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Petroglyphs Losing Ground to Time, Trash, and Graffiti

​ASOTIN, Washington –"Devo Rules" at Buffalo Eddy.

Or so says a message spray-painted on rocks across the road from Indian petroglyphs perhaps several thousand years old. The reference to the music group Devo is apparently of more recent origin.

The Snake River site 14 miles south of Asotin offers glimpses into two cultures: the petroglyphs left behind by prehistoric peoples and the graffiti deposited by 20th century visitors.

Most of the petroglyphs pecked into rocks along the river bank are faint now. In spite of centuries of weathering from wind, water, ice and lichens, they still tell how ancestors of the Nez Perce Tribe survived there.

Many figures at Buffalo Eddy, which is located on both the Idaho and Washington sides of the Snake and nearby at Captain John Rock, are animals that had been hunted for food: elk, fish and, especially, bighorn sheep. Petroglyphs depict human figures in various hunting activities.

Modern man finds food in other ways and has left his ownmarks on the site, such as the processed-meat package in the grass not far from Snake River Road. "Carl Buddig Ham-Smoked-Sliced-Chopped-Pressed-Cooked."

The "pack-it-in, pack-it-out" rule apparently doesn't apply at Buffalo Eddy, where visitors have used natural depressions in the rocks as ashtrays. Litter scattered along the roadway and dropped among the rocks includes diapers, hopelessly tangled fishing lines, a wooden pallet stenciled "White Flyer," an Idaho boat-trailer license, plastic foam burger packaging and a glow-in-the-dark-green coat hanger.

The major beverages are well-represented -Keystone, Gatorade, Coors Light, Snapple, Milwaukee's Best and Mountain Dew.

The trash can be cleaned up, but Buffalo Eddy has also suffered serious and permanent harm.

"Vandalism has caused and continues to cause most of the damage that has occurred at the site," according to an archaeological study by Gordon and Bruce Lothson. "Chisel marks, bullet holes, initials and poorly executed attempts at rock carving have destroyed an estimated one-quarter of the petroglyphs that once existed." Someof those who have vandalizedthe petroglyph panels or rocks nearby have signed their work.

Terry. Mike 'n' Kristi. Bart. Rainman.

Money lacking

On the Washington side, Asotin County has neither the dollars nor the deputies to guardthe remote site against further damage.

Enter the National Park Service. Congress authorized the Park Service last October to add Buffalo Eddy and 13 other sites to the original 24 locations in the Nez Perce National Sites Historical Park.

To those for whom the National Park system is synonymous with the scenic wonders of Yellowstone and Yosemite, the Nez Perce park presents an entirely different concept.

Visitors to the park won't find glaciers, geysers and grizzlies, but they will learn something about apeople -its history, legends and culture.

The original 24 sites authorized in 1965 are all in north-central Idaho. The additional 14 locations expand the park's borders into Oregon, Washington and Montana.

Some spots are simple highway turnouts with interpretive signs. Battlefields, missions, cemeteries, campsites and migration trails make up some locations. Each offers a different insight into the Nez Perce tribe.

The Antand Yellowjacket turnout along Highway 12 east of Lewiston, for example, gives visitors a glimpse into the tribe's myths and its relationship with the land.

According to Nez Perce legend, the stone arch on top of the hill represents antand yellowjacket, who were turned to stone by coyote while locked in combat over which one had the right to eat dried salmon there.

According tothe Lothsons, the petroglyphs represent more than one carving period, and a progression from simple, naturalistic figures toward geometric patterns and more varied and abstract subjects.

Vandalism at Buffalo Eddy has apparently progressed as well. Many of the messages spray-painted and scratched on rocks near the petroglyphs feature simple names in block letters.

The Park Service's mission is to interpret the historical sites and protect them from such damage.

Not an easy task for a park scattered at 38 sites over several states.

Frank Walker, superintendent of the park, said sparking that interest and educating visitors to the importance of the rock art is the key to preservation.

"If people understand it, they'll protect it."

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