Rock Art and Native Americans: A View from South Dakota

Article excerpt


As highly visible features of the archaeological landscape, rock art sites require special management considerations. Native Americans contacted as part of a state-wide rock art survey in 1992-93 had firm, and sometimes surprising, views. regarding such issues as opening sites for public visitation, interpretive materials, and site preservation. Public education, site protection, and studies of oral traditions concerning rock art sites were viewed favorably by the Native Americans participating in the survey. Developing sites for public visitation raised concerns about protecting the privacy of individuals using the sites for religious purposes. Personal interviews were more successful than questionnaires in gathering Native American views on rock art site management.

Keywords: rock art, site management, Native Americans; northern Plains

Rock art raises special issues for both researchers and cultural resource managers. It is both highly visible and fragile. Besides these prosaic concerns, rock art in many regions of the world has, or historically had, religious significance for indigenous peoples. Effective and fair management must take into account the views of those indigenous peoples who identify a body of rock art as theirs. For North American archaeologists and CRM personnel, this means that programs aimed at increasing Native American involvement in site management and research must include rock art. Conversely, management plans for rock art sites must include the input of interested native people.

Rock art has not often been considered in this light, because it is usually viewed as outside the main issues of reburial, repatriation of religious property, and site excavation. In fact, rock art is tied to at least two of these issues: repatriation and excavation. Some Native Americans have called for archaeological research that does not require new excavations (Schwab 1993). Rock art research can provide one alternative to excavation in our attempts to understand prehistoric cultures. Researchers can approach rock art in ways that are largely nonintrusive, but nevertheless productive and informative.

What does rock art have to do with repatriation? It's true that most rock art we know of is still where it always was: in the rocks. This is fortunate for both the rock art itself and the people, both Native Americans and others, who want to use and enjoy it. Still, the issue of who "owns" rock art is complex, just as with objects in a museum.

Many museums in South Dakota do contain rock art in their collections. This usually takes the form of petroglyph boulders hauled in from fields or riverbanks and artfully placed in front of the museum building, library, or park (Figure 1). This is a repatriation issue, because these rocks were, and in some cases still are, sacred to Mandan, Hidatsa, and Lakota people. Because town parks in South Dakota are not very appropriate locations for traditional religious activities, the day may come when repatriation of these rocks is requested.

Besides repatriation and research, the management of rock art sites raises a unique set of concerns. This paper examines some issues concerning Native Americans and rock art in South Dakota. It also includes specific comments on what did and did not work for me in including Native American perspectives in decisions concerning rock art sites.


In 1992-93, 1 conducted a state-wide rock art survey and nomination project with funds provided by the National Park Service through the South Dakota Historical Preservation Center and by the Department of Agriculture through the Black Hills National Forest (Sundstrom 1993). As part of the project, I sent questionnaires to two groups: cultural resource management personnel and Native Americans whom I felt would have an interest in rock art. The two groups received different questionnaires, geared toward their specific expertise and interests (Appendix A). …