A drive to Taos Pueblo

In contrast to Ross’s harsh dismissal of African Americans he was less explicitly indifferent toward America’s indigenous population. Perhaps it was because the Native American population, compared to African Americans’ almost 13 million, was insignificant: according to the US 1940 Federal Census it was  just over 300,000, even though its number had been steadily rising since the turn of the 20th century.

Surely what must have contributed to his judgment was the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Ross saw this legislation approvingly, yet misguidedly, as initiating a policy that allowed “Indians to become Indians again”, as he titled one of the chapters in his 1935 book Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. It reflects his understanding of the Act as promoting a return to tribal life and communal ownership on the reservations, where young and old together could restore and revive their culture in their own schools, celebrating their own rituals, and continuing their own customs, away from the society of the whites.

But that is not quite what it was, even though the Act did address some of the more pernicious aspects of the assimilation policies that had prevailed until that time. And while it gave an unprecedented, albeit still limited, autonomy in economic, legal, administrative, and cultural affairs to Native Americans, Ross’s regressive view of things was a mere fantasy in which the damage of decades would simply be undone. Besides neglecting the disagreements among Native American tribes about the merits of the Act, he did not take into account the economic, social, and political realities, one aspect of which was the extent to which Native and white Americans’ affairs were entwined.

This was particularly true in the case of the Pueblo Indians, in northern New Mexico, at first sight the most unassimilated of all Native Americans—hence their appeal to romantic notions of Indian life. Ross had written about them in his abovementioned book and he filmed in one of their communities, Taos Pueblo, in early 1939. What had obviously escaped him entirely was that ever since the early 20th century the Santa Fe railroad had marketed northern New Mexico as a drive-to rather than a drive-through destination. In this the Pueblos, their crafts, ceremonies, and architecture played a pivotal role (it was for that reason, for instance, that downtown Sante Fe got an adobe makeover in the 1910s). Not that the Pueblos were consulted in all this, but they seized the opportunities it provided all the same. By the 1930s the success of the railroad’s strategy had turned tourism into the region’s major source of income. Ross, however, still writes that “the village economy rests on communal cultivation” and the effect of tourism “is surprisingly small”.1

In actual fact, this landslide shift in the local and regional economy had profound effects on the pueblo communities. It brought droves of visitors and their money to the Pueblo Indians, particularly their potters, jewelers, weavers, etc.—whose products, and their sales outlets, changed under this new demand—, while others went to work outside their communities in the tourist industry and its ancillaries (hotels, souvenir shops, food stands, gas stations, etc.).2 The IRA was precisely meant to stimulate and reinforce such entwinement, albeit on a more equal footing than was common.

In the end one must conclude that Ross’s inaccurate view of Native Americans was of a kind with his segregationist and separatist ‘solution’ for African Americans.

Nico de Klerk

Colin Ross, Die Dorf-Hochhäuser der Pueblo-Indianer. In: Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 179-182.

Topic: Indigenous peoples
Case: American journeys


1 Colin Ross. Amerikas Schicksalsstunde. Die Vereinigten Staaten zwischen Demokratie und Diktatur. 12. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1942 [1935]; 181. See Library.

2 Kenneth W. Dauber. Shaping the clay: Pueblo pottery, cultural sponsorship and regional identity in New Mexico. [doctoral thesis] [Tucson]: University of Arizona; 1993; 17-21; 51-105, arizona.openrepository.com/arizona/handle/10150/186155.

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