This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
As you round the bend in the canyon and look ahead to see what lies beyond, your vision locks in on them. They command your attention. Their eyes bore into you like lasers from the distant past. Ghost-like, larger than life-size, they appear able to impose their will on you, yet they are mute, sentinels who have guarded this canyon for over a thousand years.
These fantastic painted figures that to some resemble kings or spirits or shamans are a direct connection to the artists who created them long, long ago. They are what we call Native American rock art, painted, pecked, etched and carved into the sandstone cliffs and tumbled boulders, bearing testimony to the 10,000-year history of the people of our region. And Utah is home to some of the most impressive examples of rock art in the world. Many thousands of sites bearing hundreds of thousands of images intrigue those who happen to see them and, to modern native people, they may still live, speaking to those who can hear, telling of ancient lives, of truths forgotten, of the soul and spirit of people and cultures that came before.
Sen. David P. Hinkins, R-Orangeville, whose district includes Carbon, Emery, Grand, San Juan, Utah and Wasatch counties, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 171, currently before the Utah Legislature, that would designate Native American rock art as one of Utah's official state symbols. I cannot imagine a more appropriate symbol for our state. Utah takes its very name from the Utes, modern people whose ancestors were here long before Europeans arrived to draw borders and political boundaries. The artistic and cultural legacy of the Utes and other cultures that called and still call this state home is beautiful and awe-inspiring, and precisely captures the essence of the land, the country we call home.
Utah is well known around the world for the beautiful and mysterious rock art that adorns our natural canvasses. We may well have the oldest single rock art panel in all of North America, near Bluff, in San Juan County, and we proudly boast of having the world's longest art gallery (Nine Mile Canyon) in Carbon County. The classic trapezoidal-bodied ambassadors of the Fremont culture that grace the cliff faces in the Uinta Basin and Capitol Reef stand powerful, threatening and richly-adorned. The imposing and mysterious figures of the Great Gallery in Canyonlands draw and inspire visitors from all continents. Spirals, mazes, horned snakes, bighorn sheep, headless elk, dancing deer, abstract designs, bewildering mythological creatures, corn and yucca plants, atlatls, hunting scenes, and handprints, hundreds of handprints some reminiscent of the childhood handprints in plaster we brought home to our parents remind us of lives lived, of happy childhoods, of people saying "I was here."
To view rock art you must get out of your house and go to where someone long ago created a work of lasting value on stone. To view it you stand in the same spot as did that artist, in the very studio where the artistry was performed. You see the unchanged landscape, feel the kindred breeze, stand upon the selfsame soil as did that inspired painter or sculptor, and your appreciation of the creation is bolstered by the shared place. Visitors from far away could look at pictures online or in a book of Utah's rock art, and they do, but the allure goes beyond that: The draw to see the creations in their true environment is the preferred and optimal way to appreciate them. And it is the preferred and optimal way to appreciate Utah as well.
The rock art that adorns and enhances our state represents our past, but it also represents who we are people who appreciate our heritage, our diversity, the richness of culture and incredible creativity. Please join me in supporting SB171, and in thanking Hinkins for sponsoring this truly meaningful initiative.
Note: A bill designating the Spiral Jetty as an official state symbol (HB211) is also making its way through the Legislature. The bills are not in opposition to each other, and both serve to recognize works of art important to Utahns. I urge support of both bills.
Kevin T. Jones is an archaeologist and writer who lives in Salt Lake City. He is the former State Archaeologist of Utah.