ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A new story is unfolding along historic Route 66 thanks to a yearlong project coordinated by a tourism group with help from the National Park Service and American Indian tribes along America’s Mother Road.
The result is a guidebook and website detailing the histories of more than two dozen tribal communities along the 2,400-mile byway and their relationship to the road that helped change the West.
Stretching from Chicago to California, more than half the route cuts through Indian Country.
Those behind the project say their work is aimed at filling the gap between reality and the stereotypes once used to lure travelers along the route, from the billboards that featured Indian figures wearing war bonnets to staged photo ops and metal teepees.
Tribes now have a venue to tell their own stories, said Lisa Snell, who was tapped by the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association to spend a year traveling the route, doing research and conducting interviews.
It was an eye-opener even for Snell, a Cherokee and publisher of the Native American Times.
“It was so much different from what I had been exposed to during childhood, growing up watching the Lone Ranger and what you saw in the advertisements. What I experienced was completely different from the images and the things I read,” she said.
The guidebook is being unveiled this week by the tourism association. It includes stories of how communities were affected by the commerce that came along with traffic on Route 66.
The book and website also cover the role played by the federal government’s Indian relocation program of the 1950s and how the romance of the roadway was partly spurred by the marketing of the Hollywood version of the Indian.
Snell’s research and interviews indicated what happened along America’s Mother Road was more about money than the sharing of a culture.
“Because of the socio-economic conditions, what do you do? You take the job, you put on your buckskins, you put on your war bonnet and you have your picture taken. You do the job,” she said. “That’s been perpetrated through today. It’s still that image we have. It’s lingering.”
Sammye Meadows, who works with the tourism association, said interest in tourism has grown among tribes now that some have fostered successful programs for tapping their own cultural resources.
Foreign visitors alone account for an estimated $7 billion in annual spending in Indian Country and visitation by overseas travelers has grown by nearly 1 million over the last several years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“It’s an evolving thing and I think a lot more stories will come forward,” Meadows said. “People will have stories they would like to contribute to the overall sort of correcting of the tribal image.”
Aside from history that stretches back to the Pueblo Revolt in the centuries before New Mexico was a state and the creation of reservations, the new guidebook includes details about key sites along Route 66 — both old and new — as well as etiquette for attending powwows and tips for buying arts and crafts.