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Ancient Road Signs

POCATELLO, Idaho — An ancient highway runs through Pocatello, replete with road signs. It is a path ot traversed by machines and many of the mostly unnoticed signs are still present, having endured through the centuries.

The original travelers of the road were Native Americans, and the signs are their works. These petroglyphs — literally “rock writing” — are present throughout the region, but an especially high concentration exists in this area and through the Portneuf Gap on to McCammon, the basalt cliffs providing a ready canvas.

With the advent of the first white men to the West, the preservation of these markings, along with pictographs — painting on the rocks — have often been compromised, either removed from their intended resting place, or defaced in acts of vanity or vandalism, with names, dates and initials chiseled on them.

The original artisans of the petroglyphs are long dead, but the messages they intended to convey are still present and await interpretation.

A bitter wind buffets Diana Yupe as she stands alongside a boulder next to a basalt cliff in the Portneuf Valley. The rock is covered with symbols. Idaho historian John E. Rees, who spoke Shoshoni and studied the symbols at the beginning of last century, wrote of this particular rock:

“The largest square figure is a Medicine lodge. The crosses represent the four winds which must be appeased. The coyote, being a progenitor of the Shoshonis, designates the drawing a Shoshoni picture.”

Yupe is unconvinced that the figure represents a coyote, explaining the coyote is considered a trickster in tribal lore, often depicted in a different manner. She believes the figure is a dog, a revered part of Shoshoni culture, worthy of being painstakingly memorialized on the rocks.

"When the tribal people were removed out of these places and were put on reservations, our ancestors left a message for us and those writings for us,” said Yupe, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes and an archeologist. “At some point when it’s time that we can go back into those areas, then we need to see those messages. I impress upon the people, ‘Don’t destroy it for us, because this is ours. This is what was left for us. We’re sharing it with you so you can see the value and the richness of our culture. But don’t destroy them.’”

As the West was settled by white men, the lore of cowboys and Indians had a world-wide lure. Performers such as William “Buffalo Bill” Cody made fortunes showcasing their brand of Western and American Indian culture throughout the United States and Europe. A market arose for those things crafted by aboriginal people. Unfortunately, petroglyphs became part of that fascination.

One of the first white men to catalog and attempt to decipher the petroglyphs in Idaho was John E. Rees, whose father had moved the family to the Salmon area in 1887 to run the trading post at the Lemhi Indian Agency. The young Rees became immersed in Shoshoni culture, learning the language.

Rees sought out promising Shoshoni artists, gave them crayons, and learned to interpret the various signs they produced. He became acknowledged as an authority on the life and lore of Native Americans in the region, publishing much of his work. Rees’ interests led him to explore much of the countryside, including the Pocatello area, interpreting the petroglyphs along the Portneuf River.

Some of Rees letters and manuscripts are currently housed in Idaho State University’s Oboler Library special collections section. One of the documents, entitled “Shoshoni Petroglyphs Along the Portneuf River,” contains the following passage, describing a glacial moraine he visited in Pocatello during the 1880s that had many petroglyphs already being systematically destroyed by the progress of the growing town.

“A portion of this moraine covered about three cq acres of ground with nice, large, smooth boulders which were marked over with carvings of Indian petroglyphs. The people did not realize the value of such writings, and the man who owned the ground broke up and sold the boulders for building material. In several old -fashioned fireplaces built by residents of this city can be observed the disjointed and disconnected pictures of may of these writings which make a very picturesque fireplace but wholly destroys all intelligence which the Indians intended to convey by such, as they thought, imperishable methods.

“This point of the Pocatello townsight (sic) was the divergent place for all trails going south, north or west and just as Pocatello is considered the gateway to the Pacific Northwest, so was it in aboriginal days a strategic point among Indians for holding or controlling certain areas which they claimed and over which they exercised jurisdiction.

“These three acres of boulders must have contained the most important and vital history and intelligence of which they made record. (Unfortunately,) I did not see them at a time when I was interested in or could read such writings.”

Rees was not the only forward thinker hoping to preserve the history of the aboriginal people. In 1906, the Preservation of American Antiquities Act was passed by Congress to try and stop the relentless removal of artifacts from public lands in the West. Although the Act was intended for preservation of small historic sites, President Teddy Roosevelt used the Act to sidestep the too-slow legislative process and began to create national monuments, including Devils Tower and Grand Canyon national monuments.

Unfortunately, the Act has no teeth where private lands are concerned, and on which many of the petroglyphs in Southeast Idaho are situated.

