Saturday, June 4, 2016


Bear paw prints, found in the 1st
canyon north of Dominguez
Canyon, Mesa County, Colordo.
Photograph Peter Faris, June 1980.

8-toed bear paw print,
Dominguez Canyon, Mesa
County, Colorado. Photograph
Peter Faris, 1980.

Back in the 1980s, James D. Keyser pointed out the value of sources of Plains Biographic Style art such as robe painting and ledger book art as a lexicon for understanding Plains Biographic Style imagery in rock art. Since then he has used these insights as the basis for his tremendous contributions in interpreting so much of the rock art of the northern Great Plains. Other possible sources of factual comparisons could be name glyphs, shield symbolism, and horse and tipi painting.

Sieber Canyon, Mesa County, Colorado.
Photograph Peter Faris, 1981.

Green River, Utah. Photograph
Paul and Joy Foster.

Fremont Indian State Park, Utah.
Photograph Peter Faris, 1992.

I have since suggested that Hopi Clan registers might serve the same role as a valuable lexicon for many Ancestral Pueblo rock art symbols from the southwest. A wonderful reference into many of these symbols is found in a 1894 document from Hopi clan chiefs to U.S. government officials in Washington D.C. urging them to cease the reallocation of Hopi lands into individual holdings, and also to designate official Hopi reservation boundaries. 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) These identified symbols surely provide a useful lexicon for rock art imagery in the Southwest.  

Hopi Petition of 1894, Page 9.

Bear Clan Sign, Hopi Petition of
1894, Page 9, No. 70.

Bear Clan Sign, Hopi Petition of
1894, Page 11, No. 84.

Bear Clan Sign, Hopi Petition of
1894, Page 12, No. 95.

Bear Clan Sign, Hopi Petition of 
1894, Page 14, No. 122.

Bear paw prints are one common symbol in rock art from the Southwest, and indeed from the rest of North America as well. Of course, a Hopi clan register lexicon cannot be imagined to apply to examples from areas with different cultures, but within the greater Ancestral Pueblo cultural area we can assume that their beliefs influenced all peoples to some extent.

 The examples I have herein are from the area where the Fremont culture predominated prehistorically and that Numic peoples inhabited historically, in these examples Ute and Paiute peoples. It is assumed that some cultural influences and transference occurred between northern tier Ancestral Pueblo and southern Fremont peoples so perhaps a case might be made for a Bear clan among various groups of Fremont peoples. We know that the bear was of great importance to Ute peoples, their annual Bear Dance being one of their most important annual gatherings.

So I think it reasonable to suggest that a bear paw print petroglyph or pictograph found within the greater Ancestral Pueblo area of the southwest might be a clan identification symbol, while other areas would require knowledge of the mythological and cultural symbolism of the bear to make an educated guess as to its meaning. Last week I reviewed a book by James Keyser and George Poetschat, Seeking Bear: The Petroglyphs of Lucerne Valley, Wyoming, does an excellent job of addressing Bear symbolism in that area of Southwestern Wyoming. It could (it should) serve as a model for examining meaning in rock art of other areas.

Note: One other remarkable things about bear paw prints is that, unlike most animals, if they are well made you can differentiate the front print from the rear print. The rear print may be associated with locomotion/travel but the front print is the one associated with danger. That is the one the bear rips you with. This suggests that front and rear paw prints might have different meanings when reproduced on the rocks.


Keyser, James D. and George Poetschat,
2015    Seeking Bear: The Petroglyphs of Lucerne Valley, Wyoming, Oregon Archaeological Society Press, Portland.

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.

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