Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Long-time friend, and Colorado Rock Art Association Board member, Carol Patterson has some possible rock art recording projects in Western Colorado for which she is seeking volunteers. If you think that you might be interested and might be in a position to help with any of these contact her. Who knows, your help might be just the added boost that gets these projects off the ground? And, if you do get involved, send me the material for consideration for posting on http://rockartblog.blogspot.com.

1. Paradox Valley with the BLM. This project needs help finishing the site forms and drawings for at least 5 sites with large panels. March to May. Camping or motels in Naturita which is not far away.

Ute warrior panel, Blue Creek. Photo: Carol Patterson.

Detail of Ute warrior panel, Blue Creek.
Photo: Carol Patterson.

2. Blue Creek, Ute warrior scratched glyphs on BLM land. Possibly mid-May. Lodging is probably camping at an abandoned ranch near the site.

3. Shavano needs more rock art panels recorded within the boundaries of the new acquisition by the Archaeology Conservancy. It is only 5 miles from town or camping on-site might be arranged. April -May should be good weather. This might be organized as a field school with possible lodging at Carol's home in Montrose.

Call Carol if you are interested in working with, and learning from, a highly experienced professional and a real rock art enthusiast.

Carol Patterson, PhD., RPA
Urraca Archaeological Services
P. O. Box 1721

Montrose, CO 81402
Cell: 970-252-8679 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

THE 2013 C.R.A.P. AWARD:

Petroglyph identified as a picture of the Ark of the
Covenant by Scott Wolter on America Unearthed.
Near Puerco Ruin, Petrified Forest Nat. Park,
AZ. Photograph: Peter Faris, June 1993.

Announcing the initiation of an annual award for the greatest nonsense in rock art for the year. The CERTIFIABLE ROCK ART PREVARICATION (CRAP) award will be given to the most outstanding example of twisting and distorting rock art to match the recipient's agenda that I can find. Nominations are always welcome.

This year the selection was easy, thanks to the History2 television channel series America Unearthed. They have broadcast enough silliness to appeal to fringies of every stripe, and some of it was based upon rock inscriptions and rock art. Given the broad ranging nonsense that the host, Scott Wolter, has broadcast on this series you would think I might have trouble deciding which episode was the dumbest, and I might have if I hadn’t seen the first episode of season 2, the “Ark of the Covenant.”

I knew I was in for a good show when Wolter compared himself with “Indiana Jones.” I don’t want you to think that I totally reject everything Wolter says on America Unearthed. I can be fair and I couldn’t agree with him more about this comparison. Both he and Indiana Jones are pretense, running around through fictional situations in made-up sequences that pretend to be based upon archaeology. I think that they are very comparable.

The Stone of Destiny, Edinburgh Castle, Scotland. Wikipedia.

In the Ark of the Covenant, November 30, 2013, episode we learned that when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 597 BC, and the temple of Solomon was destroyed, the Ark of the Covenant was spirited out of Jerusalem by the prophet Jeremiah and an Egyptian princess. They brought it to Tara Hill in Ireland for safe-keeping. Apparently they also brought the “Stone of Destiny,” the block of rock upon which Jacob rested his head when he saw the vision of the stairway to heaven. These were both later sent to North America by Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish satirist, pamphleteer, and dean of St. Patricks Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. (Wikipedia) (Yes, that Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, the book about people’s amazing gullibility, ironic isn't it).

The Stone of Destiny ended up on a farm in Virginia where Wolter visited it. This has to be a big surprise to the people of Scotland who believe that they have the Stone of Destiny in Edinburgh Castle (Wikipedia) but they will just have to get over their disappointment. Wolter, then believing that it was one of the world’s greatest and most sacred ancient religious artifacts, committed vandalism by cutting a piece of it off to take home and analyze in his laboratory.

Later Wolter visited the Petrified Forest in Arizona to view the petroglyph of the Ark of the Covenant illustrated at the top of this column. If some of these connections seem tenuous blame me, I just wasn’t up to following the sophisticated trail of evidence presented. A stirring adventure to say the least, and one which certainly qualifies for the 2013 C.R.A.P. Award (http://www.history.com/shows/america-unearthed/episodes).


