Heritage, Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 1991 Page: 8
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PLAINS INDIAN ROCK ART
By Douglas K. Boyd
Horse petroglyph, Harrell Ranch site B,
O ne of the most fascinating
chapters of American history is
the story of the Plains Indians.
The arrival of Europeans in North America
rapidly changed the lifestyles of all native
Americans, and it was the introduction of
the horse that had the most immediate and
widespread impact. The horse provided Indians
with an increased mobility and hunting
proficiency that was never known before.
After obtaining horses in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries, hundreds
of different Indian groups moved out onto
the Great Plains to hunt bison.
Although the various Plains Indian
groups were ethnically, linguistically, and
ideologically diverse, they shared a common
nomadic lifestyle and material culture
based on equestrian bison hunting. In less
than 300 years, the Plains Indian lifestyle
developed, flourished, and ultimately disappeared
under the advancing tide of
The true nomadic Plains Indian way of
life was adopted by many Indian groups,
while other groups preferred part-time
hunting supplemented by farming. The
Indians who adopted a true Plains lifestyle
shared many characteristics. They lived in
bison-skin-covered tipis, an efficient and
highly mobile form of shelter. They traveled
across the Plains in small bands of less
than a few hundred people, following the
migrating bison herds and establishing
temporary villages as they moved. Large,
well-organized communal bison hunts
were made from spring to fall in order to
build up a surplus of meat, hides, and other
necessities for the harsh winter months.
And, of course, the key factors in this lifestyle
were the horse and the buffalo.
As the number of Indians hunting bison
on the Great Plains grew, tribal territories
and conflicts developed because of the
intense competition. Each tribe-usually
made up of several related bands-had a
trade-or-raid relationship with its neighbors,
depending upon whether they were
allies or enemies, and with the everincreasing
number of Europeans. Wealth
and power of the group depended upon its
population, territory size, and alliances
with other powerful groups. An individual's
status within his band or tribe was measured
in terms of the number of horses owned
and by exploits in hunting and warfare.
Horse and rider petroglyph, Harrell Ranch
site B, Armstrong County
Often-told stories of conflict between
Native Americans and Anglo-American
settlers and soldiers are the root of much of
the misconception about Plains Indians.
Hollywood versions of Indians, such as the
many variations of Custer's Last Stand,
have formed lasting and most often inaccurate
impressions in the public's minds.
Indeed, even scholars have been found to
have mistaken ideas about Native Americans,
in part because of their own cultural
biases and in part because of inaccurate information
and interpretations of the early
Europeans who first came in contact with
Indians and recorded their lifestyles.
Our perceptions about Indians have
changed considerably as historians and
anthropologists compile new data and
begin to rethink old ideas. Many of the
basic facts about Plains Indians will never
change, but the way we interpret those
facts can and is changing.
One example of how our interpretations
about Plains Indians are changing is
found in the study of their rock art. To illustrate
the point, we will focus on the Historic
Period rock art in the Texas PanhandlePlains.
Simply defined, rock art is graphic
images that were carved into-petroglyphs-or
surfaces. For many years, people have
observed rock art with great curiosity.
They noted that some images were abstract
or incomprehensible and considered
them to be religious or ceremonial or, even
worse, of no significance whatsoever. But
other rock art images were easily
recognizable, such as horses, buffalo, guns,
cattle, wagons, and cowboys. It was obvious
that these images were made by historic
Indians who had knowledge of horses and
white men. The rock art was considered by
most people to be interesting but not particularly
important and certainly not interpretable.
Some considered it to be Indian
doodling, while others felt it had some
meaning which could never be known.
Interest in the rock art of the Texas
Panhandle-Plains region dates back to
1853 when army Lieutenant Whipple and
his surveying expedition happened upon
the Rocky Dell rock art site in what is now
Oldham County. He was so fascinated by
the array of painted and carved images he
saw that he took the time to accurately record
them in his journal of the expedition.
Horse and rider petroglyph, Mujares
Creek, Oldham County
Forrest Kirkland, a pioneer of serious
rock art study, revisited Rocky Dell in
1941, nearly eighty-eight years after
Whipple had been there. Kirkland rerecorded
the rock art and noted the accuracy
of Whipple's recording. Kirkland used
watercolors to paint the Indian rock art at
Rocky Dell and at several other important
sites in the region and throughout the
state. When Forrest Kirkland died in 1942,
he left behind an amazing collection of
rock art records from all over Texas. Some
of these Texas rock art sites have since
been destroyed, and Kirkland's paintings
and notes are the only surviving record of
this valuable legacy.
University of Texas professor W.W.
Newcomb, Jr. gathered all of Kirkland's
rock art recordings and notes and
transformed them, along with his own
narrative, into a fabulous book (1967)
entitled The Rock Art of Texas Indians. It is
in this book that Newcomb first recognized
8 HERITAGE * WINTER 1991
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 9, Number 1, Winter 1991, periodical, Winter 1991; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45422/m1/8/: accessed August 19, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.