Remembering the Southwest's 'Indian-detour'

By Travel Writers

May 3, 2014 7 min read

By Jim Farber

"Words are futile things with which to picture the fascination of this vast enchanted empire, unspoiled and full of startling contrasts, that we call the Southwest."

So proclaimed a 1926 brochure produced by the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Co. to promote multiday tour packages known as the "Indian-detour."

"It is the purpose of the Indian-detour," the flowery text declared, "to take you through the very heart of all this, to make you feel the lure of the real Southwest that lies beyond the pinched horizons of your train window. ... The Indian-detour affords a glorious motor break in the transcontinental rail journey."

A master of marketing and organization, Fred Harvey (1835-1901) turned the American Southwest into a tourist adventure. His grand hotels, such as the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon; the La Posada in Winslow, Ariz.; and the La Fonda in Santa Fe, N.M., were designed to enhance travelers' experiences by immersing them in a totally unique atmosphere — and they still do.

The grand scale of the architecture and the bold details of the interior spaces conceived by the great American architect Mary Jane Colter (1869-1958) emphasized a mixture of colonial Spanish, Navajo and Pueblo motifs. The public spaces and bedrooms featured craftwork by local painters, woodcarvers, tile-makers, and leather and iron workers.

Southwest Indian silver work, pottery, weaving and kachina dolls were exhibited and sold in the hotel's gift shop. And it was not uncommon for guests to come upon a group of Navajo women working at their looms in a corner of the hotel lobby.

Then there were the Indian-detours and the "Harveycars," special 12-person motor coaches designed to take visitors to see ancient ruins, Spanish colonial churches and the New Mexico pueblos of Taos, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Jemez Springs, Laguna and Acoma — visits often timed to coincide with tribal ceremonial dances. It was exotic travel in 1926, when most people (especially from the East) had never seen "a real live Indian," let along ventured into a pueblo to witness a Corn Dance.

The young women who accompanied the tours as "hostesses and guides" were known as the Courier Corps. As the 1926 brochure states, "The Harveycar Courier Corps is comprised of young women, attractive and refined. Many were born in New Mexico and speak Spanish fluently. The majority are college graduates. ... Couriers' friendship with representative Indians in many pueblos assure their guests of intimate glimpses of Indian life not otherwise obtainable."

There were those, however, who saw Harvey's marketing of the Southwest and its native peoples as exploitive and intrusive. The American artist John Sloan (1871-1971) produced a scathing series of etchings on the subject. One, sarcastically titled "Knees and Aborigines," depicts a Hopi ceremonial dance observed by a nonchalant group of cigarette-smoking dandies and their Gatsbyesque flapper companions.

To his credit, Harvey (a transplanted Englishman) and his company did try to stress education and cultural understanding as a part of the Indian-detour's mission statement. And while it may have been demeaning, the sale of souvenir Indian crafts to tourists provided much-needed income to Native Americans who had very few opportunities to earn money.

The beautiful irony is that the Harvey Hotels and the Indian-detour gave rise to the first great generation of Southwest Indian artists, most notably the two pueblo potters Maria Montoya Martinez (1887-1980) and Iris Nampayo (1860-1942) whose work today fetches enormous sums and is treasured by museums and collectors.

With the possible exception of movie director John Ford, who showcased the panoramas of the Southwest in classic westerns like "Stagecoach," "My Darling Clementine" and "The Searchers," no one ever did more to promote and market the region and its native peoples than Harvey. It's a legacy that continues to this day, as anyone who has ever attended the dances at the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon or Indian Market in Santa Fe can attest.

One of the crown jewels of the Harvey system was La Fonda (now known as La Fonda on the Plaza), which opened in Santa Fe in 1922. Its beautiful interior, designed by Colter, features rough-hewn wood, Mexican tile, stenciled wall designs and hand-painted glass panels.

Today La Fonda on the Plaza is gleaming as never before after undergoing a multiyear, multimillion-dollar restoration that was designed to re-create the hotel's original artisan character but with all the amenities of a modern five-star hotel. The sky-lit Plazuela Cafe with its charming painted glass panels has been restored, and a lavish set of 14 rooftop deck suites has been added.

Striking art from the Santa Fe Railroad era dominates the lobby along with work by contemporary artists. There's even a small Georgia O'Keeffe behind the check-in desk. And although most visitors may not appreciate its significance, the original hand-carved sign for the Indian-detour still hangs gloriously over the hotel's concierge desk.

The Indian-detour may be gone with the wind, but the points of interest to which it transported visitors in the 1920s still hold their attraction. To visit Santa Fe is wonderful. To visit Santa Fe and not venture into the countryside, however, is to miss the remarkable experience that is northern New Mexico.

Visit the pueblos. Meet the people and learn about their craft tradition. Take the back road (New Mexico 76) from Santa Fe to Taos through the picturesque villages of Chimayo, Truchas and Las Trampas. You never know, maybe the ghost of one the Indian-detour motor coaches will pass you by.

 La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, N.M., where "Indian-detour" tours originated, retains its character while offering modern amenities. Photo courtesy of Jim Farber.
La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, N.M., where "Indian-detour" tours originated, retains its character while offering modern amenities. Photo courtesy of Jim Farber.

Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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