looking like Plains Indians fit Americans' perceptions of Indians at the time. While incorrect, it created a major market for Southwestern Indian rugs, jewelry, pottery and other tourism related business in the East that sustained Indians for many years, when there were few other economic opportunities available at the time.