Friday, December 20, 2013


Yuletide Canyon, Santa Claus, New Mexico.
Photograph Gary Cascio, 2012.

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, a happy New Year’s Eve, and all the best in 2014! Thank you for reading http://rockartblog.blogspot.com.

This illustration and information was provided by, and is used with the permission of Gary Cascio who took the photograph. Check out his beautiful photography at www.rockartsouthwest.com or contact him at: Gary Cascio, design@latenitegrafix.com. Thank you Gary.

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.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Field sketch by James Burton. York, Daley, and Arnett,
They Write Their Dreams on the Rocks Forever, p. 66.

When confronted with the claims of the epigraphy enthusiasts in rock art studies one of the accusations that us epigraphy non-believers hurl at them is that they try to make every abstract shape into an old world inscription. Since the heyday of Barry Fell abstract symbols have been proclaimed to be inscriptions by ancient Basque, Semitic, Celtic, even Chinese, visitors to Pre-Columbian North America. I was therefore quite pleased to find this published example of an authentic Chinese inscription in British Columbia, with the backstory that explains it.

“Rock Writing at EbRj62, Annie Zetco York.
In addition to the aboriginal rock writings, this site is noteworthy for the presence of Chinese calligraphy and drawings made with black ink. These Chinese writings and drawings, some of which have been executed on top of the aboriginal writings, are probably the work of Chinese placer miners, who came to the Lytton area in 1859, a year after the start of the Fraser River gold rush. The Chinese are known to have worked the gravel terraces above this site and at least one man, Ah Chung, homesteaded nearby.
Most of the Chinese drawings and calligraphy (including the drawing of a human figure and what looks like a serpent) are located to the right of the recessed alcove with its aboriginal writings at the downstream edge of the site. In August, 1988, I visited this site with my brother-in-law James Burton who, after having lived and worked near Beijing for several years, is fluent in the Chinese language. He found many of the inked characters too eroded to decipher, particularly where sections of calligraphy had disappeared due to the spalling off of certain areas. However, he was able to determine that the Chinese writing recorded the names of men, presumably the gold prospectors themselves, and the names of women – probably their mothers, fiancées or wives back in China. The best preserved character, isolated from the other short texts, is the Chinese character for “clear/clean water” or “spring.”
Another group of characters, superimposed on the rock writings of Fig. 46, is a date which reads” In the tenth year of the ruling emperor.” Unfortunately the emperor’s name is obliterated, but it is possible to identify the approximate date of the Chinese characters by reference to the imperial genealogy.
The first Chinese arrived in 1859 which was the beginning of the tenth year of reign of Shen Fung. He was succeeded in 1861 by Tung Chi, who reigned until 1875 when he in turn was succeeded by Guang Xu. Guang Xu reigned until 1908 and was succeeded by a child, the last emperor who was deposed three years later during the social revolution. The descriptive date written here refers either to the tenth year (of the) reign of Shen Fung, being 1859-60, the tenth year (of the) reign of Tung Chi, 1871-72, or the tenth year of the reign of Guang Xu, 1885-86. The Chinese writing thus dates between 1859 and 1886.” (York 1993:65-66)

I have to give the epigraphers this one, and it appeals to my sense of justice and fair play that I can write a posting about an inscription that actually is in readable and interpretable Chinese.  路 要 走 (way to go) epigraphers.

York, Annie, Richard Daley, and Chris Arnett,
1993   They Write Their Dreams on the Rocks Forever, Rock Writings in the Stein River Valley of British Columbia, Talonbooks, Vancouver, B.C.

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.

Saturday, November 23, 2013


Coyote's Penis, Stein River Valley, British Columbia.
 York, 1993, They Write Their Dreams on the Rocks
Forever, fig. 13, p. 8.

On occasion rock art would be located in a place that lends meaning or power to the imagery because of features of the local topography. Such a place is found in the Stein River Valley of British Columbia, Canada, at a feature known as Coyote’s Penis.

