From False Advertising to Cultural Exchange: Native Americans, New Mexico, and Route 66
Over half of Route 66 runs through Indian Country, weaving in and out of the lands of more than 25 tribal nations. Though The Mother Road is today known mostly for its quirky roadside architecture, mom-and-pop shops, and place in the pantheon of iconic American road trips, its connections to American Indians is an irreplaceable—yet often misrepresented—part of its identity.
The National Park Service, American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), and other organizations have dedicated significant time and resources to researching the connections between tribes and Route 66. In 2010, the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published a study for the National Park Service documenting the experiences of Native American tribes along Route 66, specifically in New Mexico.
This study creates a layered picture of Native American life in the state, from the creation of advertisements that fostered inaccurate perceptions of American Indians, to genuine moments of cultural exchange between tribal members and non-tribal members. And while the impact Route 66 made on tribes varies widely from state to state and tribe to tribe, the story of Native Americans in New Mexico echoes similar stories across the whole of Route 66.
Manipulating the “Wild” West Through Advertising
Before Route 66 even existed, the emergence of the railroad in the 19th century set the course, literally and figuratively, for the developments to come. With its lines based on much older foot trails used by Native American hunters and traders, as well as Spanish explorers during the 1600s, the industry also exploited Native American culture to entice East Coast Americans out West.
For example, the railroad industry capitalized on an interest in the last remnants of the exoticized “Wild West” from cultural touchstones like the Smithsonian Bureau of American Ethnology’s 1879 collection of objects from the American West; Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Circus; and the often romanticized and exaggerated stories from travel writer Charles Lummis.
These artifacts and events laid the foundation for an 1896 campaign from the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway (AT&SF) “focused on the American wilderness and the Indian as a glamorous, intangible, and ineffable figure,” according to the National Park Service study.
American Indian culture was so popular that even the
architecture in cities like Santa Fe, which once imitated styles popular in the
eastern United States, changed to accommodate elements of Spanish Colonial and pueblo
architecture, creating “Santa Fe Style” around the turn of the 20th century. Entrepreneur
Fred Harvey, who developed Harvey House businesses designed for travelers along
western railways, was instrumental in popularizing similar architectural styles.
The Harvey Houses often included curio shops for Native American arts and crafts,
as well as demonstration rooms where artisans would practice their styles.
The national fascination with American Indians persisted through the 1920s. When Route 66 was commissioned in 1926, its advertisements—putting Native American iconography front and center—became even more prominent. But while the advertisements gave visibility to the many tribes located near (and often displaced by) the route, they were usually inaccurate stereotypes.
For example, between the 1920s and 1950s, various tribes and pueblos were portrayed as “exotic curiosities,” untouched by the modern world. Promotional materials pictured well-dressed white tourists or sleek, new automobiles next to outdated images of American Indians, creating a distinct contrast between modern technology and the primitive “Indian.”
One postcard of Native Americans and white tourists outside the Alvarado Hotel in New Mexico was purchased so often that, after a few years, the hotel’s advertising department updated the hair and clothing styles of the white characters—but not the Native Americans.
Images of “Olla maidens,” or women balancing ollas (water jugs) on their heads, became popular during this time period as well. The National Park Service study notes that they were an “icon of southwestern otherness for Anglo consumers … but few women dressed like that or walked around with pots on their heads unless they were paid to do so.”
Interactions Between Tribes and Tourists
Armed with imagery depicting a very specific version of Native Americans, Route 66 travelers flocked to these communities in the millions. According to a 1938 report from the New Mexico Tourist Bureau, almost 1.5 million tourist cars visited New Mexico between 1937 and 1938 alone, spending about $80 million within the state. Much of the traffic and tourism was likely brought in by the businesses along Route 66.
Many Route 66 tours were inspired by Santa Fe’s “Fred Harvey Indian Detours,” which were created by Fred Harvey during the heyday of the railroad. According to the National Park Service study, “[white] female tour guides wore concho belts and squash blossoms over their velveteen blouses. Male drivers wore Stetsons, plaid shirts, neckerchiefs, and khaki jodhpurs with silver and turquoise belts.” The men represented cowboys, whereas the women were “Indian maidens.”
When tourists visited the tribes and pueblos of New Mexico, they often attended private or sensitive events such as ceremonies or dances, and many even attempted to photograph the events or enter the sacred spaces, which was (and is today) disrespectful to tribal members.
While such interactions were unwanted or insensitive, the increased tourism did offer some opportunities for cultural exchange between tribal members and non-tribal members. At Acoma Pueblo—of which Acoma Sky City is a National Trust Historic Site —women would barter their pottery and art for new clothing styles and magazines, among other goods. Women also began to combine Anglo dresses with traditional jewelry, though this style of dress was not reflected in popular media at the time.
Route 66 opened up travel between various tribes, too. Members of the Laguna Pueblo traveled by horseback and car to other tribal communities and urban centers like Gallup and Albuquerque. Within Gallup itself, American Indians from a variety of tribes and pueblos—including Navajo and Hopi communities and the pueblos of Acoma, Isleta, Laguna, Jemez, Zuni, and Taos—joined to create the first Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial in 1922.
The ceremonial, which was open to the public, featured campfire dancing as well as handicraft exhibits, foot and horse races, a rodeo, and a parade. Plains tribes, represented by the Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, joined the ceremonial in 1937, and the tradition continues to this day.
As a historic landmark, Route 66 shares a significant part of our full American story. You can see it in the pueblos and tribes that exist today, exposing people living across the United States to a variety of different cultural experiences, as well as in the wigwam hotels and the curio shops that still dot the route, perpetuating inaccurate and offensive stereotypes. By preserving Route 66, we must also commit to preserving and revealing the complex history of the American Indians who have lived there long before The Mother Road existed, and who will live there for many generations to come.