Long before the establishment of Utah’s tourist-magnet Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Native American groups such as the Ancestral Puebloans, Fremont and Utes lived in and passed through the area, adorning its red sandstone with pictographs and petroglyphs. In the mere 15 percent of the region they’ve formally documented, archaeologists have identified hundreds of rock art sites.
After enduring for about a millennium, report Saige Miller and Colby Walker for KSL NewsRadio, a four-panel collection of petroglyphs known as the “Birthing Rock” was damaged earlier this week, when vandals scrawled a white supremacist phrase and other obscene graffiti on it.
Birthing Rock, also known as the “Birthing Scene,” is a boulder off of a popular recreational road outside of the city of Moab, notes Zak Podmore for the Salt Lake Tribune. Petroglyphs—images that are scratched or otherwise carved into rock, as opposed to painted pictographs—adorn its four sides.
According to an interpretive sign at the site, images inscribed on the rock include a woman giving birth, anthropomorphic figures, bear tracks, centipedes and bighorn sheep, as well as abstract designs. Dating petroglyphs is difficult, but archaeologists estimate that they were etched by the region’s Indigenous inhabitants between 700 and 2,500 years ago.
Late Sunday or early Monday, vandals wrote “white power” across Birthing Rock’s triangle-shaped anthropomorphic figures, misspelling and crossing out their first attempt at the word “white,” reports Spencer Joseph for Fox 13. Someone drew an ejaculating penis above a snakelike line and scribbled sexual vulgarities on the rock. A scratched-on slang term for women’s genitals now appears on a section with depictions of four-legged creatures and circular designs. Per KSL.com’s Carter Williams, only one panel escaped unscathed.
As Maggie McGuire writes for the Moab Sun News, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has stationed a ranger outside the site and is enlisting conservators to help restore Birthing Rock. The agency is also offering a $10,000 reward for tips on the vandalism.
“It was very disturbing,” Dorena Martineau, cultural resource director for the Paiute Tribe of Utah, tells Smithsonian magazine. “We don’t call it art—it’s a [form of] writing. It’s what our people put out there, in the past, even though we can’t read it anymore.”
The landscape the petroglyphs are part of is deeply and inextricably connected to the Indigenous community, says Angelo Baca, an anthropologist at New York University and the cultural resources coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah, a grassroots organization that works to protect Native lands and heritage, to Smithsonian.
“We see ourselves as one,” adds Baca, who is Diné (Navajo) and Hopi. “There is no separation between the Native people and their land.”
Between 500 and 1300 A.D., during what’s known as the Formative Era, the Fremont people lived in what is now Utah and western Colorado, hunting and gathering as well as practicing agriculture. Around the same time, the Ancestral Puebloans—whom white archaeologists labeled the Anasazi—built pueblos and farmed in the Four Corners region (Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico).
For reasons that remain mysterious, the Ancestral Puebloans—forebears of today’s Pueblo tribes—abandoned sites like Mesa Verde about 700 years ago. By 1500 A.D., “all traces of Fremont culture” had vanished from the archaeological record, notes the National Park Service. The first physical traces of the Ute people—who still reside in the region as the Paiute, Shoshone and Ute tribes—date to around the time of the Formative Era tribes’ departure.
The damage to Birthing Rock isn’t an isolated incident. Instead, it falls into a nationwide pattern of disrespect for Native American cultural heritage sites. In recent months, vandals have defaced pictographs in Oregon and Cherokee and Creek rock carvings in Georgia. Such damage is “shockingly common” around Utah, too, Elizabeth Hora, an archaeologist at the state’s historic preservation office, tells Seth Boster of the Colorado Springs Gazette.
In late March, Colorado rock climber Richard Gilbert damaged another set of Moab petroglyphs by drilling bolts into the face of an area called the “Sunshine Wall.” He recorded the new route on a popular climbing site, dismissing the millennium-old markings as “graffiti.” After other climbers publicly exposed the damage he’d done to the carvings, Gilbert filled the bolt holes and met with BLM authorities.
“It shouldn’t have happened,” he tells Outside magazine’s Kevin Johnson. “It’s just poor education on my part, and I do take full responsibility.”
News of the damage to the Sunshine Wall kicked off a heated discussion of how climbers can respectfully and responsibly recreate on Indigenous lands. The debate led to a “Climbing on Sacred Land” webinar involving Indigenous anthropologists and climbers, as well as Gilbert himself.
Gilbert’s drilled holes and the racist words at the Birthing Rock are “both examples of how power, privilege, and access can be used against Indigenous peoples and their land,” says Baca. “One might have been malicious, the other [Gilbert’s route] might have been well-intentioned, but they still, regardless, have yielded results in this kind of violence.”
Both incidents, Baca says, reflect an insidious colonial idea:
Many people have no idea that one, we exist—Native people are still here; we’re still in our land—and two, that we are disproportionally affected by violence of all kinds, including this kind of offensive and insulting action. But taken to its logical extreme, it is an objectification of Indigenous people. They are seeing us as things of the past, not people of the present. So historically, everything that was done to Indigenous people, things like genocide, removal, dispossession, warfare and just plain old invisibility, has been due to the objectification of Indigenous people. We haven’t been seen as full human beings—so when you’re seen as a thing, it’s [really] easy for people to break and damage it and not have a second thought on it.