Tribal Relations Committee exploring digital documentation of Indigenous rock art in Wyoming ‘before we lose it forever’

    The Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations is considering ways to better document Indigenous rock art sites in the state, educate the public about their cultural significance, and prosecute people who damage them.

    The legislators discussed the topic during a meeting this month in Fort Washakie, where they learned that almost one-quarter of the known Indigenous rock art sites in the state have been vandalized, while more than 70 percent have been damaged by natural erosion.

    “Most of the damage to the rock sites is caused by the deteriorating rock themselves,” Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said. “It’s just happening before your eyes.”


    He suggested the state should invest in efforts to image the sites so they can be digitally preserved for interpretation before they deteriorate further.

    “We could save this stuff digitally before we lose it forever, either through vandalism or natural erosion,” he said. “The race is to document it and try to understand the site and its context now. … That is the real emergency.”

    The documentation process could be combined with a public education effort that would hopefully help to decrease incidents of vandalism at the sites, he added, guessing that most people who deface Indigenous rock art in more remote areas don’t understand that they’re “erasing someone’s history.”

    “I think education and documentation (are the) best things that we could possibly do,” he said.


    Start with Sinks

    Wyoming State Parks, Historic Sites, and Trails Director Dave Glenn said his agency recently began studying the idea of digitally imaging Indigenous rock art in its jurisdiction – beginning with sites in Sinks Canyon above Lander.

    “We’re actually trying to get some grant money for Sinks (to) start with,” he said. “We’re really hoping to get that data input so we don’t lose that.”

    Case said the U.S. Forest Service and the local organization Sinks Canyon Wild might be interested in collaborating on that effort, and Wyoming Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, suggested that a pilot program could be developed to help fund the documentation process.


    Anonymity as protection

    The Tribal Relations committee also discussed the potential for more fencing and other developments around lesser-known Indigenous rock art sites this month, but Case wasn’t in favor of that idea, noting that, “when (we) draw attention to these sites or use them for tourism promotion … it leads to their destruction.”

    Northern Arapaho Business Council Member Teresa His Chase agreed that “anonymity is the best protection” against vandalism – combined with “harsher punishment” for perpetrators, perhaps bolstered by signage outlining penalties and educating people about the cultural significance of the sites.

    “We do not want our sacred sites here on a map for the public,” NABC Member Kimberly Whiteman Harjo said. “We’d like to just leave them alone.”


    The Tribal Relations Committee decided to schedule a separate meeting on the topic of Indigenous rock art later this summer, and the NABC officials expressed interest in participating in that discussion.

    “I still have a lot to learn on (this),” Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne said. “(Let’s) think about this a little bit more. … This is an issue that I would like to continue to study.”

    Legislative staffers said they would bring a bill draft to the committee’s next meeting outlining potential updates to Wyoming law that would better define the process for enforcement of Indigenous rock art protections.

    Local lawmakers on the Tribal Relations Committee include Case, Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, and Wyoming Rep. Sarah Penn, R-Lander.


    Related Posts

    Have a news tip or an awesome photo to share?