How Ancient Native American Rock Art Is Tearing a California Town Apart
The small city of Ridgecrest is looking to turn some nearby ancient carvings into a tourist attraction, despite local tribes saying that the effort cheapens and degrades their most sacred symbols.
Some of the Petroglyphs in Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake's Renegade Canyon. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
At 1.2 million acres, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake is the largest parcel of land owned by the US Navy. It fills an expanse of remote and rugged desert terrain bigger than Rhode Island; to the naked eye, there's not much going on inside. You might spend a whole day driving around the perimeter of the base and, notwithstanding an occasional low-flying F-16 fighter jet, never guess there was anything outside your window beyond barren volcanic tablelands, stands of brittle burrobush, and the occasional sidewinder rattlesnake.
What makes NAWS China Lake special—beyond being a secret test center for the world's most advanced weapons—is that inside a handful of its narrow lava canyons lies the largest concentration of Native American rock art in the Western Hemisphere. The images, carvings known as petroglyphs, are found throughout China Lake's Coso Range and are the oldest in the Americas. Archeologists have dated some of the images as far back as 15,000 to 19,000 years, and nobody has ever successfully counted them. A single canyon—Renegade Canyon, or as it's more commonly called, Little Petroglyph Canyon—may contain more than 1 million images of bighorn sheep, shamans, and abstract geometric symbols.
While archeologists have argued over the function of these and other figures for half a century, their original meanings largely remain a mystery. What nobody contests, however, is that the Coso Range was once one of the most spiritually important sites on the continent.
Some New Age types consider the Coso Range a "vortex"—a geographic location where harmonizing spiritual energy is supposedly highly concentrated. Examples of such places apparently include the Pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge, and the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona. Even if you don't put stock in such dubious concepts, being in the presence of such ancient and sacred symbols can be a powerful—and humbling—experience.
For decades, however, their location inside a military base dedicated to top-secret weapons testing meant that the only people who knew—or cared—about the petroglyphs were a handful of Native American tribes, professional archaeologists, and a subculture of Indian art geeks and New Age vision seekers. But Ridgecrest, California—the small desert town just outside the main gates of China Lake—is attempting to change that, and turn the petroglyphs into a full-fledged international tourist destination.
This effort has created a clash between competing economic and cultural interests. For many members of the Native American tribes throughout the region, the Coso Range and its petroglyphs are the most sacred things in the world, but some say that the sanctity and very survival of the artwork is threatened by Ridgecrest's attempt to cash in on the petroglyphs and sell itself as "California's newest cultural mecca"—the Petroglyph Capital of the World.
In 2014, Ridgecrest's then-mayor Dan Clark proposed an entire festival centered around the petroglyphs, describing it as a potential "economic engine" for the city of Ridgecrest. "The petroglyph festival will be our signature event," he told the LA Times. "We're going to saturate this community with representations of rock art." Denny Kline, a field officer for Mick Gleason, Kern County's District 1 Supervisor, told reporters, "It's going to be the city's 50th anniversary on steroids." Sponsors for the four-day festival included Coca-Cola, General Electric, NASA, the Ford Foundation, McDonald's, and Home Depot, among others.
A year later, the town remains committed to becoming the "American 'Machu Picchu,'" as a recent press release proclaimed. That release quoted Doug Lueck, the executive director of the Ridgecrest Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau (RACVB), as saying, "Not only is tourism up, we're also experiencing an upward trend in filming for movies and commercials as well." According to Leuck, the first annual Petroglyph Festival "had over 1,000 media impressions over television and radio" and sold out local hotels. Harris Brokke, the former director of Ridgecrest's Maturango Museum, told the local paper. "Not only is the festival successful, but when people come to the festival, they come back again and again, and that's our whole goal."
"Ridgecrest has tried to brand itself in a lot of different ways," a retired Navy veteran named Mike tells me. "There's no real tourism here. Most people either work on the base or the service industry that supports it."
We're standing in the parking lot of Ridgecrest's new $6 million tourist attraction, Petroglyph Park. House finches flit between palm trees and brown monoliths carved with depictions of bighorns, zigzags, and shamans; in the background traffic hums along China Lake Boulevard.
"The city tried the Balloon Festival two years in a row, but the winds were horrendous and just destroyed everything," Mike says. Ridgecrest also launched a spring Wildflower Festival, but given the reality of the California drought and the fact that Ridgecrest only gets a few inches of rain each year, the flowers didn't always show. "But the Petroglyph Festival is something that's uniquely Ridgecrest," Mike says.
Behind us, across the street, music booms from the stage at the center of the Balsam Street Fair, where 200 vendors have set up tents selling scented candles, foreign war memorabilia, and dreamcatchers made in China. It's the second annual Petroglyph Festival, a showcase for the best parts of the town held in November. Balsam Street functions as Ridgecrest's version of a downtown arts district. Elsewhere in the city, abandoned storefronts mingle with used furniture dealers; bail bonds shops sit in squat strip malls with asphalt that looks like it hasn't been repaved since the Vietnam War—but on Balsam Street you find a newly painted bighorn sheep or shaman on nearly every available wall. This is, without question, the Petroglyph Capital of the World.