In one piece of correspondence, Rees articulated, although without rebuke, the need to leave artifacts in their original placement.

“I received the pictographs you sent me. I can only give you an outline of their meaning. Before one can go very deep into interpretation of these writings they would necessarily have to examine them in situ. Many marks and symbols which you would overlook would mean very much to a person in writing or deciphering them.”

In his scholarly works, Rees noted that many petroglyphs had suffered the natural deterioration caused by time and the elements and bemoaned the hastening of that process by man:

“To make this writing more confusing and harder to read, several white persons have carved letters and initials over parts of it, effacing and destroying many symbols.”

Rees died in 1928, but some of his work on local petroglyph sites was reproduced in a 1930 article published in the 12th Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees of the Idaho State Historical Society.

The article, “Indian Rock Writing in Idaho,” by Richard P. Erwin, references 69 separate sites in Idaho where petroglyphs or pictographs had been found. Erwin noted that the meaning of the symbols, many of them reproduced in photographs in the article, had been already lost by 1930 and that no “Rosetta stone has yet been discovered, nor is it expected one will be found.” He wrote:

“Many of these picture writings have stood for ages and would stand for ages to come if weathering was the only destroying element. Unfortunately, certain people are possessed with a mania to destroy. The great majority of them, we believe, destroy picture writing thoughtlessly, and do not realize their value—that a rock with a little paint or a few scratches or scrawls could be of any consequence. Never again will there be uncivilized Indians who will paint or carve inscriptions on rocks as in the past. The mutilating of some character may be destroying a key-sign to future interpretation, a clue to the location of the Indians’ former habitat or burial, or an indication of some other site valuable to the archeologist.”

There are a number of locals who have had an abiding interest in the petroglyphs. One of them was the late Minnie Howard, an iconic figure in Pocatello and an avid historian. Ironically, Howard had several stones with petroglyphs embedded in the family home’s rock chimney, which was located at 115 S. Garfield Ave. Erwin noted the happenstance surrounding the Howard fireplace inlay.

“Dr. Minnie Howard of Pocatello has, in the fireplace of her home, rocks taken from a site about four blocks from her residence. The rocks at this site were being utilized as building material, and otherwise destroyed, and in order to preserve a few specimens, Dr. Howard had these blocks cut. They contain a few characters, consisting of a warrior, star and bear paws.”

Howard was an active contributor of articles and artifacts to the state historical society, so the absence of any notion of complicity in the pirating of petroglyphs is understandable, and perhaps Howard’s motives were as pure as Erwin indicated. There is certainly no surviving rock quarry within a half-mile radius of where the Howard home stood, next to what is now the Marshall Public Library.

After Howard’s death in 1964, the stones disappeared from the chimney. Their location was a mystery for several decades. The puzzle was solved by a donation to the Idaho Museum of Natural History at Idaho State University. ISU anthropology professor Rick Holmer was the director of the museum when Howard’s son, Dr. Richard Howard, brought the stones to him a number of years ago.

“He thought he was going to get arrested,” Holmer said. “He hid them in the basement of his home just off campus here for years. He donated them before his death to the museum, and we collected a bunch of information, including a copy of a newspaper article ... showing Minnie Howard standing next to that fireplace with those rocks in place.”

Several of the sites investigated by Rees and noted in the article exist in Pocatello today. Interestingly, all three of the petroglyphs depicted photographically are virtually unchanged some 80 years later, more through good fortune than active stewardship.

Many people know of the existence of petroglyphs in lower Ross Park. One of the boulders containing numerous figures has, for the most part, escaped significant damage through the years. Comparing the rock today with the photo from 1930 discloses only one new marring of the surface, presumably a failed attempt to chisel out one of the figures.

Others have not fared as well. A large boulder near the park’s band shell has figures which can barely be made out, save for a symbol on top of the rock, commonly referred to as a bear paw symbol.

Holmer is aggrieved by the deterioration of the petroglyphs on the boulder.

“I’ve tried to get them to protect and stop sprinkling with groundwater, putting all that hard water on it. But they weren’t interested in it,” Holmer said.

As for the symbol, Holmer has heard two interpretations as to what it represents. He accepted it as a bear paw, per the description of one tribal elder. When referencing it to another, he was “corrected.”

“That’s not a bear paw; that’s a basket with reeds in it,” Holmer was told.

But it is another site that Holmer and others are keenly interested in preserving. All who have visited it agree it is of primary importance. It has become known as the Kraft Hill site.

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