July 17, 2013

“Save Wigwam Village”: On the Road to Cross-Cultural Communication

  • By: Aria Danaparamita

Wigwam Village #2 in Cave City, Kentucky was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Seven of these roadside motels once stood in Kentucky, Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Florida, and California.

In the old days before the interstate, you would take the Dixie Highway, one of the first north-south, cross-country roads in the U.S. Driving with the windows down in a vintage car, you'd see these curious structures emerge on the roadside, beckoning in a retro sign: "Sleep in a Wigwam!"

No, they’re not actually wigwams; in fact, they're formed like tipis. And yes, it may have been one man’s misguided cultural appropriation. But "Wigwam Villages" are an iconic -- if controversial -- piece of American road-travel culture and history.

Wigwam Villages is a motel chain scattered across U.S. highways with rooms inspired by tipis, tents used by nomadic Native American tribes of the Great Plains. Of seven, only three remain today. Wigwam Village #2 in Cave City, Kentucky, is the oldest of the three.

“Across the country they’re disappearing: the motels, the signs, the restaurants,” laments Larry Mestel, founder of Friends of Wigwam Village. The group of Louisville-area businessmen and retirees hopes to restore Village #2.

But it raises the question: How should we “Save Wigwam Village” and best represent America’s diverse cultural legacy?

A family photo circa 1955. The units are built like cone-shaped tipis (and not dome-shaped wigwams). Traditionally, tipis could be disassembled quickly when a tribe moves to a new area.

Kentucky has representatives of several Native American nations, including Cherokee, Shawnee, Diné (Navajo), Lakota, and others. But they have nothing to do with these “wigwams.”

It all started in the 1930s when Frank A. Redford thought travelers would want to “Sleep in a Wigwam!” Substituting animal skin and wooden poles with stucco and steel, Redford offered his guests a unique hotel experience. Wigwam Village #1, now gone, was built in 1933; Village #2 opened in 1937.

Fifteen tipis, 14 feet wide and 32 feet tall, cluster in a semi-circle around the grass. Inside, the rooms are snugly furnished with old hickory furniture. “They’re intentionally designed to be a throwback in time,” Mestel says.

But Village #2 is getting left behind. “Cave City is like other small towns that have been bypassed by the interstates,” Mestel says. “It is a challenge to keep [the motel] up and to succeed in the market.”

Chester Lewis bought the rights to Redford’s design and expanded the chain. Two other surviving motels are in Holbrook, Arizona (pictured) and between Rialto and San Bernardino, California.

Saving Wigwam Village won't be easy. First, stereotyping and appropriation of Native American culture remain a problem. For starters, there's the incorrect naming (wigwam vs. tipi), then the geographical gap: tipis are used by tribes of the Great Plains, not Kentucky, east of the Mississippi. And there's something unsettling about turning a tribal tradition into a kitschy roadside attraction. (The story would be different if tribes themselves choose to market their own culture.)

David "Thundering Eagle" Fallis, Principal Chief of the Southern Cherokee Nation of Kentucky, says, “Though the Southern Cherokee Nation of Kentucky would be extremely pleased for anything that brings attention to the history and ongoing plight of Native Americans everywhere, we do not welcome such things as ‘Wigwam Village.’ It is an absolute absurdity to portray Native Americans of this area as ‘wigwam’ dwellers -- as you know, our people lived in log and mud huts and even had fortifications around many.”

Katie Algeo, Western Kentucky University professor, calls it “cultural identity theft,” and that the "tourist occupation of a Wigwam Village teepee was also the ultimate symbolic act of colonization."

Friends of Wigwam Village has a contract to purchase the Cave City property on September 30, 2013. “The current owners have been very helpful in the process,” Mestel says.

On the other hand, these “wigwams” are a 20th-century icon in their own right.

“It’s not an authentic representation of American Indian culture and to recapture that wouldn’t be the goal,” says Mestel, who describes himself as a quarter Native American. “The goal would be to recapture that golden age of motor travel in the '40s and '50s.”

The solution? Cross-cultural communication. The Kentucky Native American Heritage Commission works to promote better understanding of Native American culture.

“We have been involved in trying to change the stereotypes, trying to correct the myths,” says Helen Danser, chair of the Commission and member of the Native American Intertribal Alliance in Kentucky. “I’m not opposed to [the Wigwam Village] being there if it’s done in an appropriate manner because it would be a wonderful teaching tool."

Friends of Wigwam Village agrees. “We can also use it as an educational tool [for visitors],” Mestel says.

Danser invites preservationists to partner with the Commission and the Alliance. “We would be more than happy to assist them in making an educational program in that Village,” she says.

The road toward cultural understanding goes on. At least, as Mestel says, “it has been fun meeting people along the way.”

Looking for a meaningful way to support the historic local eateries you love? Take it beyond takeout and nominate your favorite spots for a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant.

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