Native American Rock Art

Rock-art sites may be a key to the past for archaeologists and historians, but they are sacred places of power to the Native Americans whose ancestors created the ancient images.

While the whole natural world is sacred in traditional Native American culture, certain areas, such as natural rock formations or echo canyons, are sometimes considered to be especially powerful. These power places sometimes contain rock art.

Rock art portrays events or ideas, as well as animals, people, or dieties. Montana’s Native American rock art consists of pictographs, images painted onto the rocks, and petroglyphs, which are chipped or carved into the stone surface. Many of Montana’s known pictographs are located in the mountains, usually painted on limestone or granite, and the sandstone formations of eastern and central Montana hold most of the state’s petroglyph engravings.

Much of Montana’s known rock art was fashioned during the last 3,000 years, at places like Weatherman Draw, also known as the Valley of the Chiefs, or the Valley of the Shields. Weatherman Draw is in a south-central Montana valley near the Bighorn Mountains and contains one of the largest known concentrations of Native American rock art in the United States, including petroglyphs and nearly 100 pictographs. The Crow people consider Weatherman Draw a powerful sacred site, as do other tribes, including the Comanche, Blackfeet, Eastern Shoshone, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho. Weatherman Draw is also a perfect example of the struggle Native Americans encounter when trying to preserve their sacred sites, many of which are threatened by exploitation of natural resources like oil and natural gas, as well as population growth and vandalism.

“Weatherman Draw draws a lot of attention,” said Crow tribal elder Barney Old Coyote during a conference at Montana State University-Bozeman centering on the protection of sacred sites. “It’s in an isolated, desolate part of Montana that is easily disturbed. The sandstone rocks are also very open to defacing... there are thousands of years of pictographs alongside new scrawling. It’s a haven as well as a nightmare.”

The defacing of these sacred sites also concerns many non-Native Americans, such as Utah rancher Waldo Wilcox, whose family protected sacred sites at Range Creek Canyon in eastern Utah for more than 50 years before selling the land to the Trust for Public Land. Ranchers in Montana are also loath to talk about such sites that may be on their property, which pleases the professionals, such as archeologists and historians, as well as the Native Americans.

When a site is revealed, however, Native Americans don’t always agree with the process. Archaeologists and students began field work at Range Creek Canyon in 2000, uncovering sites from burial grounds (and human remains) to granaries and rock art, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s Native Americans were not notified about the 4,000-acre site until the general public got the word earlier this year. Federal law requires tribal notification regarding burial site finds only if human remains are to be disturbed, but Ray Heagney, who manages the Missouri Headwaters State Park, said he believes tribal officials should be notified regarding all newly-revealed Native American sites.

“I really want to get the tribes involved,” says Heagney, while discussing a possible new rock- art site west of Bozeman. “This is a very sensitive issue right now.” Heagney says Native Americans like the Shoshone at the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho want to become more involved with cultural events like the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, but distrust of the government runs deep, especially regarding preservation of sacred sites. He cites the destruction last year of a Nez Perce site in Idaho known as “the smoking place” as one example of the vandalism occurring at many sacred places.

“Rock art is the living past of existing cultures,” explains Heagney. “It belongs to them, but it’s everybody’s responsibility to preserve it.”

Anyone who comes across rock art can help to preserve it. Don’t touch, trace, rub, or put liquid on the art. Do not enhance or change the pictures, and do not add your own “rock art” to a site. Individuals can also help with the recording and documentation of such places. That’s where people like the Greers come in.

John and Mavis Greer are a husband-and-wife archaeology team based in Casper, Wyoming. The couple met in college, and they have been documenting Native American sites in the Montana and Wyoming region since the mid-1970s.

“We’ve recorded over 100 rock art sites alone in the state of Montana,” said Mavis. While the couple mostly works with the Federal government on compliance surveys, searching for signs of ancient human activity before a corporation can harvest materials like coalbed methane on Federal land, their interest in rock art spurs them beyond the realm of compliance surveys in many cases. The Greer’s goal is to record and preserve as many sacred sites as possible, and the public’s help is welcome.

“People should please contact us,” says John. “We’d be happy to help them record the rock art, and get the right people contacted if they’re looking at preservation. We’re doing statewide surveys and inventories... we really like to be a contact point for people if they’re doing rock art studies.” The Greers can be contacted by phone at 307-473-2054, or reached by mail at 2599 S. Paradise Drive, Casper, WY, 82604.

“We’re always excited to hear about new sites,” says Mavis. “It’s not so much about people knowing where it is, but many people don’t have respect for these places. It’s about making people aware of how to treat sacred sites.”