“Indians also frequently painted pictures on rocks which were thought to be metamorphosis beings (originally human or semi-human, semi-animal, or semi-God-like character) concerning which, there were stories in their ancient mythological tales or traditions. These rocks are generally boulders corresponding roughly to human and animal forms or to parts of the body, etc., or to rocks worn into peculiar or fantastic forms of various kinds, suiting in some way the story that is told of them. By painting on them power in some degree, it was thought, might be obtained from them or their spirits. . . (Teit 1918:3).” (York 1993:8)

“One of these sites is found at Spence’s Bridge in the vicinity of Spaeks ha snikiap (Coyote’s Penis) were the genitals of Coyote and his wife, as well as her woven cooking basket, were turned to three rock formations by Xwekt’xwektl.  Xwekt’xwektl had tried to transform them totally to stone but due to the countervailing shamanic power of Coyote, the transformer was able to succeed only with the Coyote’s penis, his wife’s vulva and the basket kettle from which they had been picknicking (Teit 1898:44, n. 132; 1900:337).” (York 1993:8-9)

In this case the local First Nation’s population remembers that there is a rock art panel near Coyote’s Penis but it has not been located in contemporary searches. Perhaps some damage has destroyed it, or perhaps vegetation is currently concealing the pictographs. One has to hope that it will be rediscovered and recorded as rock art from such a location carries possibly evocative meaning and content. At worst we can hope that it illustrates the myth recorded above, and thus would give us an opportunity for comparative analysis. In any case it does carry a very large curiosity factor.


Teit, J. A.
1898    Traditions of the Thompson River Indians of British Columbia, American Folklore Society, Houghton Mifflin, New York.

York, Annie, Richard Daly, and Chris Arnett
1993    They Write Their Dream on the Rock Forever: Rock Writings of the Stein River Valley of British Columbia, Talonbooks, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Biographic panel from Joliet, Montana. Keyser and 
Klassen, 2001, Plains Indian Rock Art, p. 237.

On any important occasion a Native American wanted to be as memorable as possible. Part of the preparation for that was to dress oneself up in finery, and that went for their horse as well. Not only for ceremonial occasions, but often for combat, a warrior’s horse would have been painted with symbols carrying spiritual protection, and announcing the warriors strength and prowess. Another essential part of the decoration of any Native American’s horse is eagle feathers.

Mail's illustration of a decorated horse. Thomas Mails,
Mystic Warriors of the Plains, p. 222.

Thomas Mails explained this as follows: “Golden eagle tail feathers were often tied to the mane and/or tail of the war horse when the owner was about to go on a mounted war party. A common Plains custom was that of tying up the horse’s tail when preparing for battle. The Indians believed it sensible to get the long tails out of the horse’s way. Sometimes the tail itself was simply tied in a knot. Other times it was folded and bound with buckskin strips, or in trade days with red blanket cloth. Feathers and fringes were often added to the ties for more spectacular effect.” (Mails 1991:223)

Detail, Biographic panel from Joliet, Montana. Keyser and 
Klassen, 2001, Plains Indian Rock Art, p. 237.

The rock art image from Keyser and Klassen Plains Indian Rock Art (2001:237) located at Joliet, Montana, shows horses and riders in a battle. The detail illustrates a feather decorated horse carrying two riders, the rear rider turned and firing his rifle at an enemy. The image of a horse carrying two riders is usually an illustration recording the heroic rescue of a downed comrade in a battle. The horse that the two warriors are riding has an eagle feather attached to its forelock and also appears to have three feathers hanging from its tied-up tail. This horse was carefully decorated for war so I assume that it represents the aggressors, the defenders presumably would have been caught by surprise and not had enough time to make such careful preparations.

Horse petroglyph, Writing-on-stone Provincial Park,
Alberta, Canada. Three lines from the back of the
horse's head represent feathers, or possibly two
ears and one feather.

“Siya’ka said that on one occasion when he was hard pressed on the warpath, he dismounted, and, standing in front of his horse, spoke to him saying: “We are in danger. Obey me promptly that we may conquer. If you have to run for your life and mine, do your best, and if we reach home, I will give you the best eagle feather I can get – and you shall be painted with the best paint.”” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:41)

Horse images with decorative feathers attached are found in many media utilized by Native American artists. Some examples are shown and listed below.

