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Indigenous Cultures

Spring 2012: Artifacts

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: 2012 Trips, Indigenous Cultures, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

Our land is in a mountain range that had special significance to the desert Indians, but it’s doubtful that our property saw much use by Native Americans. There are lots of mining ruins dating back to the 1870s, but whereas I’ve found prehistoric campsites, potsherds, and rock art elsewhere in the range, I have yet to run across artifacts in our canyon.

But my scientist friends hit the jackpot on this trip, finding a large agate scraper on the bajada, and a nice small arrowhead on the slopes.

The boys revisited an area up the canyon where the old miners disposed of their bottles and cans, and collected some nice pieces of purple and blue glass.

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Vision Quest 2016: Indian Wars

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Indigenous Cultures, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

And a beautiful translucent one

Long before I moved to New Mexico, during a period when my love affair with the desert was being tested, I was introduced to Dave, the archaeologist. He invited me along on a site survey, a search for sites or artifacts near a mountain spring in the Mojave National Preserve, we got to know each other a bit, and he gave me a copy of his master’s thesis. I told him about the Indian campsite I’d found in my mountains, and he said it was likely a girl’s puberty ritual site, a remote place that adolescent girls would visit with a female chaperone. The site included a flat-topped boulder with hand-carved hollows called “cupules”, in which the girls would mix paint for their faces, a part of the ritual.

In the years since, we’d fallen out of touch, but I knew he’d bought and moved into the former home of mutual friends, and I wanted to reconnect and get caught up on recent developments in desert archaeology.

Dave was on his way to a historic mining camp in the Preserve, where he was supervising restoration of cabins by volunteers. He invited me to join them, so I drove over in the morning to meet him at a crossroads, and followed him from there on a dirt road that climbed up into a steep area of granite peaks and slopes lush with perennial shrubs blooming red, yellow and blue, with cabins perched on ledges at different levels. It was an area I’d never visited, hidden from outside.

I’m not a fan of mining history or miner’s cabins, but I was quickly sucked into the volunteer spirit, and found myself brushing stain onto the frame of a cabin door while others bustled around me. Then Dave came up and suggested that I join him in a drive across the Preserve for some equipment. In his truck, we had our chance to talk.

My first question was a general one. Since first discovering traces of the Old Ones in this desert, 30 years ago, I’d developed a seemingly complete picture of its native inhabitants, the Chemehuevis, a branch of the Southern Paiute tribe that occupied southern Nevada and Utah. I knew archaeologists theorized that the Chemehuevi were recent migrants within the past 400 years, part of the so-called “Numic Expansion” from the northwest. But I took that theory with a grain of salt. I’d met Southern Paiutes who laughed at archaeologists and confidently asserted that their people had been here forever. I felt it was preposterous, and presumptuous, of Anglo scientists to rewrite the history of native people. Yet the other day, I’d seen a Park Service kiosk that claimed the Mojave Indians as prehistoric natives of the Preserve, omitting the Chemehuevis completely. I wanted to know which Indians I should talk to about the Native sites and artifacts I’d been finding, both here and in my mountains farther south.

Dave’s answer stirred up my settled local worldview. “Well, the Mojaves were here first. The Chemehuevi are newcomers to this desert. They came out of the north and kicked the Mojaves’ asses. You know about the Numic Expansion?”

“Yeah, I know about that theory. But the Southern Paiute had no history of a warrior culture. The Anglos just rolled over them with little resistance, everywhere they met. They avoided violence.”

“Well, that’s not completely true. They were guerrilla fighters. That’s how they beat the Mojave. The Mojave fought with clubs and tried to engage their enemy in hand-to-hand combat, while the Chemehuevis hid behind cover and shot them with arrows, from their powerful sinew-backed bows. They just kicked their asses, and the Mojaves gave up the desert and retreated to the River.”

“But how could the Paiutes have this overwhelmingly warlike, expansive culture of conquest for hundreds of years, then suddenly settle down and become peaceful once they’d migrated?”

“Well, they really didn’t. They fought back against the whites in the 19th century.”

“My impression was that they didn’t. Look at Carleton’s Campaign of terror, beheading them and mounting their heads on poles. We were the warlike ones, and we scared the shit out of the Chemehuevis.”

“Well, that’s true, but there are also accounts of Chemehuevis attacking whites. Dave Kessler, the rancher, was killed by Chemehuevis, along with a few other early settlers. And a war party of Chemehuevis trounced our military in a long, pitched battle at Zzyzx. You can read about that.”

“I will. I’ll read anything you can point me to. But I’m really having a hard time visualizing the Mojaves living out here. The Mojave are sedentary farmers. The Southern Paiutes are the ones who follow the old ways, nomadic hunter-gatherers perfectly adapted to the desert. How could some of the Mojaves live out here as nomadic hunter-gatherers, then just give it up and rejoin the main body of their tribe as settled farmers on the River?”

“That’s true. The Colorado River is the center of Mojave life and apparently always has been. But all the evidence shows this desert was dominated for millenia by what we call the Patayan culture, the ancient culture the Mojaves have inherited. I was on an excavation recently in the Woods Mountains, an amazing site with cultural materials in layers up to my neck, and it’s all Patayan, all Mojave.”

I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my desert.

“The archaeologist David Earl has written about a big battle between the Chemehuevis and the Mojaves down in your mountains. The Chemehuevis just slaughtered them. They were not a peaceful people.”

