Ghosts of the Conquistadors Keep Their Secrets
By Ernie Bulow Author photo by Erin Bulow
Above: The animal in the middle is a mountain lion (long tail) who seems to have a man on his back. The bird in the upper right corner is a roadrunner. Left: From the sublime to the ridiculous.
any years ago someone told me about a second El Morro somewhere south of the Zuni Reservation. They described a high rock wall with ancient petroglyphs, modern graffiti left by drifting cowboys and lonely sheepherders, and several Spanish inscriptions. “Not quite as impressive as El Morro, but almost as good,” they said. They weren’t sure exactly where it was. There was no road to the place and it was a pretty tough hike. Over the years, mention of this marvelous display would come up, and several Zuni friends said they knew where it was, but it was very hard to reach. Only a couple of them claimed to have ever actually seen the inscriptions. I was assured, though, that there were several very old Spanish examples in the gallery. Recently, though I don’t get around so good these days, a friend offered to take me to see these marvels. Nothing came of it for months, though it continued to be mentioned from time to time. I considered it a tease on his part. Early this spring I decided that, even with a cane, I simply had to see this wall and document the Spanish carvings. In my younger days I traveled all over the West and spent a good deal of time in the outback: hunting, rafting, hauling firewood or just poking around. I saw rock art wherever I went. There is a small mountain just north of Brigham City, Utah, for example with a remarkable rock art gallery all around its base. The slickrock on both banks of the San Juan is covered with ancient doodles. There is a canyon leading to the put-in point for rafting on the Green River that is a veritable library of Fremont pictographs. Just a little north of Winslow, Arizona are some of the best and most interesting: a group often used as proof of the origin of the Katsina Cult because they can be dated by nearby ruins. Just a few of my favorites. Rock art is literally everywhere. My first visit to Zuni, nearly fifty years ago now, I was taken to a rift called
Hardscrabble Wash, just a little west of the Witch Wells Bar. This rocky cut is famous for boasting several miles of great rock art. The last time I visited there was about fifteen years ago when my son was a small boy. I heard recently that the local rancher, displeased with what he considered too many invaders on his land, did a pretty fair job of destroying that particular display of ancient art. I know, and have read about, people who claim they can read rock art as easily as people read Egyptian hieroglyphics or Mayan inscriptions. Most scholars and students of the genre do not believe pictographs are writing, though the meaning of some of them seems pretty obvious. I have always felt interpreting the symbols was pretty much a personal opinion. The belief that many of the designs are far more than idle scratching is borne out by the fact that some of them, like the famous “sun dagger” at Chaco Canyon, took a great deal of trouble and foresight (or forethought) to create. Their placement and purpose are obviously very deliberate. There is also the fact that many symbols – besides natural elements like deer, bighorn sheep, mountain lions and the like – notably the sun spiral and Kokopelli figure, are very similar and very common over a huge geographical area and were created by a number of different cultures over a long period of time. Most people interpret Kokopelli as an insect because of the antennae rising from his head. The figure is consistently depicted with a hump back and playing a flute. Sometimes he sports exaggerated genitalia as well. Whole books have been compiled about this figure. In general it seems that Native Americans do feel that rock art has a purpose and definite meaning, and many Zunis consider them sacred and magical. Most of the masked figures near Zuni and elsewhere, south of the Colorado Plateau country, are readily identifiable as specific katsinas (Kokko). The oldest ones are hardest to interpret. There is another group that clearly picture warrior figures. They carry shields and weapons that are obvious and need no interpretation, though many of them have non-human faces – representing either masks, or perhaps grimaces to October 2014