Monday, March 23, 2015


Naturalistic rattlesnake petroglyph, Brown's Park,
Colorado. Photograph: Peter Faris 1987.

Naturalistic serpent petroglyphs, Galisteo Dike,
New Mexico. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1988.

One aspect of viewing rock art in the field in the West is the ever present awareness that one might run into a rattlesnake, or perhaps the proper phrase is step into a rattlesnake. Walking through an arid landscape with one eye looking up at cliff faces and boulders, you have to keep the other eye on the ground a few feet ahead of where you are stepping. It can give one a headache. What is the opposite of cross-eyed – divergent eyed? In an Internet search the most common opinion held that this term was wall-eyed, and the proper medical term for it is strabisums exotropia, although that is sort of beside the point. The point I am trying to get at here is that there is an interesting reinforcement of the concept of rattlesnake in environment as well as in rock art, and there are lots of rattlesnakes in the rock art of the Southwest and the West.

Horned serpents from caveate room. Mortendad ruin,
Los Alamos, New Mexico. Photograph: Peter Faris, 2003.

Horned Serpents, Mesa Prieta, Rio Arriba County,
New Mexico. Photograph: Peter Faris, 1997.
Now why would one portray a rattlesnake in rock art (other than the fact that they are an important fact of life in the American West)? Actually I need to differentiate here between a couple of different types of snakes portrayed in the rock art of the Southwest. One type of snake portrayal is the horned or plumed serpent so often associated with the concept of the Quetzalcoatl from Mexico and Mesoamerica. Example of these are seen from all over the American Southwest, and they are assumed to be a result of the influence of Mexican and Mesoamerican cultures upon the peoples of the American Southwest.
 Snake Clan symbol, Big Falling Snow, Yava - Hopi petition, 1894, #83.
Snake Clan symbol, Big Falling Snow, Yava - Hopi petition, 1894, #85.

The other type of snake portrayal appears as a regular snake; rattlesnake, or other, and this is the type of portrayal that I am suggesting may be associated with a symbol of identity. One of the symbols in the clan register included in the Hopi Petition of 1894 is a wavy line identified as the symbol of the Snake or Serpent Clan. This document “was signed in clan symbols by 123 principals of kiva societies, clan chiefs, and village chiefs of Walpi, Tewa Village, Sichomovi, Mishongnovi, Shongopovi, Shipaulovi and Oraibi.” (Yava 1978:167). The clan symbols illustrated in this document surely provide a useful lexicon for rock art imagery in the Southwest.  

Willow Springs clan register, Snake Clan symbols to right
of center. Christensen, Dickey, and Freers, Rock Art of
the Grand Canyon, 2013, Sunbelt Publishers, page 180.
On Saturday, October 4, 2014, I posted a column entitled Clan Symbol Rosters – Tallies of Not? In this I looked at the question of whether the Hopi Clan Registers at Willow Springs, Arizona, where some 40 boulders contain 2,178 images of Hopi Clan symbols, might provide a lexicon of possible meaning for similar symbols throughout the American Southwest. Both of the above sources; the clan register in the Hopi Petition of 1894, and the clan registers at Willow Springs, include the images of snakes without horns or feathers, and thus demonstrably not meant to be Quetzalcoatl. I believe that this suggests that one possible interpretation of snake or serpent portrayals in rock art of the American Southwest is as a reference to such a symbol - a clan marking. This might have been intended as sort of a "Kilroy was here" by the ancestral Native Americans that left the image.


 Christensen, Don D., Jerry Dickey, and Steven M. Freers,
2013    Rock Art of the Glen Canyon Region, Sunbelt Publications, San Diego

Yava, Albert
1978    Big Falling Snow: A Tewa-Hopi Indian’s Life and Times and the History and Traditions of His People, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

1 comment:

  1. I believe that the research of J.W. Feweks, would augment your theory. I personally am looking into the clustering of "Bear paws" elements from the Pacific northwest all the way to the Hopi southwest. I wonder if the Bear clan (along with 3 other clans) quested north to melt an ice sheet, that supposedly was blocking the migration trail, as deciphered from the Hopi tradition?