A Route 66 Road Trip Through Indigenous Homelands
I’m seeking out the histories and communities that existed before Route 66 and that survive still today.
The wind is so powerful on top of the mesa that even hours after I’ve returned to the valley below, I’ll be wiping its ancient sand from the cracks and crevices of my skin. In the Keres language, this is Haak’u, New Mexico’s Pueblo of Acoma, a sky city perched on a 300-foot bluff, some 7,000 feet above sea level—the oldest community in the United States. Although there is no running water or electricity, around 50 people live on the mesa year-round in brick homes—some covered in wattle and daub, others in adobe—just as their ancestors have since at least the 12th century. Beyond the pueblo is a 156-square-mile territory of mammoth stone formations and cottonwood trees that road trippers traveling Route 66 have been visiting since the 1950s. But what was once haphazard and unregulated is today a self-sustaining enterprise directed by the Acoma people that welcomed 72,000 visitors on guided tours last year. “We give them the opportunity to walk our sacred land,” Melvin Juanico, operations manager of the Pueblo’s Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum, tells me. It’s one of the dozens of modern and historic Native American places included in a travel guide decolonizing this most famous of American roads.
I, too, am on the great American road trip. But not one of the “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie variety. That Route 66 road trip is one of erasure, one that conceals the Indigenous history of this land with the expanding White capitalism of early Americana.
That Route 66 road trip exploits the stereotype of the “Indian” while simultaneously denying Native peoples (and other non-White groups) self-representation and access to the kitschy motels, diners, and gas stations that made the so-called “Mother Road” famous. A lot of pain is along this road—sites of massacre and forced assimilation. But Route 66 is also a story of hope—not just of Native American survival, but of success, too. I’m here to explore that road—or at least the portion of it stretching between California and Oklahoma—and to seek out the histories and communities that existed before Route 66 and still survive today. The e-travel guide American Indians and Route 66, which the American Indian and Alaskan Native Tourism Association created three years ago, will help me suss out those landmarks and historic places associated with 25 Indigenous tribes and pueblos along the Mother Road.
It’s not quite 8 a.m. on a sunny March morning in Los Angeles when I head for the highway. I have four days to make this more than 1,400-mile journey, and I steel myself for the miles ahead. Driving east out of Los Angeles toward the Mojave Desert, I try to imagine how this land looked before it was covered in concrete. Route 66 snakes through the homeland of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, but despite centuries of historical documentation and 7,000 years of evidence from nearly 3,000 archaeological sites, the tribe has not yet been given the federal recognition that would afford the community the right to sovereignty, self-governance, and a series of benefits and protections.
When Route 66 opened in 1926, it was one of the nation’s first long-haul east-to-west arteries, connecting Chicago to Los Angeles. The two-lane highway gave rural farming communities throughout the Midwest and Southwest better access to markets and, in the 1930s, served as the primary route for drought-weary farmers and unemployed laborers to escape the Dust Bowl for the promised land of California. After World War II, the Mother Road became a route for travel and leisure, spawning a seemingly endless succession of motor lodges, diners, gas stations, and curio shops catering to middle-class Americans at the start of an epic love affair with the automobile. Today, it’s just one of a network of roads and highways through an urban-suburban sprawl so dense that I lose its thread over and over as I navigate east through Los Angeles and San Bernardino. I drive over the San Bernardino Mountains, a chain of bald rock faces sweeping dramatically upward from the valley. Once in Barstow, Route 66 dips in and out of the four-lane Interstate 40 for almost 1,300 miles to Oklahoma City, just 106 miles short of Tulsa, my final destination.
Although the Mother Road crosses through the nations of multiple tribes and pueblos, the most visible Native American imagery is muddled and generic—Hollywood stereotypes seized upon by White businessmen and mom-and-pop shop owners in the form of eye-catching tourist traps like Rialto, California’s Wigwam Motel, where visitors sleep overnight in 30-foot-tall concrete tipis. In Foyil, Oklahoma’s Totem Pole Park is a series of Pacific Northwest-style totem poles inspired by postcards and National Geographic magazine. Ironically, writes Peter B. Dedek in Hip to the Trip: A Cultural History of Route 66, even as the highway thrived on the exploitation of Native American culture and history, it was simultaneously excluding actual Native American people, along with African Americans and Latinos, from many of its businesses. Along with the Jim Crow era’s ubiquitous “no colored” signs, those declaring “no dogs, no Indians” were hung in shop windows along the length of the highway. Of the thousands of tourism-based businesses on the Route 66 of the 1960s, only 250 were listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide written to safely lead African American travelers to welcoming businesses. There is no record of how many also excluded Native Americans.
Many of the actual Native American places, both those occupied since time immemorial and those Indigenous people were forced to occupy, are easier to miss than their neon-emblazoned, cartoonlike avatars. Though I’m keeping a close eye out for it as I drive out of Kingman, Arizona, I almost breeze by the brick, Colonial Revival-style Truxton Canyon Training School in neighboring Valentine. Beginning in 1903, this residential school forcibly “educated” the children of the Hualapai Tribe with the intent to assimilate them into American life. By the 1920s, children from a number of Southwestern tribes, including the Hopi and Navajo, were sent there. Tucked among brown hills on a bed of dry weeds, the schoolhouse looks out of place in this rural corner of Arizona. Close to the road is a small, impermanent memorial decorated with fake flowers, a monument to those who attended the school over the 34 years of its operation. With no sign and boarded-up windows, the historic schoolhouse is worlds away from the modern attractions built and managed by Native American tribes and pueblos along Route 66. Casinos, in particular, serve as a beacon in the nations of those who have won federal recognition and a major draw for roadside entertainment.