It was a long drive across the Preserve to pick up the equipment at a historic ranch. On the way, we passed the stone cabin where my artist friend, Carl, had lived as a hermit for many years, perfecting his style of painting the desert. It was a high plateau lush with blooming shrubs in rainbow colors. The prehistoric cultures of the desert were Dave’s specialty – his passion – as an archaeologist. He was clearly sincere and conscientious. He gave me lots of references to papers and sources, and I needed to track them down and follow up. But I felt there were things in the prevailing view that didn’t make sense, that didn’t add up, and later, as I began to locate Dave’s references, I saw that the Numic Expansion remains controversial even among mainstream archaeologists. I kept seeing Calvin Meyers, the Paiute environmental activist, standing beside me on a desert mountainside, smiling out over the beautiful valley that our culture has since despoiled with a giant solar power plant. “We have our own stories. Why would someone else try to tell us where we come from?”

Dave mentioned rock art studies and theories alongside more conventional archaeology, which surprised me. In my experience, conventional archaeologists take a dim view of rock art studies, viewing them as pseudoscience, partly because rock art generally lacks a proven connection with dateable deposits and ethnographic accounts. But the desert is somewhat unique in that here, rock art is the most widespread, numerous, and visible artifact of prehistoric culture, so it can’t just be ignored. The last time I’d read about Mojave Desert rock art was when Whitley published his manifesto linking rock art with male shamans using psychedelics – I found that preposterous, citing all the petroglyph sites in exposed locations with clear functions of signage and wayfinding. Dave agreed that much of Whitley’s thesis had been rejected, but his identification of prehistoric motifs with “phosphenes”, the shapes we hallucinate or see under pressure to our eyeballs, is hard to dispute.

I asked him about treatment of the dead in prehistoric societies – did he think cremation or abandonment was more common, or were Native people just opportunistic and pragmatic? He felt treatment of the dead was a serious matter, following prescribed ritual. He mentioned cremation burials he’d found at Paiute Springs – rock cairns containing burnt bones and topped with upside-down metates, once again associated with Patayan or Mojave culture.

To me, the most important, most sacred, site in the desert is a cave that for me is associated with fertility and conception. It’s lined with colorful paintings with differing degrees of wear, suggesting that it was used and maintained for a long time, and I’d always assumed it was a Chemehuevi site. I thought I could remember young Chemehuevis visiting the site years ago, and it had later been purchased by members of the tribe and turned into a preserve.

But when I asked Dave for contrasting examples of Mojave and Chemehuevi rock art, what he showed me associated the oldest, most prevalent, and most coherent art – all the art I was used to, including the fertility paintings – with the Mojaves, the sedentary floodplain farmers, rather than the nomadic hunter-gatherers who were perfectly adapted to the desert. Apparently the association had been made by rock art specialists on the basis of comparision with patterns on Patayan pottery. Dave repeated his assertion that the campsite I’d found was a girl’s puberty site, and that based on my description of potsherds found there, it had to be a Mojave site, more than 400 years old. Anything old and lasting in the desert was from the Mojaves, not the Chemehuevis.

It was tough news for me to chew on, especially as I recalled the oral culture of the Chemehuevis, recorded by ethnographers, which included myths and legends describing the creation of this desert landscape. How could newcomers enter and conquer a strange land and then establish detailed and elaborate songlines – all-night song cycles including a place-based mythology – within a few generations, a process that the Aborigines of Australia had 45,000 years to develop? Is it likely that the Chemehuevis would have borrowed these songs and stories from the Mojaves, the people they conquered? That certainly isn’t what we Anglo-Europeans did when we conquered and imposed Christianity on the natives of North and South America.

Later, back at one of the miner’s cabins which had been “stabilized” with a new roof, windows and a furnished kitchen, Dave finished working on a contract for his latest project, a study of black homesteaders in the Mojave. Whereas the local historian, Dennis Casebier, had labored for decades to record and publish the stories of white homesteaders in the Lanfair Valley, nobody, including me, had heard the story of Lanfair’s counterpart, the adjoining black community of Dunbar. Dave had stumbled upon it accidentally, won a sizable grant for research, and was really excited to see it unfold.

The restoration group gathered around us that night: the serious “cabin brotherhood” from suburban California, the female nonprofit staff from Santa Fe, and their young Navajo carpenters from Gallup. The Santa Fe staff complained about “anti-cabin” forces in the Park Service, while the brotherhood spoke of their admiration for the old prospector who’d built this place, and their intimate relationship with his descendants. They’d set up a shrine of sorts to him and his family, along one side of the kitchen. So many obscure hobbies and subcultures in our huge, affluent society, consuming resources from all over the world!

Dave entertained us with the story of a Park Service ranger who, unwilling to appear ignorant, lectured European tourists on how the local name “Ivanpah” came from an early Russian prospector – whereas it’s actually derived from the Paiute term for “clear water”. One of the cabin brothers described a group of visiting Russians he’d encountered on a previous trip, high up on the rocky ridge above the cabins. They were all burly guys with long black beards, and they claimed to have walked almost 40 miles without food or water, but they refused any help or supplies, and they wouldn’t say where they were going.

The cabin brothers had unrolled their bedrolls in the back room, and most of the rest of us had set up camp outside, spread out across the upper slopes. But the young women from Santa Fe had pitched their tent inside a side room of the already weatherproof cabin, as if they weren’t sure whether they wanted to be indoors or out. They’d found a cell signal and sat inside the tent, inside the cabin, texting or Instagramming, to the amusement of the rest of us.