Bone quirt handle. George Horse Capture and Emil Her
Many Horses, 2006, A Song For The Horse Nation,
Horses in Native American Cultures, p. 38.

Bone quirt handle showing a feather tied to the tail of the horse – “1870s, By identifying stylistic motifs, scholars can often determine which groups created the drawings, and occasionally, a match can be found by comparing figures in rock art to those items made by contemporary tribes, confirming that some ancient art styles reach across the centuries. A wedge-shaped anthropomorphic figure carved into a stone wall in southern Alberta, Canada, is similar to the one incised into the handle of this quirt, collected in the early twentieth century.” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:38)

Portrait of High Wolf. George Horse Capture and Emil Her
Many Horses, 2006, A Song For The Horse Nation, Horses
in Native American Cultures, p. 40.

Ledger painting, horse with feathers both on his tail and forelock – “Yellow Nose (Ute raised as Cheyenne), Portrait of High Wolf, circa 1880. This drawing shows high wolf counting coup with a riding quirt against a Nez Perce. The imitation scalp under the horses chin indicates the accomplishments of both horse and rider.” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:40)

Shield cover. George Horse Capture. and Emil Her
Many Horses, 2006, A Song For The Horse Nation,
Horses in Native American Cultures, p. 70.

Shield cover, horse with feathers tied to his tail - “Cheyenne River Sioux painted hide shield cover, circa 1880s – This shield cover records a battle scene between the Lakota and some of their enemies, possibly Crow or Pawnee, who are recognized by the topknot hairstyle that was popular with both tribes. The hero/owner of this shield, wearing a split horn war bonnet, is at the center, moving left.” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:70)

Portrait of Few Tails by Red Dog, ca. 1884. George Horse Capture 
and Emil Her Many Horses, 2006, A Song For The Horse Nation,
Horses in Native American Cultures, p. 87.

Ledger portrait, the horse has a feather fan tied to his tail – “Red Dog (Lakota), Portrait of Few Tails, circa 1884. Fully decked out in warrior society accoutrements, Few Tails appears to be dressed for battle. Most portraits, like this one, incorporate stylized faces. Because each Plains warrior’s shield was decorated differently, individuals or tribes were identified in artwork by their shield designs and clothing styles.” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:87)

As Jim Keyser has demonstrated in his many analytic rock art publications, much can be learned from careful attention to the details in rock art, and by comparison with other art forms which display the same sort of imagery. In the case of horses decorated with feathers it can represent a warrior prepared for war, or for a ceremonial occasion.


Afton, Jean, David Fridtjof Halaas, and Andrew E. Masich
1997    Cheyenne Dog Soldiers: A Ledgerbook History of Coups and Combat, Colorado Historical Society and University Press of Colorado, Denver.

Horse Capture, George P. and Emil Her Many Horses
2006    A Song For The Horse Nation, Horses in Native American Cultures, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., and Fulcrum Press, Golden, CO.

Keyser, James D.
2012    “My Name Was Made High:” A Crow War Record at 48HO9, The Wyoming Archaeologist, Vo. 55, Spring 2011 (pub. Oct. 2012).

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

Mails, Thomas E.
1991    Mystic Warriors of the Plains, Barnes and Noble Books, New York.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Bear's Lodge Butte (Devil's Tower), Wyoming.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 2013.

High on every list of sites that are sacred to Native Americans is Bear Lodge Butte, listed on our maps and in our records as Devil’s Tower. I can remember being fascinated with this pretty much all of my life after seeing a picture of it in a Little Golden Guide to Geology as a child.

