Protecting Our Sacred Sites and Petroglyphs: Ancient Rock Art of the Great Plains

On a hot summer day, a paint mustang stands in the cool shade of the petroglyphs located on sandstone rimrock bluffs near the river.
The preservation and protection of important public lands is key to ensure future generations the ability to connect to their cultural heritages, including our wild horses.

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For thousands of years since the Folsom Era, Native Indigenous people have camped along the lush river corridors of the Northern Great Plains. In the summer months, women and children gathered traditional plants and medicine and harvested berries, choke cherries and wild plums. Using the best bison weaponry, men would hunt and provide game for winter food supplies, often staging communal hunts in the late autumn months.

Watch a short video version of this blog post. Opening photo by Karla LaRive.

Petroglyphs were stories of the times. Carved by flint tools, these ancient dialogues richly detailed intricate drawings in sandstone rimrocks. They were stories of humans, horses, bison, tracks, snakes, shields, weaponry, routes and ritual––all comprising of different styles and cultural affiliations. Rock art also played an important role in marking the migrations of the people. 

Horse Petroglyph rock art on a sandstone panel, southern Black Hills region
Horse Petroglyph rock art on a sandstone panel, southern Black Hills region

“To many Native American people, rock art sites are windows not just to the past but also to the present and future. They are living, powerful, holy places where a person can still seek help through fasting, prayer, sacrifice and contemplation. They are part of a vital and growing religious tradition, strongly rooted in the past but still blossoming today. The continuity of these traditions––sometimes over a span of a thousand years or more––is powerful testimony to the importance of these places in Native American belief systems, past and present.” – Linea Sundstrom, Author, Storied Stone, Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills Country. University of Oklahoma Press. 2004

Bear Butte Mountain, South Dakota. Matȟó Pahá by the Lakota. The mountain is sacred to many indigenous peoples, who make pilgrimages to leave prayer cloths and tobacco bundles tied to the branches of the trees along the mountain's flanks. Other offerings are often left at the top of the mountain. The site is associated with various religious ceremonies throughout the year. The mountain is a place of prayer, meditation, and peace.
Bear Butte Mountain, South Dakota. Matȟó Pahá by the Lakota. The mountain is sacred to many indigenous peoples, who make pilgrimages to leave prayer cloths and tobacco bundles tied to the branches of the trees along the mountain’s flanks. Other offerings are often left at the top of the mountain. The site is associated with various religious ceremonies throughout the year. The mountain is a place of prayer, meditation, and peace.

In 1988, the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs was told by the American Association of Museums that over 43,000 individual Native American remains were held in 163 United States museums. Many senators were shocked. The testimony spurred the U.S. Senate into action and brought an end to decades that pitted institutions against Native American tribes.

In 1990, Congress passed and President George Bush signed into law the landmark legislation, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). 

Female bison rests in the under a cottonwood tree at Bear Butte Mountain, early October.
Female bison rests in the under a cottonwood tree at Bear Butte Mountain, early October.

For more than 10,000 years humans have used the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) today. As a result, the land holds invaluable evidence of human prehistory and history. The preservation and protection of these important lands is key to ensure future generations the ability to connect to their cultural heritage, including our wild horses. 

About the Author and Photographer: A long-time advocate for preserving the legacy of wild horses, Karla LaRive comes to the CANA Foundation with a background in photography, communications and marketing.

Her production company, PK Productions, LLC was founded in 2006 with a focus in media production, music management and cultural awareness. In 2015, PK Productions LLC was nominated for a Grammy (NARAS) for “Best Regional Roots Album” as Producer on GENERATIONS featuring Windwalker and the MCW. Her company has also won two Native American Music Awards (NAMA) in addition to other memorable music nominations… More on Karla.

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