I laid out my bedroll in the duff under a juniper and wrapped the tarp around the sleeping bag for extra insulation. The temperature dropped into the 30s overnight, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

A week later, I returned to my mountains for the last time before heading home to New Mexico. On one of the first hikes of this trip, looking down from the edge of the plateau, I’d noticed the house-sized rock outcrops standing out on the bajada, and I remembered that my friends had talked about hanging out there once, around the time they’d found artifacts in the area. Some old hippies I’d met camping in the gulch also mentioned finding artifacts around one of these rock piles, so it suddenly hit me that there were probably prehistoric sites nearby that I’d been walking past and missing for years. It occurred to me that this might be an outlier of the girl’s puberty site above on the plateau, a staging area where the girls might camp out after their long walk from home, before making the strenuous climb to the plateau. I couldn’t go home without taking a closer look.

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Opening the Book of the Past

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Indigenous Cultures, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

Some real drama here

Excitement Rekindled

The old railroad town, hours away from any city or interstate highway, lay sheltered in a high-desert canyon between stark cliffs. The peace and quiet were emphasized by the Union Pacific freight trains that rumbled through the town’s meridian every half hour or so, past the beautiful old Spanish-style depot that faced my motel from across the tracks.

As I rested up from my trip to the lost plateau, I realized I had no further plans, and no idea what to do next, other than a vague thought of revisiting the mountains and canyons of southern Utah. I’d been away from home almost a week, and I was bleeding my precious savings on gas and motel nights, but if I returned now I’d end up having driven more than four days, to achieve only two days of camping and hiking.

My usual fallback is to study the maps for the area I’m in and the direction I might be interested in going, but it was the weekend, so the local BLM office was closed; I’d have to rely on the limited, mostly out of date maps I had and whatever info I could dig up on the internet, using my motel room wifi. And that turned into a conflicted process that took up most of a sunny Saturday, in between walks along the tracks, under the golden cottonwoods, past the quaint, historic buildings.

The Nuwuvi were closer to the center of my mind now than when I’d started this trip, partly because of what they’d said about rock art at the Pahranagat Visitor Center. In response to a general query about maps, the ranger there had passed me a stack of brochures describing natural attractions within an hour or two’s drive of here, and a few of them identified rock art sites I was totally unfamiliar with, all within Nuwuvi territory. However, after all the driving, I also felt obligated to get in some more serious hiking, but the rock art sites were all close to a road. In a few hours of searching I learned that I was surrounded by some promising BLM wilderness areas. One, south of me, sounded really beautiful.

But I had no idea what the camping situation would be like. In town, I’d repeatedly run into groups of hunters in camo buying provisions, and I envisioned driving a couple of hours on a back road only to end up at a trailhead full of ATV trailers and hills ringing with the sound of gunshots, just like back home at this time of year.

Somehow, the hints that I’d picked up at Pahranagat were gradually tugging at my heart and overcoming the appeal of simply exploring wild nature. Remembering something from my deep past, a trip Katie and I had taken almost 30 years earlier, I began to sense the excitement and adventure of rock art exploration – perhaps enriched by what I’d since learned about anthropology and ecology. Since I was already thinking about Utah, I started searching online for more info on rock art sites. As I’d expected, all the really interesting ones were much farther east, and I’d already been to most of them. But there was a famous one, Nine Mile Canyon, that we’d skipped because it was north of I-70, an arbitrary line we’d set in order to stay within our schedule.

Nine Mile Canyon was much farther from home than I’d planned to go on this trip, and would force me onto the dreaded interstate for a couple of hours, but the seed had been planted – and who knew how long it would be before I had this chance again?

County of Carbon

Many mountains intervened! All of Sunday was spent driving through high country, under a dark sky heavy with storm clouds, over mountain passes I hadn’t seen for decades and couldn’t remember at all. In western Utah, a hunter’s pickup truck pulled out onto the highway in front of me, towing a trailer carrying an ATV with enclosed cab. See the mighty hunter, I thought, wafted to his prey in the comfort of his glass-enclosed bubble. Then poorly secured plastic bags began to blow out of the pickup’s bed and all over the sagebrush beside the road. The hunter remained oblivious, cruising well below the speed limit, so I pulled out to pass, and saw that the entire back of his truck was plastered with dozens of belligerent pro-gun and anti-liberal stickers.

In the afternoon, from the interstate, I began to glimpse higher mountains to the south of me holding patches of snow above treeline, in the shadow of the summits. Traffic was blissfully light, but I was still relieved when I was able to turn off onto the two-lane state highway north to Price.

It was a beautiful drive past high-desert farms and ranches and through rural hamlets, up a rising plateau walled on the west by majestic multi-colored badlands, canyons, cliffs and towering terraced mountains. I passed two coal-fired power plants and a sign marking Carbon County. The sun set extravagantly behind breaking clouds and I hit the edge of Price as dark fell.

I had accurately anticipated Price to be even smaller in population than my hometown, but before reaching downtown, I drove past mile after mile of industrial suburbs. It was full dark by the time I turned onto Main Street, where I immediately spotted the large Prehistoric Museum that the rock art websites recommended I visit for guidance to Nine Mile Canyon.

