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The American Indian Experience of Route 66

Santa Fe National Historic Trail

National Park News

What comes to mind when you think of Route 66? Is it vintage cars, neon signs, diners, and the trip of a lifetime into the American West? Route 66 represents a transformative era of American history. American Indian nations have always been an integral part of the historic road’s story, yet that perspective is not often told.

Route 66 passes through the lands of approximately 27 federally-recognized tribes, yet the tribal perspective is seldom told. Most of the promotion of Route 66 came historically from non-Indians such as tourism promoters, Trading Post operators, and travelers. Today, the popular history of the road still focuses on the romance and adventure of those traveling the route and the tourist-oriented sites along the way. To understand our nation, and therefore ourselves, it is important that the whole story be told.

The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program (NPS) held a tribal listening session on March 20-23, 2012, to start a discussion about the American Indian experience of Route 66. Held at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, eight tribes responded to some big questions about the interpretation of the Indian story. How can the tribal experience of Route 66 be accurately told? Are there historic or culturally significant sites on the route that concern the tribes? Is there interest in pursuing preservation, education, and/or tourism opportunities?

The meeting opened with a keynote address from Chad Smith, former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. He spoke of Route 66 as the second Trail of Tears, explaining that nearly half of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma traveled to California on Route 66 in search of jobs not available in Oklahoma. 

During the listening session, tribal members described the changes brought by Route 66, such as confiscation of land to build the road. They also spoke of changes in tribal arts due to the tourism trade and the powerful impact of a new cash economy on their families and lifeways. Current and upcoming projects of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program on tribal lands were also presented and discussed.

For the last two days of meetings, a collaborative of ten archival institutions known as the Route 66 Archives and Research Collaboration joined together for their annual meeting and to discuss the historical record of the American Indian experience. Methods for researching, developing, and improving access to Route 66-related tribal information within their institutions were explored.

The Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program is administered by the National Park Service’s National Trails Intermountain Region. More information about the program is available at


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