Bear's Lodge Butte (Devil's Tower), Wyoming.
Photograph: Peter Faris, June 2013

In his book Where Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places, Peter Nabokov gave a description of the beliefs and mythology that are attached to this location by Native Americans. “Best known of the Black Hills outliers was what Indians called Bear Lodge Butte, but which whites in offensive contrast to its heroic role in Indian mythology, came to name “Devil’s Tower.” Remembered by most Americans, this volcanic upthrust, located to the north of the Hills that jutted into the sky like a great horn with its tip lopped off, was the Mother Ship’s landing pad in director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But to the Kiowa tribe the 867-foot promontory was revered as T’sou’a’e, or “Aloft on a Rock.” Here was the embarkation point for that early period in Kiowa Indian history that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist N. Scott Momaday called “the setting out.” From these high plains their ancestors migrated south, to ultimately reach the area of Rainy Mountain in western Oklahoma, where their reservation is found today.
Like a number of Plains Indian tribes, the Kiowa never forgot the Tower’s place in their mythology. They told of the seven sisters and a brother who were playing together. Transformed into a monster bear, the brother attacked his sisters, who ran for their lives. When they reached a giant tree stump it told them “climb up on me.” Once they were on top the stump began to grow, leaving the bear pawing at them and raking its sides with his claws – those vertical grooves remain to this day. On the summit the girls were finally safe, but the Kiowa say the sisters then ascended into the sky, to become the constellation we know as the Big Dipper (other tribal versions say the Pleiades).” (Nabokov 2006:215-16)
We finally undertook the trip there in June 2013. A long day’s drive got us to Sundance, Wyoming, which serves as the gateway to the Devil’s Tower National Monument. In Sundance we had a nice motel room at a reasonable price, and ate fine meals in a couple of good restaurants. The next day we drove out to the tower itself. It was every bit as impressive as I had hoped. We hiked around the spire and saw probably a couple of dozen rock climbers working their way up various routes. I could certainly get a small sense of the unease that Native American peoples feel to a greater extent seeing these people climbing up this sacred rock.

Offerings at Bear's Lodge Butte (Devil's Tower),
Wyoming. Photograph: Peter Faris, June 2013.

While walking around the vicinity of the rock many small offerings could be seen in the trees in various locations around the tower reinforcing its spiritual nature for some people. I am pleased to be able to report that there does not seem to be any meddling with these offerings, such as collecting or removing them. 

As we might imagine for a site with such spiritual significance there is rock art in the area although the park personnel greet such inquiries with an assumed air of ignorance. In her interesting book Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art in the Black Hills Country, Linea Sundstrom has illustrated petroglyphs at a site designated 48CK1544, which is located within view of the tower.

Left side of main panel, Site 48CK1544, 
Sundstrom, Fig 12.4, p. 146.

Right side of main panel, 48CK1544,
Sundstrom, Fig. 12.4, p.147

Incised face and design, 48CK1544,
Sundstrom, Fig. 12.6, p.147.

Sundstrom wrote about the rock art near Devil's Tower "petroglyphs located upon a ridge within distant view of Devil's Tower reflect a link between landscape and rock art. Although they are part of the incised rock art tradition, these petroglyphs are unlike others in the area. Some of the rock art represents thunder beings - eagle- or hawklike creatures with outspread wings (fig. 12.4). One petroglyph shows a creature with some human and some thunderbird characteristics. Perhaps these record the trance of some vision seeker."

For more about the rock art near Devil's Tower and, indeed, for rock art throughout the Black Hills region read Linea Sundstrom's writings. And, for a great trip to a beautiful area, and a moving experience, I highly recommend a visit to Bear's Lodge Butte/Devil's Tower.


Nabokov, Peter
2006    Where Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred
 Places, Peter Nabokov, Viking Press, New York.

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

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Warriors of the Plains horse tribes painted their horses for special occasions. These painted markings and symbols were not so much an identifier in the nature of the Angle horse brand as they were an enhancement, visual or spiritual, of the horse’s and the rider’s presence. Some of the symbols represented specific accomplishments and so could be read like a biography of the warrior. Other symbols conferred spiritual powers and abilities that had been shown to the warrior on a vision quest. Some examples of painted horses can be seen in rock art and other Native American art forms, and some of these messages can still be read in the painted markings.

Symbols from painted horses, Thomas E. Mails, 
Mystic Warriors of the Plains, 1991, p.220.