Camping is not allowed in or around the canyon, and during the two days that I used Price as my base, the larger context of this place gradually became clear to me. Carbon County refers to the fossil fuel reserves – coal, oil, and natural gas – that prehistory has accumulated under the ground here. Hence the Prehistoric Museum, or at least the dinosaur half of it. And hence the power plants and all the supporting industries that I passed on my way in, and the flashy new municipal facilities paid for by fossil fuel revenues. Coal built the old county, and natural gas is building the new one.

The people were super nice, from the college-age kids who checked me into my motel, bantering about small towns and enthused about rock art, to the patrons and management of the downtown laundromat where I refreshed my wardrobe while listening to friendly family gossip and well-wishing. Contrary to my impression of Mormon homogeneity, I passed churches of all denominations and saw a poster for a Catholic festival. But the restaurants ranged from mediocre to pathetic, indicating an insular and complacent culture. I only had one decent restaurant meal in the entire second week of my trip.

In the morning, I could see that Price sat in a semi-circular basin surrounded by the broad arc of the terraced Book Cliffs. And here, geology had indeed become an open book, especially after the arrival of the Americans with their heavy machinery, mines and wells.

Creators and Destroyers

You enter Nine Mile Canyon through a high pass lined with aspen groves, dropping into a narrow feeder canyon featuring an inactive coal mine, pungent sulfur springs, and a gas pipeline that parallels the road. A new sign welcomes you to Nine Mile Canyon itself, which is actually 40 miles long, with a newly paved road, a meandering, clear-flowing creek, and a broad, serpentine floodplain occupied by a series of ranches where herd after herd of cattle share pastures with herd after herd of deer. There are a lot of ruins from pioneer days, and a few very modest ranch houses, but all were unoccupied when I was there. I visited on week days, and almost all the traffic consisted of big trucks servicing the natural gas wells on the plateau above, which is reached via dirt roads up side canyons. The main canyon was very recently improved for rock art visitors, with the paved road, picnic areas, and signage added, all courtesy of the Bill Barrett Corporation, which works the gas fields.

For more than a decade before the improvements, the Barrett trucks caused irreparable damage to the rock art by raising lingering clouds of dust from the old dirt road that continually drifted onto the art panels. But for more than a hundred years before that, American frontiersmen – heroes of countless movies – caused even more damage by hacking, shooting at, and obscuring the native art with their own crude graffiti. Nine Mile Canyon is billed as “the world’s longest art gallery”, but after two days of exhaustive exploring, I felt like I’d actually seen more graffiti and vandalism than art.

But that’s probably the unfair result of my own frustration after two days of squinting and peering through binoculars, trying to spot faint markings on the rocks above, while driving short distances along the canyon floor, followed by searching for a place to pull over, and scrambling up a steeper and steeper talus slope to the base of a cliff hundreds of feet above the road. This, while rural and very remote, was a far cry from the wilderness hiking I also yearned to be doing. But as rock art people know, rock art is addictive.

I had no plan beyond exploring the canyon to see what was there. But finding, studying, and photographing the rock art alongside a narrow road with truck traffic proved to be grueling and stressful. With 40 miles to explore, I felt I had little time to contemplate each panel, so I mainly focused on taking pictures to examine later. I only made it a third of the way down the canyon on Monday, and assumed I would leave the area Tuesday. But when I woke up refreshed the next morning, I realized I would have to return and finish. Instead of picking up where I left off, I drove all the way to the end, had lunch and drank a beer, and that made all the difference. The second day was more relaxed and more insightful.

But as I returned to town, I was overwhelmed and perplexed. Nine Mile Canyon is considered a center of the so-called Fremont culture (named for Utah’s Fremont River), and most of the art I’d seen is attributed to them, from roughly a thousand years ago. Although many of the petroglyphs had impressed me, I was predisposed to think of the Fremont as the backwards neighbors of the Anasazi (now called Ancestral Pueblo) who left the famous cliff dwellings of the Colorado Plateau, farther south and east. The Fremont had lived in primitive-sounding “pit houses”, and on the archaeologists’ timeline they fell between the archaic Basketmakers, creators of the most impressive rock art in North America, and the advanced, city-buildling Puebloans.

After devoting two days to their rock art, I decided it was time to refresh my knowledge of the Fremont, by visiting the Prehistoric Museum in Price. Did their culture deserve a closer look? Maybe I’d even learn something that would add focus to my – so far haphazard – wanderings.


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Closing the Circles

Friday, November 11th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Indigenous Cultures, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

"Artisans of the Rock", painting by Joe Venus

Rising From the Pit

Rising on a chilly morning in Price, Utah, after spending two days frenetically exploring the prehistoric rock art of Nine Mile Canyon, I was determined to learn more about the so-called Fremont people who had apparently created it a thousand years ago. When I left my motel, heading down Main Street to the Prehistoric Museum, I saw snow on the high ridge above the Book Cliffs to the west, product of the storm clouds that had moved over the area yesterday while I was out in the canyon.

Mostly alone in the silent archaeological galleries of the museum, I eagerly studied the exhibits, which focused primarily on the ancient Fremont culture that had spanned most of Utah, while providing both more ancient (Ice Age) and more recent (Native American tribal) context. Information, while new to me, was provided in fairly conventional forms, leaving me to gradually absorb and process what I’d learned, during the next few weeks, and to eventually add insight from my own eclectic research and work.

But one revelation happened immediately when I walked into the main gallery. Straight in front of me at the back of the hall, illuminated by spotlights, was a full-scale reconstruction of a Fremont pit house from Nine Mile Canyon.

