Saturday, November 30, 2013


In their records left on the rocks by Native Americans of their deeds and situations, we can look for clues to the environment that these feats were performed in. One common feature of the environment in Great Plains rock art is one or more residences, their tipis. In the tradition of Plains Biographic Art much of the imagery in a composition is intended as information. In this way a figure seen in relation to a group of tipis would represent a specific person involved in some activity next to that tipi village.

Horseman in lower left, Anubis Cave, Cimarron
County, OK. Photo Peter Faris, 21 Sept. 1986. 

My awareness of this came back in the 1980s on one of a frequent number of trips down into southeastern Colorado. In the so-called Anubis Cave in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, I saw a small equestrian figure on horseback in front of the upside-down “V” of a tipi. It occurred to me at that time that it placed a figure in a specific place, and thus at a specific time, the time when he was there. In other words it was telling a story, a simple story certainly, and one that did not provide me with much information, but a story nevertheless. This is the basic premise of James Keyser in his statement that the Biographic art of ledger books and painted robes can provide a lexicon toward the interpretation of some rock art.

Tracing by James D. Keyser and Mark D. Mitchell, Box
Canyon site, 5LA8464,  Picketwire Canyonlands,
Las Animas County, CO. 1999.

Photograph of a portion of the Box Canyon site, 5LA8464, 
Picketwire Canyonlands, Las Animas County, CO.
Photo Peter Faris, August 1999.

Detail of tracing showing tipi near the center (directly
under the elk). Box Canyon site, 5LA8464,  Picketwire
Canyonlands, Las Animas County, CO. August, 1999.

In the Box Canyon Site in the Purgatoire river canyon in southeastern Colorado a couple of panels illustrate combat in relation to tipis. 5LA8464 was recorded in 1999 by a crew led by Jim Keyser and Mark Mitchell. This is a large panel, faintly scratched into a large flat side of the rock. This panel apparently records an attack upon a tipi village or family encampment by a group of equestrian warriors on the right, whom I believe are Pawnees by the details of their portrayal. The village or encampment being attacked is represented by a tipi on the left side of the panel and would probably have been Cheyenne or Arapahoe based upon the location. One defender seen by the tipi has been struck by an arrow. A number of unridden horses suggest that this combat bay have been in conjunction with a horse raid upon this encampment.

Red Rock Ledge, Picketwire Canyonlands, Las Animas
County, CO. Tracing by James D. Keyser and
Mark D. Mitchell, August 1999.

Red Rock Ledge site, Picketwire Canyonlands, Las Animas
County, CO. Photograph Peter Faris, August 1999.

Another plains biographic rock art panel recorded by James Keyser and Mark Mitchell is the Red Rock Ledge site in the Picketwire Canyonlands, near the Box Canyon site. This smaller panel tells a story related by Keyser in his subsequent published report. “The lightly-scratched petroglyphs at Red Rock Ledge compose a Biographic scene showing a pedestrian bowman who has traveled from a tipi village to engage and enemy represented by a crooked lance or coup stick. Beginning at the right margin of the scene, and following the action to the left, the composition consists of four major elements. At the far right is a group of nine triangles with forked tops representing a camp of tipis. One other incomplete figure probably represents a tenth tipi with one side no longer visible. A series of seventeen more or less horizontal dashes and four “C” shapes extends from the tipi camp toward the bowman. Based on comparisons with other Biographic drawings in various media, the dashes represent human footprints and the “C” shapes represent horse hoofprints. The third element, the bowman, is a simply drawn, rectangular-body figure with a circle head. His legs are shown with thighs, calves, and feet. The short diagonal lines that extend outward from the front of each leg indicate fringed leggings. In his right hand he carries a carefully drawn recurved bow that is shooting an arrow with a large triangular point. The fourth element, located at the far left of the scene, is a horizontally-oriented crook-neck coup stick, from which trail four groups of paired streamers or feathers. Each group extends diagonally downward to the left, and the four groups are spaced about equidistantly along the shaft, with the last at the end of the crook.” (Keyser and Mitchell 2000:26-7)

Picture Canyon, Baca County, CO. Photograph Peter Faris, 1986.

In the well known horse pictograph/petroglyph from Picture Canyon, in Baca County, Colorado, a number of very faint tipi shapes can be made out with careful observation. Indeed, a group of four or five very faint upside-down “V” shapes in the upper right corner of the photo represent a tipi village, with at least two more at the top just left of center.  These presumably represent the tipi village that the horseman himself is associated with.

Numerous other examples of tipis portrayed in rock art can be found in the literature. My point here is that in contrast to the common assumption that “we can never know what rock art is saying” we can, in many instances determine quite a bit about a rock art panel. I will show some other examples and share some other thoughts in future columns.


Keyser, James D. and Mark D. Mitchell
2000   Red Rock Ledge: Plains Biographic Rock Art in the Picketwire Canyonlands, Southeastern Colorado, Southwestern Lore, Vol. 66, No. 2, Summer, 2000, p. 22-37.

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