Petroglyphs Bring Lakota Origins To Life

Apr 16, 2015

Vance Blacksmith passes on the Lakota oral traditions of the petroglyphs that have been handed down through the ages to student from the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Credit Photo by Audrey Jacobs

In this high-tech world of instant communication it may be hard to imagine leaving a message for someone that might take hours or even days to compose…and that the recipient might not receive for hundreds of years.

But as we learned, along with a group of Lakota students, that’s exactly what ancient Indigenous people did in what’s come to be known as “rock art”.

The early spring sun is rising steadily in the sky as I board a school bus for a journey into the past.  

It’s a rough ride along a narrow, winding road to reach the secluded area where ancient Indigenous people once camped and left their messages on the face of a towering sandstone outcrop. Tour guide Karla LaRive leads us from the bus to the ancient art.

Located on land that’s part of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, this historic site dates back at least 10.000 years to the last Ice Age. Images of ancient elk and mammoth are just two of the petroglyphs that adorn the extensive rock wall.

Visiting the Petroglyph Site today are Lakota students from the Pine Ridge Reservation. Audrey Jacobs is the Museum Educator for the Red Cloud Indian School’s Heritage Center. She’s here to help explain the ancient art.

Smiling faces all around as Lakota students from the Pine Ridge Reservation arrive at the Petroglyphs Site on the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.
Credit Photo by Karla LaRive

“Let me ask that to you guys,” Jacobs says to the group. “How do you think that you could carve into rock?” 

“Sharp rocks?”replies one student.

“Sharp rocks,” she agrees.  “That’s excellent. How about you?”

“They got a stick and a rope and a big rock and they started banging that sharp rock?” replies another student. 

“Yes,” Jacobs agrees. “So, you got a sharp rock and another rock to use as a hammer. They could also use bone or antler to use as the nail part…the chisel part…and then use a rock to bang on that as a hammer.”

Audrey Jacobs says having the opportunity to bring the students to this site is not only educational but could also be inspirational.

“Rock art in this area, especially, and in North America, in general, has been so little studied,” Jacobs observes, “that one day…one of these kids who are the descendants of the folks who made the rock art, you know, they might go on to study the rock art and contribute to the body of knowledge that we have and expand that.”

When Audrey’s finished her historic and archeological instruction, Vance Blacksmith gathers the students around him to pass on the Lakota oral traditions of the petroglyphs that have been handed down through the ages.

“It is really important,” Blacksmith explains. “Not just as educators or teachers…but as being the bridge between who they are and where they come from. And bringing them back to the rock art to show them…like the story I shared earlier…that this is where we originated from. And our Creators…and our images on the rock…for continuous life and knowledge.”

Students create their own petroglyphs…on paper, with markers…as part of an art project at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary’s Petroglyphs Site.
Credit Photo by Audrey Jacobs

Of course, says Blacksmith, one needn’t be Lakota – or even Indigenous – to respect and value these petroglyphs or any others.

“I think it’s just understanding their relationship with Unci Maka…the Mother Earth,” comments Blacksmith. “And knowing that if we continually destroy and take, that eventually it’s going to end. And, you know, when we have our young children like this…here…to know at some time they’re going to  be parents and then grandparents…and then their children. You know, I think that’s where we have to find their connection. Bringing them to this rock art here…to show the image…that this was here way before even us…personally. And it’s something that we need to continue our association.” 

Blacksmith adds that the story he passed on to the Lakota students about the origins of this rock art – and their own origins - was to make them understand that we are a part of Mother Earth. And that applies to all life, explains Blacksmith, not just the Lakota.

The trip to the Sanctuary also gives the students an opportunity to see another important part of their Lakota history…the wild horse.

“It’s one thing to know that horses…wild horses…were a huge part of their culture,” observes Jacobs. “And to now that there’s rock art that their ancient relatives created. But it’s another thing to see it with their own eyes.”

As the students prepare for an art project in which they’ll create their own petroglyphs…on paper, with markers…Vance Blacksmith observes that the depth of knowledge in each culture is based upon the individual themselves. He adds that we each need to question and find and know. Bringing the Lakota students to this spot is one step on that long road of learning from the past to the future.

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