While they have helped secure income for rural nations with limited economic opportunities, as Camille Ferguson, American Indian and Alaska Native Tourism Association executive director points out, most are more than just places to gamble. They are cultural centers. They’re “perpetuating Native American culture through their enterprise,” she says, a truth that is evident not just in their architectural design, but in the museum-like presentation of art and artifacts in places like Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort and the Isleta Resort and Casino, both places where I stayed the night. But Native American tourism doesn’t begin and end with casinos. In northern Arizona’s Hualapai Nation, the tribe has created Grand Canyon West, an umbrella company managing adventure and leisure experiences throughout the territory, including a glass skywalk that hovers 4,000 feet over the canyon’s edge, river rafting tours, and a zip line. “The Hualapai culture is threaded through every part of our tourism experiences,” says Diana Ambrosie, general manager of the Hualapai Lodge on Route 66 in Peach Springs. “Everything we do is meant to be sustainable. … Without the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River, the Hualapai Tribe could not thrive. [The land] means the world to us.” Farther east, in Albuquerque, an urban hub for New Mexico’s 19 distinct pueblos, is Pueblo Harvest, a fine-dining restaurant inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center featuring precontact and postconquest Indigenous fare. A half-mile away, Bow and Arrow, the first brewery owned by a Native American woman in the country, features a lager made with roasted New Mexico blue corn. In Oklahoma’s Indian Country, the Iowa Nation’s Grey Snow Eagle House rehabilitates eagles and educates about avian conservation both via tours at the facility and in off-site presentations. Each year, powwows, festivals, and events welcome visitors to participate in and observe traditional ceremonies, dancing, storytelling, and other culturally significant activities. Whereas some of these attractions are found within a stone’s throw of Route 66, others are farther afield.
The horizon is aflame with the rising sun, the sky painted in shades of cerulean blue and smoky gray, as I drive north from 66 down a lonely road toward the heart of the Navajo Nation and the Hubbell Trading Post. Protected today as a National Historic Site, the trading post was first established in 1878, after the return of the Navajo people to their territory following the brutal and deadly Long Walk 14 years earlier that forced 8,500 to march 400 miles to Fort Sumner. For more than 140 years, this low-slung brick building has served as a center for the sale of Indigenous arts. Out back bleats a small herd of Churro sheep, a hearty breed favored for centuries by the Navajo for their long, coarse wool ideal for weaving into blankets.
“The trading post is quite unique,” trader Edison Eskeets tells me as I admire the textiles drenched in local Ganado red and delicately wrought silver jewelry. Any Indigenous artisans from the region is welcome to sell their work here. But the exchange of goods for money is just one aspect of Hubbell. “Our shop here offers a fair price to everyone, regardless of whether you’re a silversmith, a jeweler, a weaver. We deliver the components of the arts in the community. We tell the story,” Eskeets says. “Therefore, we’re still here.” That they’re still here is one of the underlying themes of this road trip. But, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, it’s not a “miracle” that Native American tribes and pueblos have survived despite the genocidal policies of settler colonialism, on which the United States was founded. Today’s Indigenous nations and communities are “societies formed by their resistance to colonialism, through which they have carried their practices and histories.”
Cheyenne and Arapaho nation
There is, perhaps, no place on Route 66 that provides a better example of the odds that Native Americans have historically faced than the Washita Battlefield National Historic Site. As dawn broke on Nov. 27, 1868, the 7th U.S. Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. George Custer, launched an attack on a winter settlement of the Southern Cheyenne along Oklahoma’s Washita River. Like those tribes who had been driven from their Southeastern homelands to Indian Country on the Trail of Tears, the Cheyenne rejected the U.S. government’s orders that they remain on a reservation and take up farming, a subsistence activity with which they had no familiarity. Custer and his men were there to drive the message home. In what would more accurately be termed a terrorist insurgency than a “battle,” the army assassinated as many men as they could—between 30 and 60—kidnapped 53 women and children, and shot or slit the throats of the community’s 875 horses and mules so that those who had escaped could not return to reclaim the animals and their way of life. It took less than 24 hours to wipe the community off the face of the Earth.
On a freezing March morning, I solemnly walk the interpretive trail across the so-called battlefield alone; no one else is here but the ghosts of those who were destroyed in the name of the country I call home. On the bank of the river, tied to tree branches, tattered cloths in blues and reds wave in the wind—prayer flags hung by the Cheyenne and Arapaho for the ancestors they lost. I mourn with them, not just for this massacre, but for all of the injustices—the residential schools and stolen homelands, the forced assimilation and broken treaties, the discrimination and loss of sovereignty—visible on this all-American highway. I carry this sadness and anger with me as I get back in my truck and head toward Oklahoma City. And then I see a sign that informs me I’m entering the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes territory. I smile to myself: They are still here.