When I first encountered the Fremont legacy and archaeological theories in the late 1980s, during my rock art expedition with Katie, I thought of them as less interesting, more primitive, and therefore doomed neighbors of the Anasazi who lived in cliff dwellings to their south and east. And when I heard about Fremont “pit houses”, I dismissed them as crude animalistic nests. Who would want to live in a pit?

But as I walked toward the reconstruction, it came alive for me, and I suddenly saw myself living there willingly and happily, snug in a spacious, vaulted open plan shelter that would be warm in winter and cool in summer, with everything I needed organized and within reach. This was much better than the supposedly more advanced Anasazi’s ancestral pueblo cliff dwellings with their cramped, dark, uncomfortable warrens.

I also immediately recognized other vitally important implications that made the Fremont more interesting and more inspiring than the Anasazi. And while methodically reviewing the surrounding exhibits, I learned to my surprise that one theory of the Fremont’s “demise” is that they eventually merged with the Nuwuvi and other adjacent tribes that were migrating into Fremont territory as part of the hypothetical Numic Expansion. So the Fremont may be an important part of the story of the Nuwuvi, the native people I’ve been closest to for decades.

Finally, an information panel attached to the museum’s “Pleistocene hunters” diorama described the scientific controversy over the cause of the famous Quaternary Extinction Event. One old theory, popularized in the media, holds that Native Americans hunted the Pleistocene megafauna to extinction. But native technology was clearly never powerful enough, and native populations never large enough, to achieve that. The dysfunctional compartmentalization of science ensures that many contemporary biologists cling to the disputed theory that makes them feel better about their own work, regarding natives as irresponsible savages.

Houses of Peace

During the years after Katie and I explored the Anasazi cliff dwellings of the Colorado Plateau, I was bothered by how cramped, uncomfortable, and inconvenient they seemed. I could hardly believe they had been used as full-time dwellings, but even if they had, their hidden, often inaccessible locations and fortress-like construction suggested that, far from the crowning achievement of an advanced civilization, they were more likely the refuge of timid people who lived crowded together like ants, with no privacy, in constant fear of attack.

The misleadingly named pit houses of the Fremont, on the other hand, were clearly the spacious private homes of families who were living in peace, at ground level, unafraid of attack. They had somehow managed to develop a peaceful, egalitarian, and sharing society over a wide area to the north of the Puebloans, whose conflicted and violent culture would cause the invading Spanish so much grief in later centuries.

The museum’s description of archaic social organization, informed by the social organization of recent desert tribes like the Nuwuvi, shows that the egalitarian and communal culture ascribed to the Fremont was not only sustainable, it was sustained for 7,000 years in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, while Anglo-Europeans and other so-called advanced cultures developed their extremely hierarchical, unjust, unstable, and incessantly warlike nation-states and empires which would come to dominate the entire world. And the Fremonts’ material remains show that native ecology likewise remained stable and sustainable through those thousands of years. The only important changes during that long period represented resilient adaptations to changing climate, as communities became more or less settled or nomadic, more focused on agriculture or foraging and hunting.

In essence, the Fremont were part of a timeless tradition following natural cycles, so the Anglo-European scientific bias toward technological progress, origins and endings, ages and eras, carbon dating and linear timelines, is misleading and inaccurate. Forget the 7,000 years. Fremont are today and always.

By the Numbers: Rock Art Motifs in Nine Mile Canyon

After returning home and reviewing my rock art photos, I began to realize I could only justify the effort I spent in the canyon by trying to make sense of the rock art panels in retrospect. And I could only do that by thoroughly analyzing the content of the panels – making up for my rush through the canyon, my inability to hang out and contemplate each panel, my failure to give them the time they deserved.

So I reviewed the photos over and over again, identifying and naming the motifs that seemed important to me, and counting them to get a sense of their relative importance or value to the artists themselves. I know this is one way in which archaeologists have studied rock art, but I didn’t want to distract or bias myself by first referring to the archaeological literature. I needed to go on the basis of my lifelong experience as an artist, and the experience with symbolic communication that I’ve acquired during the 15 years of my Pictures of Knowledge project.

I analyzed 56 panels in total.

[table id=1 /]

Rock Art Questions and Insights

What did the panels consist of?

