Some historians write books, delineating events of an era. Others shoot films documenting life in their time.
But some historians leave their stories on rocks.
Etched or painted onto bronze basalt, these records have endured through the ages.
Rock art, as the paintings and carvings are called, totally capture the depth of beauty these “pages” convey.
Granted, petroglyphs (images carved into rocks, caves and canyon walls) and pictographs (painted images) are true art — but they’re also albums of time gone by.
People in Central Washington don’t have far to travel to find ancient Native American treasures. Some remain hidden, some are inaccessible, but some, such as those along the Columbia River, are considered fine examples of timeless art.
Mindful of that cache and curious about seeing the beauty of the unwritten word firsthand, 20 hikers gathered in late October at Columbia Hills State Park near Dallesport, about a half-hour west of Goldendale on Highway 14, to search for some of the riches.
Organized by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a conservation group headquartered in Portland, the hike covered about a mile of terrain, winding along the stately basalt cliffs.
“It’s a very popular hike,” noted Maegan Jossy, a Friends of the Columbia Gorge program coordinator.
Here’s why: Two distinct types of rock art exist in the park, some readily viewable and some tucked away. Most accessible is a collection of about 40 petroglyphs and pictographs along a short sidewalk. These striking images resemble animals, birds and snakes, all carved or painted hundreds of years ago.
However, they aren’t located in their original sites. Exactly 55 years ago — a geological blink in time — thousands of these gems were inundated with a torrent of water when the Dalles Dam was completed, raising the Columbia River several hundred feet in this spot. The dam also destroyed the ancient fishing site of Celilo Falls and flooded the old village of Wishram, or Nixlúidix, near where the park now stands.
Of the thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs lost to the waters (and ages) in this area, about 40 were rescued by the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Stored since 1957, they were unveiled in 2004 and erected in the state park for public viewing.
Johnson Meninick, who heads the Yakama Nation’s cultural resources program, characterizes the park’s rock art as extremely valuable to Native people.
“They’re pretty much like the U.S. Constitution to us,” he said. “They remind us of things that happened even before the Constitution.”
Unfortunately, the old Wishram village is just a memory. But Lewis and Clark, who passed through in October 1805, left a vivid description of the area’s abundance, estimating they saw 10,000 pounds of salmon drying along river banks. More than 600 people lived there at the time.
Their art was apparently as prolific as their fish. That was partly due to the numbers of people drawn to the area for the fish, which in turn created a rich trading center. Bear grass and root baskets, dried roots and venison, beads and salmon were all traded extensively here.
People chronicled that plentiful lifestyle on the surrounding basalt walls. And because the river was the font of life, most of the rock art faces the Columbia, according to Chon Clayton, the state park ranger leading the hike.
Although Ralph Thomas Rogers lives in nearby Goldendale, he said he had no idea there was such a vivid display of petroglyphs and pictographs throughout the park. He’s participated in about 40 Friends of the Columbia Gorge hikes this year “to see wildlife and plants when they first flower.”
He was amply rewarded a few minutes into the hike when a red fox suddenly appeared, scrambling rapidly up a basalt cliff about a hundred yards away.
Another non-rock art bonus occurred when Clayton led the group to an old mortar and pestle pit used to grind salmon and wild roots, such as wapato.
But the pictographs and petroglyphs are what this hike was all about, and the group soon ventured upon red and white symbols — twin human-like figures and diamond shapes — drawn onto rock with paint made with crushed red rock, colored with fish eggs, blood or various roots.
“We don’t know how old these are,” Clayton noted. “They could have been done a couple hundred or 500 to 600 years ago.”
Equally mysterious is what the shapes represent, said Clayton. Some, exoskeletons, clearly look like birds. Then there’s a sun. But is it? Perhaps it’s an animal spirit, Clayton pointed out.
Concentric circles may represent religious symbols, families or even great power. Lines could be a calendar or tally marks from a hunt. Perhaps there was competition between families, Clayton explained.
Some, though, seem very clear: a snail or a star. There’s even a Speedis owl, with its two distinct ears, that shares the name of a Yakama family.
Friends of the Columbia Gorge volunteer Jim Chase stopped in front of squiggly, vertical lines to ponder, “A snake? A river?”
Because we don’t know, perhaps these signs seem more alluring, their meaning more ineffable.
One thing is very clear. These ancient symbols are held in great awe by the Yakama, and the hiking group displayed reverence for each one, almost as if they exist in temples.
Around one bend, Earl Switzer from Portland spotted a painted avian figure, set off by a ledge in front.
“It’s almost like an altar,” Switzer said, commenting on the aura of spirituality.
Awaiting at the end of the hike was the trip’s grand prize — She Who Watches, or Tsagaglal. She’s half carved and half painted, a petroglyph/pictograph, a large face eerily filled with trenchant eyes.
The theory, Clayton explained, is she had something to do with death because her symbol is found in grave sites, particularly those around the time of disease epidemics. But Clayton conjectured she symbolized more than just mortality. He related one of the numerous legends starring Coyote that Native Americans have handed down through generations, one that ends with Coyote throwing the matriarch from Wishram Village upon the rock to watch over the well-being of people for all time.
Clayton said the image is so arresting because “the unique design catches the imagination.”
For many years she caught too many imaginations and was almost loved to death. At one time anyone could walk up to see her at any time. Unfortunately, with easy access came trouble. According to Meninick from the Yakama’s cultural resources program, the area was heavily damaged by spray paint and other vandalism about 20 years ago. Someone even shot bullets at the iconic She Who Watches image, Clayton said.
So, in 1993, the Yakamas authorized ranger-guided hikes only for viewing rock art scattered throughout the park, including She Who Watches.
“We’re hoping that these cultural artifacts will be protected in perpetuity,” Meninick explained.
That approach has been successful, park ranger Andy Kallinen reported. “The closure put a damper on vandalism.”
Clayton, who leads the hike four times a year, saidhe learns more history there every time. So, apparently, do the hikers.
“This was wonderful,” said Regina Brody from Portland. “It’s even more interesting than I thought, and the leader was amazing.”
•Jane Gargas can be reached at 509-577-7690 or firstname.lastname@example.org.