Vandalism damages Yakima Valley’s rock art

By Jane Gargas
Yakima, Washington (AP) 12-08

Here’s the rub: The rock of ages may not be.

The Yakima Valley is blessed with a strikingly rich palette of cultural heritage, a legacy of rock art left as many as 1,000 years ago.

That legacy is under siege.

Truth is, rock art here is deteriorating – either by the elements or, worse, by the hand of vandals.

Native American rock art accords a fascinating look into life hundreds of years ago in the Valley. Petroglyphs, images carved into rocks, and pictographs, which are painted, have been etched and painted onto rocks, caves and canyon walls. 

No one is quite sure who left them, but they’ve long enjoyed a revered place at the Valley table.

Johnson Meninick, who heads the Yakama Nation’s cultural resources program, described rock art as “sacred and sensitive monuments.”

The best-known rock art locally is called the Painted Rocks, a county park set aside in 1924 near the intersection of Powerhouse and Ackley roads in northwest Yakima.

For nearly a century, the site lured archaeologists, tourists, history buffs and schoolchildren, who came to gaze at the red and white symbols painted on the sheer basalt columns.

They saw about 60 distinctive figures that resembled people, mountain goats, sunbursts and bear paws.

But not anymore.

In April 2007, the state, with the agreement of Yakima County and the Yakama Nation, closed the park because of vandalism to the rocks. Last spring, the stairs and walkway were removed, the interpretive sign taken down and a “No trespassing” sign erected.

Anyone who ventures past the locale now would have no idea there’s ageless, priceless rock art there; the site is totally inaccessible.

“That’s very sad,” lamented 90-year-old Charlotte Kendrick. A member of a woman’s geology club, she still reveres the site.

“It’s a wonderful treasure,” she said.

Meninick called the destruction of the property “the desecration of irreplaceable objects.”

Not only was the graffiti damaging, it was insulting, he said.

“What if I went and put my initials in the Washington Monument (in Washington, D.C.)?” he asked. “These Painted Rocks are sacred to us and respected under the Treaty of 1855.”

The treaty allows the tribe to retain cultural traditions and practices on reservation land as well as on the 10 million acres ceded to the government.

First owned by the Northern Pacific Railroad, the 17-acre parcel was operated for many years by the state, until the discovery several years ago that it was actually county land, held in conjunction with the Yakima Valley Canal Co.

Whoever owned it, the site was a showcase for the wondrous ambiguity of art, alternately solemn and celebratory.

Archaeologists conjecture that the symbols depicted religious experiences, hunts or meetings. The basalt cliffs were situated along a well-traveled path between Ellensburg and Union Gap.

A 1924 Yakima Daily Republic article refers to a Yakama chief who described the Painted Rocks as the “hands of heaven.”

But those hands were being destroyed, bit by bit. After several years of discussion, the county, state and tribe concluded last year that the only way to save the Painted Rocks was to make them off limits.

“What was there wasn’t protected, and our main motivation was preservation,” said Brian Hovis, a planner with Washington State Parks in Olympia.

Even removing graffiti became a problem, Hovis said. The cleaning process, using chemicals, also damaged the images.

No one wanted to chain off the area, but no other way of safeguarding seemed feasible.

“We supported the tribe’s desire to have it protected,” reported Gary Ekstedt, an engineer in the county public services department.

“In my opinion, it would be nice if people could view the Painted Rocks and get a sense of cultural history, but if there are always going to be people who will deface it, then I’d opt for protection.”

Still, it robbed the public of history, culture and sacred graphic expression.

“It’s pathetic,” said Hovis, who grew up in Yakima and visited the Painted Rocks as a boy. “The vandalism made me sick.”

In order to curtail the vandalism, the government agencies agreed to honor the perspective that the tribe owns the artifacts.


Actually, that’s the law, explained Rick McClure, an archaeologist who has worked for 28 years in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in south-central Washington.

In 2001, the National Historic Preservation Act was revised to give tribes more say over the care of ancient Native American sites.

“The federal government recognized that these folks do have an important voice, even on state land. Before the amendment, there was less consultation with tribes. Now it’s mandated.”

In the Gifford Pinchot forest, McClure said some archaeological sites are considered more culturally sensitive than others.

“If we close off some of these sites, then the public won’t get a chance to become stewards of them,” McClure said.

But other, more delicate historical artifacts are not publicly advertised, he said.

“You have to weigh each resource,” McClure added. “Rock art is considered the most threatened, either by construction or vandalism.”

The Yakima Valley also has a number of Native American historical sites. However, since they are much less known and accessible than the Painted Rocks, they may be saved from a similar fate.

Naches Valley High School English teacher Sandy Jetton feels passionately that rock art is part of everyone’s heritage.

About five years ago, he and several other teachers at the high school secured a grant for students to compile a book of Naches history.

Jetton, who has taught for 39 years, was already familiar with a number of ancient Native American sites near Naches, on hills, along rivers or near long-abandoned settlements. The student project made him realize that many sacred sites weren’t being protected.

Jetton believes rock art needs to be preserved so everyone can appreciate it, not hidden or allowed to fade away, casualties to rain, snow and other natural elements.

Last summer, he decided to visit several sites near Naches that he considers most sacred. Standing in front of a rock cliff along U.S. Highway 12, Jetton marveled at dozens of pictographs painted on the sheer wall.

“Every time I’m here, there’s something different to see. It’s still a thrill,” he said.

The spot, about a mile west of the Oak Creek feeding station, is subtle, but passers-by with binoculars can pick out definite, pale red shapes. A circular image with rays pointing out might be a chief or a rising sun, Jetton guessed. Two figures, possibly twins, stand out, as do several whimsical animal shapes.

Because the images are high on the cliff and the terrain is steep, these pictographs are unmarred by the hand of man.

Jetton also enjoys visiting several rocky caves in the Naches area, each one serving a different purpose.

Sadly, though, people have chipped away at the stones, trying to steal the images.

And that’s what bothers Jetton the most: Shouldn’t these sacred places, which others obviously have found, be preserved?

“Wondering how they were created and why, I think they can’t be allowed to fade away into nothing. Preserving them is preserving a culture,” he said.

But how?

Perhaps coverings or enclosures could be constructed, he said, acknowledging that it could be an expensive proposition.

He’s lukewarm about artifacts being transferred to museums for public display. He argued that they would lose their importance and meaning if taken out of context.

Meninick, the Yakama cultural resource expert, also believes rock art belongs outside.

Jetton finds it bothersome that through time, pictograph colors are becoming less vibrant. They should at least be preserved from the ravages of weather, he believes.

No, countered Meninick, they shouldn’t. Weather damage is normal, he said, even if the image totally disappears. That’s the natural way, he explained.

Hovis believes in the education behind the artifacts, perhaps using high-quality images taken of the Painted Rocks.

“I’d really like to find a way to share their interpretation,” he said.

For now, though, rock art here remains mostly out of public reach.

In other words, a few have ruined it for the many.

“It’s perplexing to me,” admitted Ekstedt. “Someone has to put out a lot of effort to deface these sites. It’s malicious.”

Or, as Meninick put it, “We follow the Creator’s law. We believe you treat these places with respect or you will be punished.”