  • Humans appeared in only about a third of the panels, indicating that the artists attached more value to nonhuman phenomena, and were not strongly anthropocentric, like Anglo-Europeans
  • There was no sign of conflict or violence between humans
  • Humans were overwhelming depicted as asexual, indicating a lack of gender bias
  • One in every 7 humans depicted was given horns or antlers, indicating superhuman (male game animal) power, and suggesting that showing this power was an important motive for creating some of the art
  • Only one of these empowered humans was shown as male, with a penis, suggesting that “shamans” were not predominantly male
  • Less than 10% of the humans depicted were shown as hunters, challenging the conventional assumption that rock art represented “hunting magic”
  • In Fremont art, as in other desert rock art styles, the human torso is sometimes exaggerated and/or filled with symbols or patterns. Referring to the Fremont clay figurines, these decorations are sometimes assumed to represent clothing, fashion or decoration. But the torso can alternatively be seen as a container for symbolism, for example clan insignias, personal identification, or signs of power.
  • The famous “Great Hunt” panel was unique among the panels. This in itself suggests that big game hunting may not have been as important as it is normally assumed to be. Or even that this panel could be a later fabrication…
  • Almost half the panels included bighorn sheep, reinforcing the importance of this game animal, later driven to extinction by Americans
  • Sheep were shown as being hunted in only 20% of the panels in which they appeared, suggesting – surprisingly – that their importance went far beyond the act of hunting
  • More than a quarter of the sheep panels showed them being herded by dogs, whether for hunting or not. One would think that mountain sheep could quickly escape uphill in these rocky canyons, unless the hunts were arranged in a location where the hunters were somehow blocking their escape. The dog images surprise me, because I’ve never encountered any mention of the use of hunting dogs by prehistoric societies in the Southwest.
  • Only one possible and one likely plant image appeared, suggesting, surprisingly, that farming and foraging were not important to makers of rock art, or not at the time rock art was created
  • However, could the rectilinear dot patterns represent garden plantings or crop fields?
  • Based on my experience, both abstract and representational motifs were similar here to those used throughout the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, reinforcing the sense of cultural continuity and timelessness already cited above under “Houses of Peace”
  • Panels ranged from single motifs, to symbolic compositions, to seemingly random collections, and finally to obvious narratives
  • As in my Pictures of Knowledge work, symbols can be simple or compound (combinations of multiple simple symbols)

How were they made?

  • Were they made continuously for hundreds of years, or only at certain times or during specific periods?
  • Were petroglyphs male-created, and pictographs female-created, or were they made by both sexes?

How were they used?

  • As a tool for teaching youth and perpetuating knowledge and wisdom? This resonates most strongly with my own experience in the Pictures of Knowledge project.
  • As a record of important events or configurations for remembering, emulating, and reinforcing social bonds?
  • As a visual model of a proposed goal, for study and evaluation?
  • As a plan for a proposed project?
  • As an evocation or invocation of ancestors, animals, or spirits they were seeking to benefit from?
  • As maps or directions?
  • As clan symbols or markings of territorial claims?


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Art, Time, and the Desert

Sunday, November 13th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Indigenous Cultures, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

Double rainbow at Escudilla Mountain

Rain Angels

When I checked out of my motel in Price and headed over to the Prehistoric Museum, I had been planning a quick review followed by a drive south of I-70 into more familiar, and well-loved, territory on the way back home. But in the museum, while having my eyes opened to the ancient Fremont culture, I’d run across a map to rock art sites with a thumbnail photo that intrigued me, from a site north of 70 that I’d heard of but knew nothing about.

On the way there, in late morning, I crossed the high plateau of the San Rafael Swell on a wide, well-maintained gravel road, past lonely oil wells, the occasional corral, and two surprisingly unskittish pronghorn antelopes, finally descending into the head of a canyon. Winding sharply back and forth between rising cliffs, the canyon quickly acquired monumental, spectacular dimensions. Just as driving became a challenge – because my head kept whipping from right to left in amazement – I began noticing dirt side tracks that would certainly lead to informal campsites. And then, around a sharp turn in the sheer thousand-foot cliff beside the road, the rock art appeared, and I pulled into a small dirt parking lot surrounded by wood fencing, information kiosks, and pit toilets.

It’s always a challenge when heart-stopping beauty appears as you’re driving. And it’s a tragedy that a road was built through this canyon, so that some of the most impressive art in North America is only a few yards from the automobile, one of the most destructive of our myriad destructive machines. The overhanging cliff was awash with midday sunshine, and the paintings were dimmed by glare, but my heart felt about to explode as I humbly approached, craning my neck, as the artists intended we should, to look up at the larger-than-life images hovering above in the golden light.

The specialists call this style “Barrier Canyon”, and it’s attributed to the vaguely defined “late archaic” culture that may have been ancestral to the Fremont in most of Utah. Archaeologists say these people lived in pit houses, practiced a mix of hunting, foraging, and limited farming, and relied on baskets as containers, on the brink of learning to make pottery. That’s about all that is suspected of them.

But the museum in Price implied that these people were part of the continuum from Paleolithic to first-millennium Fremont and recent Nuwuvi, which seems intuitive to me, except for the fact that their art is radically different from what came after.

As an artist, I find this work the most compelling ever created on this continent. It’s a heart reaction, not the result of analysis, but it begins in the recognition that the art is integrated with the landscape that was these people’s home, and it appears to have been perfect, and timeless, from the start. When I attempt to analyze, I see that it’s overwhelmingly anthropocentric, and intended to impress, if not intimidate, the viewer, which disturbs me on an intellectual level. In general, Barrier Canyon artists chose monumental sites that would emphasize the scale of the art and the smallness of the viewer, and we Anglo-Europeans tend to unconsciously respond to them the way we would to the interior of a cathedral.

Specialists have conjectured that these larger-than-life humanoids represent ancestor spirits and shamans – in this case, someone with rainmaking medicine. What does it mean to have a stretched, or stretching, torso, and minimized head, arms, and legs? I’m still working on that, but on the most basic level, it suggests transformation and transcendence of the body, perhaps toward and beyond death, to what we generally call the spirit world. This unique style of art may have been made across a broad geographical area during a specific period of time when people were under stress and needed the help of powerful spirits, but in other traditional cultures, those spirits have been recognized in nonhuman form: clouds, lightning, serpents and other animals – since subsistence cultures know and accept that humans are totally dependent on natural ecosystems for our sustenance.

