Saturday, December 14, 2013


On November 30, 2013, I posted part one of this column on tipi portrayals in rock art. In that posting I talked about some examples found in southeastern Colorado rock art. In this second visit to the subject I am going to introduce one of the most complex rock art panels known that portrays a single subject, the Battle Scene panel at Writing-on-Stone. Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park / Áísínai'pi National Historic Site. Set in the prairie grasslands of southern Alberta, Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai'pi is a sacred landscape in the Milk River valley and contains possibly the largest concentration of First Nation petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) on the great plains of North America.

Left side of Battle Scene panel, Writing-on-stone Provincial
Park, Keyser and Klassen, 2001, fig. 14.33, p. 254.

 “The name Áísínai’pi which is Niitsítapi (Blackfoot) meaning “it is pictured / written”. Writing-on-Stone Park contains the greatest concentration of rock art on the North American Great Plains. There are over 50 petroglyph sites and thousands of works. There is evidence that the Milk River Valley was inhabited by native people as long ago as 9000 years. Native tribes such as the Blackfoot probably created much of the rock carvings (petroglyphs) and paintings (pictographs). Other native groups such as the Shoshone also travelled through the valley and may have also created some of the art. Beginning about 1730, large numbers of horses, metal goods, and guns began to appear on the Western plains. This signified not only a change in the native lifestyle, but a change in the content of the rock art. Pictures of hunters on horseback, and warriors without body shields began to be created. (Wikipedia 2013)

Battle scene panel, faintly scratched, very hard-to-see. http://digipac.cablog/20130907/writing

This panel was described by James Keyser and Michael Klassen (2001).
“Biographic rock art reached its zenith with the Battle Scene panel at Writing-on-stone. It includes the greatest number of figures in the most complex composition of any Northwestern Plains rock art scene. Its detail and complexity clearly suggest that it depicts an actual historical event, possibly linked to a famous battle fought along the Milk River in 1866. The Battle Scene shows a large group of pedestrian warriors attacking a large camp circle of tipis (fig. 14.33). In the camp are several groups of humans, including three figures inside the largest, central tipi. At the camp perimeter a row of fourteen guns, two held by humans, represents warriors defending the camp. The attacking party consists of an advance guard of more than a dozen armed warriors, followed by more than three dozen pedestrian figures. Several rearguard figures carry bows or guns, and at least eight lead horses, six of which pull travois. A stream of bullets issues from the muzzle of nearly every gun in the scene.” (Keyser and Klassen 2001:254)

Same battle scene, Writing-on-stone Provincial Park, Canada.
Scene of center of the camp on the left side with 3
figures in tipi in upper center. Strongly side lighted.

“This scene may relate to a battle described in 1924 by a Piegan elder named Bird Rattle. In his story, he directly linked the rock art of Writing-on-stone to the “Retreat up the Hill” battle fought somewhere along the Milk River in 1866. In the fall of that year, the Piegan winter camps filled all the coulees between the Milk River and the Sweetgrass Hills.” (Keyser and Klassen 2001:255) Note that the village of tipis that is being attacked in the Battle Scene is pictured as a rough ring of triangular shapes with the tips pointing in.

Tipis, 39FA7, Sundstrom, Fig. 1.13, p.18.

Linea Sundstrom has identified portrayals of tipi or wickiup shaped structures from the Black Hills region. ”Two tipis are visible among the confused array of lines on this rock art panel from site 39FA7 in the southern Black Hills.” (Sundstrom 2004:18) Sundstrom has also identified a handful of sites in the north Cave Hills where she believes there are portrayals of tipi-shaped eagle trapping lodges. (Sundstrom 2004:119)

Tipi village in upper center.Taylor, Buckskin and
Buffalo, p.47. The circle of triangles in the upper
center represents a tipi village.

“A large tanned steer hide painted in the spring of 1892 by the Piegan artist Sharp. – The pictographs, in a style typical of the Blackfeet of this period, mainly document the military exploits of White Grass, a highly respected chief of the Buffalo Chip band of the Piegan, who was involved in many actions against such tribes as the Flathead and Pend D'Oreilles of the Plateau region to the west of Blackfeet territory. Here, White Grass is about to enter the Flathead circle of tipis to cut free the two picketed horses at the very heart of the encampment. He also captures the enemy chiefs bow, arrows, and quiver.” (Taylor 1998:47)

Tipi village by Piegan artist Sharp, 1892.Taylor, Buckskin and
Buffalo, p.47.

When we look carefully at a rock art portrayal we can often find much more information than we expected at first glance. Keep looking. 


Keyser, James D. and Michael A. Klassen
2001   Plains Indian Rock Art, University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Sundstrom, Linea
2004   Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Taylor, Colin
1998   Buckskin and Buffalo, the Artistry of the Plains Indians, Rizzoli, New York.

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