Three Need-to-Knows about Native American Petroglyphs and Pictographs

Jon Shellenberger

Images of Native American petroglyphs and pictographs are everywhere.  They are on t-shirts, mugs, blankets, company logos, hats, hoodies....there's literally no end to where they are exploited.  As a concerned Tribal member and a Tribal archaeologist, I work with these sacred images and see the physical natural and cultural impacts first-hand.  Based on what I have witnessed over there years, there's a need for some educating around here.  Here are three things that need to get straightened out when we talk about petroglyphs/pictographs.  

  1. "Art"

Petroglyphs/pictographs are not art.  They are sacred images that represent significant cultural themes, messages, beliefs to a Tribe.  They were not created for aesthetic purposes.  They were created to teach, warn, or record those not yet born.  Even though we may think that they are pretty, beautiful, pleasant to look at, those are not the values inherent in the images you see.  those are the values that you as the viewer are placing on the image. Please stop calling them rock art.  

  1. "Appropriation"

Using the image of a Native American petroglyph is a form of cultural appropriation.  It is unethical. It takes the image out of its context and thus loses the significance of meaning and place.  For those who have ever seen a Native American petroglyph in its original setting, remember that feeling you get when you stand and witness these sacred images?  When that image is replicated and used as a product, it ceases to benefit the people, it only benefits the business owner.  This is antithetical to its purpose.  But its art though right?  "Its pretty so I wanted to share it." Wrong! See item 1. 


Photo 1.  Spedis Owl, significant to the Spedis family, is one of the most commonly appropriated images in the Pacific Northwest.  

  1. "Protection of Meaning"

There is a lot of meaning conveyed through petroglyphs/pictographs.  Some of that meaning is known and some of it is only known by certain individuals within certain families. Many tribes didn't have a written language and depended on oral tradition to perpetuate their culture.  These images are a manifestation of the culture as it relates to the environment.  They demarcate sacred sites, warn people to beware, indicate the presence of animals or plants, and are at times prophetic.  Elders are still learning about the meaning of specific petroglyphs and its only in certain stages of life that they are able to understand their meaning.  

Sadly, petroglyphs and petroglyphs are at great risk due to vandalism, changing weather patterns, and erosion.  Scientists are doing everything possible to preserve these images given the natural impacts.  In terms of cultural impacts, petroglyphs and pictographs are protected by State and Federal laws and if caught, vandals will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  These images are closely monitored and agencies will be quick to enforce.  If you see someone scratching, painting, drawing on or near a petroglyph/pictograph, call your local police and report it immediately. Remember these objects were left for those not yet born, and Tribes wish to keep it that way.  That won't be possible if everyone feels the need to express their artistic expression on or near them.  

To recap, petroglyphs/pictographs are sacred images, not art.  They have deep meaning and should not be removed from their original context or appropriated to financially benefit individuals.  Vandalism is illegal and can have traumatic effects on Tribal members and their ability to practice their culture.  Once they are gone, they are gone forever.  So, please respect these images.  


Photo 2. She Who Watches is the most commonly appropriated petroglyph in the Pacific Northwest.  


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  • The local tribe who’s made the rock art are fighting to get their history , culture, land and IP back to the Kawaiisu . They have been waiting for 175 years and will wait no longer.
    Kawaiisu Tribe,
    Ridgercrest , ca

    Robert Blackwell

  • I was curious if one tribe or group of Indians could have used the method of making both petroglyphs and pictographs? Depending on what location they happened to be in, would they use paint and another pecking? I’ve never seen this question come up?


  • I have some stone carvings I have found I get bad feelings when I hold some of them and the images quit disturbing

    Shirley Flowers

  • I want to thank each one of you for your words on petroglyph and pictographs.. It is my opinion that you are all correct with each of your views. I do not wish to start a debate, it is my opinion that to say the stones are not art is degrading. It is some of the most complex and beautiful sculptures I’ve ever seen. . I would like to add that while we exalt these pieces and seek to understand and define them , just know that not all are deeply embedded messages from the ancients….some are prayers for their hopes, some are hexes, warnings , or curses,. Some tell stories of past happenings. Some tell stories of what is coming. Some contain great truths from the ancients, as wel as some are false teachings, that were made as idols and worshipped sadly enough. Just as there are people lost today, there were people that were lost throughout time, so not all are sacred messages from our forefathers. Some were recordings of events that were deemed historically significant, while others are mere Love letters about their mates. Some are tribal name tags, and some are maps that define tribal boundaries, and some are maps or markers leading to hidden personal properties. But one thing is for certain, they are all ART. We did not discover them as much as they called to us. We are not to interpret them, we are to listen for they speak for themselves to those that hear them.

    Darin Smith (Creek)

  • I agree with Michael Raysson’s comment – art of many cultures, through the ages, was created to teach, warn, and be a record to those not yet born. From religious and historical paintings to the Russian icons (which were considered windows into the spiritual realm), true art sends a powerful message, one which comes not from the artist, but through the artist. Art can be beautiful, but it does not need to be aesthetically pleasing nor skillfully executed to be considered art. What matters is whether the artwork can connect with others at a soul level.
    The pictographs of the cliffs do all of these things. Even so, if the Elders consider it inappropriate to call the pictographs art, we should refrain from doing so.

    Vera Charles

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