And why was this powerful style of art made only during this early period, and not afterwards, when people surely had the same ability? The vast majority of rock art in the West is either didactic or obscurely abstract. Barrier Canyon art remains a compelling mystery, just representational enough to suggest we might be able to understand it. As Katie and I discovered, hallucinogens can provide the best introduction to rock art, and I deeply regretted not having any this time around.

Realizing that I couldn’t effectively photograph the art in full sunlight, I got back in the truck and scouted campsites both up and down canyon, settling on one about a mile and a half up-canyon from the art. I was late for lunch, and put something cold together, then headed back into a side canyon for a day hike toward the cliffs above. I didn’t go far, but got in a good climb up successive ledges and talus slopes, and the always welcome experience of being totally dwarfed by a landscape of stone.

One thing that surprised me here was the low angle of the sun at midday, noticeably lower than at home – but that was emphasized by the towering cliffs. Warm in the sun but cool in the abundant and long-lasting shade, my campsite turned out to be frigid until late the next morning.

In late afternoon of that first day I walked back down the road to the rock art site, and found a young rock climber from Moab who had soloed a nearby stone tower and stumbled upon this place unexpectedly on his drive home. I enjoyed and shared his awestruck reaction as we both tried for good photos.

As dark fell, after dinner, I took short night walks up and down the road, just for something do. The little traffic on this remote road, the occasional truck or RV, ended at 8 pm, and I went to bed not long after, sleeping well until the freezing dawn, after which it took hours for the sun to rise above the cliffs enough to warm my campsite and freshen my sleeping bag where I’d draped it over sagebrush. Then I made a last brief visit to the rock art, and headed south out of the mouth of the canyon.

The photographs below are impressive, but you really need to be there. As an artist, I seek experiences like this, but I actually find it hard to remain long in the presence of this ancient but timeless work, in this remote and intimidating, yet in many ways idyllic, place, without, literally, fainting from an excess of emotion.

Latterday Holy Land

I drove through familiar country at the eastern edge of Nuwuvi territory with less than my usual attention. It was a long drive, and I’d decided to “quit while I was ahead” – I’d seen and learned far too much to process already. And a storm was moving over the region, the forecast was for rain, and the cold, lonely morning in my canyon campsite decided me on a motel room for the night, followed by an even longer drive home the next day.

However, in the morning, before leaving Utah, I decided to make one last detour. Thirty years ago, Katie and I had been especially impressed by some petroglyphs and modest ruins here, near the epic sweep of Comb Ridge. I’d tried to relocate them several years ago, but failed. This time, guided by a brief note on a rock art website, I followed a dirt road to its end and a trail that led down the cliff face. I immediately recognized the rock art, and glimpsed ruins across the canyon under an overhang, but the place wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Maybe my memory was rusty. This would have to do as a final contact with prehistory.

The first panel, above a ledge below the east wall of the canyon, exhibits a distinctly more ordered composition and polished execution, not to mention a more representational style, than the Fremont work in Nine Mile Canyon. These petroglyphs, and the “cliff dwelling” ruins, are associated with the Anasazi – now termed Ancestral Pueblo – culture, but the elongated human figure may reflect some influence of the archaic Barrier Canyon style. The imagery includes a prominent, elegant crane – which would’ve been found along the San Juan River a few miles south – botanical or horticultural imagery, and the first fish petroglyph I’d seen on this trip – a native chub, now endangered by the arrogant habitat engineering of us Americans.

The two ruins tucked away, almost invisibly, under the canyon’s west wall, also differ dramatically from each other. The larger is mostly adobe and has “melted” almost beyond recognition, while the smaller, of drystone construction, remains evocative of domestic utility, but on a very “tiny home” scale. Specialists say that Ancestral Puebloans were short – men averaged 5′ 5″, women 5′ – but I’m not much over 5′ 5″ and I would’ve been uncomfortable sleeping in any of these rooms. So while I find cliff ruins evocative and their architecture ingenious, I can’t identify with their culture.

The rock art above the ruins follows a narrow, vertiginous ledge dozens of feet above the ground, and reaching it in the first place would’ve required a ladder, making this the least accessible canvas I’d seen on this trip. And the style of these petroglyphs more closely resembled Fremont, suggesting a different time frame and origin from the panel across the canyon. A number of big robust birds without topknots – maybe ducks or geese – some curious little humanoids with doglike ears, and at least one turtle.

The mixture of styles here, in conjunction with the ruins, presents a cultural mystery, perhaps indicating completely different societies using this site during different time periods.

As I was heading back across the canyon, a rustic-looking retired couple emerged from the canyon bottom and began examining the ruins. I waved, then watched as the man clambered up the sloping cliff beside the stone house holding a camera and the woman went inside the house and climbed up into the “bedroom” so he could take her picture through a window in the side. Climbing on these ruins is strictly forbidden, because it accelerates their deterioration, so I was shocked, but was reluctant to say anything since these strangers obviously intended no damage.

But after returning to my truck, I realized it was time for lunch, so I made a sandwich and waited for the couple to show up.

The clouds overhead were darkening and wind was picking up. When they arrived at their SUV, I walked over, assured that I meant no disrespect or criticism, but politely warned them that a ranger or archaeologist wouldn’t tolerate climbing on ruins, and explained why.

They listened with blank expressions. Then the man smiled and asked, “Have you read the Book of Mormon?”


