For Pueblo Tribal Council member Paul Tosa, human-made markings on stone are not “rock art,” the commonly used term. Instead, he says the etchings left by his ancestors nearly 800 years ago are better described as “living spirits.”
“Because that is our connectedness with nature,” said Tosa, who lives in Jemez Pueblo region of New Mexico, about an hour’s drive north of Albuquerque. “We just don’t go to visit. We go to pray to the ancestors – the ones that have gone before us. You are there, and you can feel the presence of the ancestral people.”
Tosa, 66, is one of several essayists who contributed to a new book, Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape, which depicts significant archaeological sites scattered throughout the Southwest.
Tosa credits his knowledge of the Hemish people, and fluency in their native dialect, Towa, to his grandfather, Francisco, who would sit around the stove and tell Tosa stories before bed in the tribe’s native tongue – the only language Francisco could speak.
“He couldn’t even write his own name in English,” Tosa said. “The language is most key. It identifies us as who we are, as Hemes people. Without language, who are you? It’s my way to explain who I am.”
Tosa frequently hosts tours of rock art for anyone interested, but his main goal is to educate the Hemes youths with the hopes they’ll learn the language and the tribe’s rich culture will live on.
He compares the passing of cultural knowledge to the image of the iconic spiral rock art.
“My grandfather said that represents the time of emergence,” Tosa said. “As we move into the future, there’s no line that cuts it off. We will live and survive forever as Hemes people in this part of the landscape.
“Many people have different interpretations (of the spiral imagery),” he said. “For us, it’s to show we emerged with problems, and yet we will continue to exist. Therefore, there is no line. We continue forever.”
The book’s author, Jonathan Bailey, said it’s this cultural significance that motivated him to cover 30,000 miles of Utah’s backcountry on foot, photographing ancient drawings on the sides of canyon walls. The book contains more than 150 color photographs from that exploration.
“I’ve seen rock art my entire life, but I got serious about it when I was 7,” Bailey said. “It’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Bailey said Rock Art was in part a reaction to the disclosure of site locations through social media, which brought a “1,000 percent” increase in vandalism to the Native American art.
“People would write their names, shoot bullet holes. ATVs would drive over burial grounds, fracturing skulls. Some people would light campfires in (ancient) shelters,” Bailey said. “Pretty much anything you can imagine, they’ve probably done.”
Bailey hopes more education, as well as state and federal land management, will bring an end to rock art vandalism. Though not a Native American, he feels strong ties to the drawings.
Lawrence Loendorf, an archaeologist who has studied rock art in New Mexico and Montana for more than 50 years and contributed an essay, agreed that the ancient drawings are at risk. Currently, he is president of Sacred Sites Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and protection of Native American rock art.
“It’s a cultural resource,” he said. “It’s something that’s very popular for people to visit, but far more importantly, it’s considered by Native people to be a sacred site.”
Tosa’s visits to the rock art are part of everyday life, with regular rituals and offerings. Even on hunting trips, he said the presence of the markings make it feel as if his ancestors are right there beside him.
“That’s the specialness, the sacredness and the spirituality we have,” he said. “It’s one of a kind to have this knowledge.”