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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  • Ross-western trained scientists and outsiders need to be aware that they can attach their own meaning and values on petroglyphs. Calling them rock art isn’t an appropriate label to tribal elders. Archaeologists have only recently including tribal interpretations of these sacred sites. Which is kind of despicable but at least its happening.

    Kenneth-vandalism sucks and it saddens me to see it on petroglyphs. Elders are such important part of recording, evaluating and interpreting these site types. Its long overdue. Thanks for sharing!

    Native Anthro

  • This condensed blog is very well-expressed but there is a lot in it I am trying to unpack, so please forgive my attempt to paraphrase in order to find the heart of your message. What I think I hear is that “As heirs and guardians to this cultural legacy we find these sites a sacred link to our ancestors and require they be treated with the respect and deference they deserve.” Where I think I lose the thread is contrast you are drawing between the sacred and the aesthetic. I believe but am not sure that you are saying that cultural rock marks represent more than mere art for their own sake, but are imbued with complex meanings and messages that are not reducible to mere surface appearances no matter how attractive or exotic outsiders may perceive them. Where I am a little puzzled is that seems to be exactly how art is canonically viewed in the Western tradition, where there is no necessary contrast between the sacred and aesthetic (and the latter is sometimes claimed as a projection of the former).

    Ross Sackett

  • I live in southern Colorado. There are many pictograph and petroglyphs sites in our area. We had had serious vandalism for decades. We try to educate the public about preserving these priceless images from the past. We are in touch with tribal elders to speak of how important they are to them and may produce a video of them speaking at the sites.

    Kenneth Frye

  • Thank you for reminding us to be respectful of sacred indigenous images.

    David Ross

  • @Michael Raysson. Yea, I don’t really feel like I know what art is, how its defined and who is defining it. It feels like there are too many people trying to control messages that art conveys and who gets to share their art and where. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough comradery in the art world. The things I created since I was a kid are the same things my family has created for generations. When I moved into contemporary items, people, not all people, have taken offense to that. As if I am supposed to be “painting coconuts” for tourists for the rest of my life. Whatever one categorizes petroglyphs to be, they are meaningful and powerful images to appreciate in situ. This analogy with petroglyphs really opened my eyes to the fact that people aren’t trying to control art, they are trying to control what messages are conveyed from an image. It’s amazing the phenomena of needing to control someone’s voice and vision when it comes to art. Archaeologists aren’t satisfied with not understanding the meaning behind a petroglyph, they have to study it, poke at it, take samples from it. Meanwhile the descendants of those whose ancestors created the petroglyph, aren’t even brought into the conversation because it’s assumed they have no valuable input.

    Native Anthro

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