Thomas Mails illustrated a number of commonly seen marks in his book Mystic Warriors of the Plains (Mails 1991:220) and examples (including variations) of some of these symbols can be seen in examples of Native American art. “Painted exploit symbols used on horses. a, war party leader. b, enemy killed in hand combat. c, owner fought from behind breastworks. d, hail. e, coup marks. f, horse raids or number of horses stolen. g, mourning marks. h, medicine symbol.” (Mails 1972: 220)

Picture Canyon, Baca County. Photograph: Peter Faris.

Close-up of symbol on the horse from Picture
 Canyon, Baca County, Colorado.

In Picture Canyon, Baca County, Colorado, a horse figure that is faintly drawn in black and also lightly incised into the cliff face has markings carved into his front shoulder that might represent a variation of Mail’s marks for coup counts. An extremely faded rider can be made out and the shapes of tipis in the background are now almost invisible.

A coup count, Dog Soldier Ledger, pl. 91, p. 189.

Detail, A coup count, Dog Soldier Ledger, pl. 91, p. 189.

Coup count symbols can be seen on the horse illustrated in one of the plates in the Dog Soldier Ledger (p. 91, p. 189) in which an unidentified warrior has dismounted to count coup with a strike of his bow on a wounded soldier.

Keyser, James D. and Michael A. Klassen,
2001, Plains Indian Rock Art,p. 237.

An incised panel from Joliet, Montana, is illustrated in James Keyser’s and Michael Klassen’s 2001 book Plains Indian Rock Art (p. 237). The large horse in the center of the illustration carries an “H” on his hip which might represent an Anglo brand, but the horse also shows a open-bottom rounded symbol on his front shoulder which is quite possibly Mail’s symbol for horse raids and/or horses stolen, a could possibly actually refer to the capture of the horse illustrated by its rider.

White Bird lancing a soldier, a circle is painted
on the hip of his horse. Dog Soldier Ledger,
plate 100, p. 203. 

Another illustration from the Dog Soldier Ledger (p. 100, p. 203) shows White Bird lancing a white man. White Bird’s horse is painted with a circle identified by Mails as signifying fighting from behind breastworks or from some sort of defensive position. Additional illustrations of White Bird in the same publication show the same symbol on his horse.

“A warrior often painted his favorite war horse with the same pattern and colors he used for his own face and body. And when he was preparing for ceremonial events or for journeys into enemy territory, he painted his horse at the same time as he painted himself. – The main thing to bear in mind is that the painted horse always carried a message about his owner, hence sometimes the quality of the horse bearing the marks – although the painted horse might not always be the one the owner had ridden on the raids described.” (Mails 1991:219)

The value and importance of the horse painting is illustrated by George P. Horse Capture and Emil Her Many Horses in their 2006 book “Song for the Horse Nation”. “Siya’ka said that on one occasion when he was hard pressed on the warpath, he dismounted, and, standing in front of his horse, spoke to him saying: “We are in danger. Obey me promptly that we may conquer. If you have to run for your life and mine, do your best, and if we reach home, I will give you the best eagle feather I can get – and you shall be painted with the best paint.”” (Horse Capture and Her Many Horses 2006:41)  “The best paint” presumably is paint made with the rarest, or hardest to acquire, pigments, the value being due to the effort or expense of acquisition.

A range of motives and reasons led to painting of their horses by Native American Plains warriors, and many of these motives and reasons were of such importance that the same symbols were occasionally portrayed on rock art of horses. Indeed, many of these symbols can often be found independantly painted or pecked into the rock as well, but that is a subject for a later posting.


Afton, Jean, David Fridtjof Halaas, and Andrew E. Masich
1997    Cheyenne Dog Soldiers: A Ledgerbook History of Coups and Combat, Colorado Historical Society and University Press of Colorado, Denver.

Horse Capture, George P., and Emil Her Many Horses
2006    A Song For the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Cultures, National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., and Fulcrum Press, Golden, Colorado.

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

Mails, Thomas E.

1991    Mystic Warriors of the Plains, Barnes and Noble Books, New York