“Well, you should, because it talks about the Lamanites, the people who built these ruins. You know we white folks are the Nephites, and the Native Americans the Lamanites whose land this was before we showed up.

“Science says ‘this is the way it might have been’, but the Book of Mormon tells the truth of how it was. And after visiting places like this, I’ve prayed on it, and more of the truth has been revealed to me.

“That’s what you should do, read the Book and pray on it.”

He was still smiling, but more intently.

“Well, my brother’s read the Book of Mormon, maybe I’ll ask him for some pointers.”

He mentioned a rancher friend whose land contained unexcavated ruins, and said he was looking forward to studying them at his leisure – presumably without the prohibitions that applied to public land. We wished each other safe travels – the wind was beginning to splatter rain all around – and I got in the truck to drive south toward home.

I’m respectful of all religions because I see their primary function as unifying a community under a single code of behavior so they can support each other, mediate conflict, and mitigate abuse. I see some good things in Mormon principles, but I reject any form of proselytizing or missionary work, and I note that Mormon society shows an unfortunate embrace of capitalism, consumerism, and technological progress – mirroring the dominant secular society.

I’m also unorthodox in my attitude toward archaeological ruins. Whereas vandalism to rock art sickens me, I view ruins as future resources to both responsible humans and the ecosystem at large. Vandalism by urban consumers is pointless and wasteful, but the reuse of both historical and prehistoric materials found in ruins by people in subsistence communities is fair and just.

Thanks to these folks, I didn’t have to pray for a revelation. While driving away, I realized that to a Mormon, exploring the prehistory of the Utah homeland is like a mainline Christian visiting the Mideastern Holy Land. The Book of Mormon provides the basis, and visiting the prehistoric sites of the Lamanites can add insights – revelations – beyond what’s in the gospels, taking you deeper into your religion, perhaps closer to God, and possibly more committed to principles of good behavior.

Closing the Circles

I drove through rain, often heavy, on and off, all day, giving my arm and windshield wiper controls a real workout. I’d initially expected to stop for the night, wanting to avoid driving the last hundred miles, with the risk of deer crossings, in the dark. But it was time to be home, so I just kept driving.

I always love coming out of the pass into the Nutrioso Valley of Arizona with a full view of Escudilla Mountain looming like a whaleback. Snow was sprinkled on its north slope, and then as I reached midway down the valley I noticed a rainbow to my left, and pulled over. The speeding Arizonans in their big new trucks and SUVs raced on, oblivious, as I tried to capture a panorama of what turned out to be double arches, perhaps the most glorious I’d ever seen.

Later, coming down out of the mountains in the dark, still an hour from home, I began to see broad, almost continuous explosions of lightning over toward Silver City, as if a major war were underway. It faded, then resumed, then finally moved off, as I got closer. A half hour from home, I saw a bright falling star drop quickly to the horizon directly ahead.

This trip had started as a challenge to my precious hiking ability, with the epic climb to the Lost Plateau, but along the way the Nuwuvi reached out and grabbed me, reminding me that their heritage lived on in the timeless desert culture and its vibrant rock art. I was led to connect the “Ice Age” prehistory of the Great Basin and western Rocky Mountains seamlessly with the natives of my Mojave Desert, learning much more about their sustainable, comfortable, admirable way of life, while highlighting the remaining mysteries of regional adaptations like pottery versus basketry and the singular Barrier Canyon style of art.

The desert and its culture teach me the heresy that time is not a line or a progression from primitive to advanced, punctuated by technological innovations or revolutions that make humans more and more the masters of themselves and their world. For contemporary scientists to proclaim an Anthropocene Era in the history of the earth is like the Nazi’s proclamation of the Thousand-Year Reich: hubris mistaking temporary power for long-term sustainability. The Fremont, who practiced or abandoned small-scale farming as conditions allowed, teach me that agriculture is not an innovation that irreversibly enabled the rise of civilization and the destruction of nature. In an accurate, sustainable, cyclical view of time, agriculture is part of the timeless toolkit of resilient, adaptive cultures, a tool which can be abused at a culture’s peril.

Likewise, native rock rock art is tied to a subsistence ecology, and reflects the adaptation of culture to environment, whereas the Anglo-European art tradition is driven by technological progress in the quest to dominate and control nature and increase human power and convenience at the expense of the ecosystem, resulting in “advances” and “revolutions” in which previous art styles become obsolete. The Anglo-European art tradition – which has progressed through Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Postmodernism, etc. – can’t be timeless like rock art. It’s always time-bound, transformed by the Age of Empire with its rifles, cannons, and shipping fleets exploiting distant, exotic cultures, transformed by the invention of photography, movies, plastics, video, the computer, the internet. We speak of the “international art scene”, but even in places like China, art’s forms and movements remain the forms of the dominant technological powers.

Native rock art long ago weaned me from the value system of the dominant society, in which art is technology-driven – a commodity in a competitive money economy, a status symbol, or an entry in the public discourse of high civilization – the misguided discourse of a dysfunctional, failing society, dominated by alienated experts and authorities. While I carry a lot of baggage from the Anglo-European tradition, including deep sympathy for my struggling brothers and sisters in the fine art underground, I truly value the abstract petroglyphs of the Nuwuvi, as well as the ancient Barrier Canyon paintings of the Basketmakers, far more – as art – than the work sanctioned in our highbrow art schools, media, galleries and museums. I really do. My own art will never be more than a feeble attempt to emulate those natives who had a critical, respected role in a timeless society.

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