American Indians and Route 66

Route 66 is defined by a long, extended history that features numerous distinct and connected stories, all centered on improved access and new forms of transportation, leisure, economy, and migration. This narrative tends to focus on the Anglo-American, tourist-based experience, and neglects the involvement and experience of African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and others on and along Route 66. It is more than milkshakes and long drives with the family and curio shops. For many Hispanics in New Mexico, it was a new form of economic gain, a point of interaction with tourists who called them “little Mexicans,” or a link that provided access to other communities normally secluded by miles of desert and sagebrush. But before all of this, the Route was (and often still is) part of American Indian lands and connects to an indigenous past featuring extensive trade routes, traditional hunting grounds, and everyday life in settled communities.

Meeting with the archivists at the CSWR

This week, I started putting together interpretive text for the StoryMap Route 66 project. The Program Manager of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, Kaisa Barthuli, urged that it begin with the far earlier history of American Indian movement and trade in New Mexico, which ultimately influenced all other types of travel from Spanish colonialist expeditions to Route 66 family vacations. After all, this land originally belonged to American Indians before displacement and colonization, and it is important to acknowledge that legacy. My first task as part of this section was to find images that convey this past and show the shadow of American Indian travel on Route 66. Ideally, I wanted a map that illustrated American Indian movement and trade prior to colonization. Unfortunately, this was easier said than done. The exact specifications that I wanted, copyright regulations, and quality of images made finding the exact resource difficult. I met with staff from the Center for Southwest Research (CSWR), an archive at the University of New Mexico, to see what they had and searched through different National Trails projects to see if any material could be repurposed. While I never did find the exact map I envisioned, I was able to utilize the American Indians & Route 66 Project, which addresses American Indian heritage on the road.

Pendant, Pueblo III – IV AD 1200 – 1550, BAND 22048

I became more inventive with how I presented information and tried to do a better job of integrating text and images to illustrate a point. Instead of a map that displayed trade routes, I found a pendant from the Bandelier National Monument Collections made of  turquoise, which was traded widely throughout the Southwest. The American Indians & Route 66 site featured numerous quotes and stories that helped illustrate more difficult themes, such as commodification of American Indian culture or the fact that many routes in New Mexico today still cross through American Indian lands. I still have a map or two, but I need to use more than just that to convey this deep history of the road to an audience not as familiar with the material as I am. And, as part of best practices for museum interpretation, a lot of that involves showing, not telling, and letting the people featured “speak for themselves” using quotes and images wherever possible. Following this protocol has also helped establish a format for the project going forward. As I progress into talking more about Hispanic heritage along the road, I hope to keep these points in mind and utilize them throughout the narrative and interpretive text.

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