Birth of Route 66
The idea of Route 66, a pioneer of today’s paved interstate highway system, was first vetted during a June 1924 meeting of the American Association of State Highway Officials in San Francisco, California.
Also in June of 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act passed Congress, stating that “all non-citizen Indians born within the territorial limits of the United States be, and they are hereby, declared to be citizens of the United States.”
The two events aren’t related, but they coincidentally mark two pivotal moments in the modern evolution of Indian Country—a stroke of a pen made American Indians citizens of the United States and a line on a map made a big portion of Indian Country more easily accessible to tourists.
Reservations and Removal
In 1824, a mere 100 years before the concept of Route 66 was born, the Office of Indian Affairs (now known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs or BIA) was formed within the War Department. The purpose of this office was to broker the treaties and agreements with Indian nations conquered by the U.S. military as settlers made their way westward to fulfill their “manifest destiny” – their divine right to land of their own in the “new world.”
Today, approximately 56.2 million acres are held in trust by the United States for Indian tribes and individuals. These lands include Allotted Lands held in trust for individuals and families, and restricted lands, where the title is individually held but limited in use by the Secretary of the Interior. There are approximately 326 reservations.
Indian Country 1853
In 1803, most of the land acquired by the Louisiana Purchase (except for the Arkansas Territory and the states of Louisiana and Missouri) was considered Indian Country. It wasn’t until the Indian Removal Act of 1834 that an official Indian Territory was created. However, westward expansion and gradual forced land cessions by American Indians whittled away at Indian Territory’s borders until 1854, when Congress passed the Kansas Nebraska Act, carving out land for the future states of Kansas and Nebraska. Many tribes that had already been removed once from homelands further east were forced to move again, this time to live within the borders of the Indian Territory we know today—the present state of Oklahoma.
American Indians in the 1920s
According to the 1921 Census report – a mere six years before Route 66 – only 284,853 American Indians were counted in a country of more than 106 million people.
One can imagine that not many Americans had ever met an American Indian face to face at that time, much less visited an isolated reservation. A drive from Chicago to Los Angeles on Route 66 would expose travelers to tribes with indigenous origins from the Northeastern seaboard, the forests of the Southeast, from the Great Plains, the desert Southwest and the Pacific coastal mountains.
At a time when reservations had a 75 percent unemployment rate and residents had a life expectancy of a mere 43 years, Route 66 and the automobile would soon change life in many ways for American Indians living along its course.
Tourism in the Southwest
As early as 1925, Arizona Highways, a state supported magazine, became a driving force in promoting tourism to the Southwest, publishing articles extolling the wonders of the incredible landscape and exotic Indigenous peoples.
According to John M. Coward, author of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (June, 2016), the magazine “represented two kinds of Native Americans for the tourist trade – the colorful, traditional Indian who lived an ‘authentic’ and apparently contented life in the desert, and the competent, progressive Indian, not so exotic or bizarre as to be inaccessible. This two-sided figure was the perfect tourist creation – romantic and colorful but not frightening or hostile, seemingly content, timeless, and well off the political agenda.”
In 1926, businessman Ford Harvey launched an all-expense auto tour featuring inhabited Indian pueblos, ruins and scenic points of interest. The tours whisked intrepid travelers away from the Santa Fe railroad depot in distinctly marked Harvey cars and coaches, and took them on the journey of a lifetime.
In an article published in the New York Times Magazine that same year, Francis McMullen wrote, “Tourists have invaded the Indian country of the Southwest. Over roads once ridden by the conquistadors, the sightseeing busses now honk their way; and into even the remote vastnesses of the Pueblos penetrate these curious city folk. They seek no longer the gold sought of old by Spanish cavalier or Yankee sourdough, but merely the sight of a real live Indian in his feathers and paint…”
In 1931, Pueblo Indians were employed by the Fred Harvey Company’s Indian Detours as tour guides. They were outfitted in “uniforms” of feathers and buckskins reminiscent of the dress of the Plains tribes. Tourists could even become an “honorary” Indian chief.
Urban Indian Relocation Program
In 1952, the federal government initiated the Urban Indian Relocation Program. Offices were established in several major cities: Denver, Colorado; San Francisco and San Jose, California; St. Louis, Missouri; Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio; Dallas, Texas; and finally, Chicago, Illinois at the east end of Route 66 and Los Angeles, California at the west - all far-flung from the country’s largest Indian reservations. This was another effort by the government to divide and assimilate American Indians into the mainstream and leave their heritage and culture behind.
This program managed to create the largest migration of Indians in American history outside of the Trails of Tears and Long Walks forced upon tribes by American westward expansion. During the ‘50s, young American Indians took to the highways and railways to pursue government provided training and mainstream jobs in these large foreign environments. It's estimated that as many as 750,000 Native Americans migrated to the cities between 1950 and 1980.
Promises Made, Promises Broken
According to Public Broadcasting’s Indian Country Diaries, Indian Relocation participants were supposed to receive temporary housing, counseling and guidance in finding a job. They were to be provided permanent housing, community and social resources. The new migrants also were given money to tide them over on a sliding scale based on the number of children in the family. A man, his wife and four children got $80 a week for four weeks.
That's what they were promised. Some found that the promises were not kept. Not everyone found a job, and those that did were generally at the lower end of the economic ladder. Many became homesick so far away from their families and familiar landscapes and decided to return to their reservations. Those who stayed eventually found other Indians although they usually were members of another tribe. By now inter-tribal marriages created a new generation of Indians who's identity was split between two or more tribes.
Off the Reservation
“But where are all the Indians?” the young visiting student asked Wilma Mankiller, then Chief of the Cherokee Nation. “Probably down at Walmart like everyone else,” the famous late tribal leader joked. At least, that is how the well-circulated story about Mankiller’s sense of humor goes. But really, where are all the American Indians?
Because of the government’s efforts to terminate and relocate tribes in the 1950s, American Indians can today be found in all walks of life, from coast to coast, in major cities, small towns, traditional reservations, pueblos and everywhere in between. According to U.S. Census figures, in some areas you are just as likely to run into an American Indian at a Walmart as you are on an Indian reservation. In 1940, only around 8 percent of American Indians lived in cities. By the 2000 Census, 64 percent lived in cities.
(Incidentally, WIlma Mankiller was raised in San Francisco, California, one of the government’s relocation cities established in the 1950s. She was 11 years old when her family arrived from Oklahoma. Mankiller later referred to the San Francisco Indian Center, located in the Mission District, as her after-school refuge.)
Route 66 forced its way east to west, following the railroads. As the roadbed was laid and the highway inched its way from Chicago to Los Angeles, it laid claim to even more Indian land for the United States – land not ceded in treaties or bought from American Indian tribes.
“Treaties rest at the heart of Native American history as well as contemporary tribal life and identity. The approximately 386 treaties that were negotiated and signed by U.S. commissioners and tribal leaders from 1777 to 1868 enshrine promises our government made to Indian Nations. But they also recognize tribes as nations – a fact that distinguishes tribal citizens from other Americans, and supports contemporary Native assertions of tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”
- Kevin Gover, Pawnee, Director, Nation Museum of the American Indian