The catch, however, is that historically it's been extremely difficult to see the actual petroglyphs of the Coso Range. According to the RACVB, 15,000 people traveled from over 50 countries for the 2014 Petroglyph Festival. But only around 40 American citizens who applied early and passed a federal background check were able to view the carvings inside the base. This year, though, an RACVB spokesperson tells me, the Navy had "agreed to forgo the vetting process" and let 500 people see the petroglyphs, including many non-Americans, who would normally be barred from entering the base at all.
Among them is a woman from Germany named Karin. She waited years for the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the petroglyphs; during November's festival she finally did it. "Everything from the drive, the Joshua trees, the beauty of the mountains. The whole landscape was just magic. We saw wild horses," she tells me. "It's obvious why the petroglyphs are there." I ask if she learned anything. "Imagination," she replies. "Imagination is what you need."
Another woman, a Japanese citizen named Maiko, had been waiting nine years for the opportunity. "I'm actually a petroglyph freak. I go to all the sites. It's just attractive to me. I want to see the art. So I do the research on the internet. And then I go there and look for it."
Those whose love for petroglyphs burns less arduously make do with Petroglyph Park, where you can gaze at reproductions of the carvings and experience an Epcot version of the ancient etchings. City and county officials often emphasize the sacredness of the petroglyphs and the educational aspect of the attraction—"the concept of the park is to honor the Native American heritage of the Indian Wells Valley," says Denny Kline—or as Mayor Clark has said of the petroglyphs, "We can bring it to the public's attention what a national treasure they are and, hopefully, they will respect them."
But the park and the festival are unquestionably money-making affairs—the whole point is to draw in vendors and tourism dollars. And many aspects of the festival seem less interested in history and education than hustling and speculation.
I head over to the north end of Balsam Street, where Rod "The Buffalo Man" Blankenship—a Korean and Vietnam War Veteran, and "an Elder in the Cherokee Indian Nation"—is talking about the buffalo to a crowd inside the Old Town Theater. The animals were "a supermarket and hardware store," according to Blankenship, who punctuates his pronouncements with shakes of a ceremonial rattle made from dried buffalo scrotum. Toward the end of the talk, I raise my hand and ask him how important the buffalo was to the Native American tribes in the surrounding area, and he admits that the animals weren't out here in California. But maybe some of the petroglyphs depict buffalo?
"It's possible," he says. "You know what you'll see in some of those petroglyphs, though?" He pauses and seems to stare out above the audience, straight through the back of the auditorium at something unseen. "You'll see pictures of what you call,"—another pause—"aliens. They're pictures of space people. With big round heads. Oval heads."
Other lecturers in the festival's educational "Speakers' Series" include a local wilderness entrepreneur who runs private tours of petroglyph sites that aren't on Naval land—"If you're interested, we can talk prices later," he tells the audience—and an archeologist who also offers private tours. Both do so despite heavy discouragement by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which fears that if the locations of off-base petroglyph sites become widely known they'll be vandalized or stolen.
Outside the Old Town Theater, across Freedom Park, smoke billows up from the cookers stationed behind the Intertribal Powwow and Cherokee Hog Fry. The powwow has all the usual signifiers of Native American life: tepees, donkeys, women dressed in buckskin suits, men on folding chairs beating a large leather drum, vendors hawking dream catchers and geodes. The festival advertises the drummers, dancers, and vendors as members of the local Native American tribes, but the Cherokee have no ancestral ties to the land or the ancient peoples responsible for the petroglyphs.
"I don't know how people would take it if there was a painting of Jesus up there and people were sticking their faces in it. Right? It just wouldn't be cool."
"We didn't use tepees and we're not a powwow culture and we didn't eat pigs. They're teaching people that this is what the people looked like that were here," says Jonnie Benson, a member of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone who adds that it's the "miseducation" of the community that is most upsetting. "They took a real touristy approach. Now we have all these people walking away after this weekend thinking, 'Oh, wow, I've learned all about the natives who live here,' when in fact they don't know shit. They learned the Hollywood story."
Down the street from the powwow sits another sore point for some local tribes: a plywood board painted with two shaman figures, their faces cutout to allow tourists to poke their heads through and smile for pictures.
"It's so offensive. Our ancestors put those marks on the rocks, whether people want to believe that or not. It's sacred to me, and to see it as basically a caricature, with people putting their faces in it—they don't know what those symbols mean," says Benson, who'd seen the pictures on Facebook. "I don't know how people would take it if there was a painting of Jesus up there and people were sticking their faces in it. Right? It just wouldn't be cool."
Though the Petroglyph Festival is based around the cheerful, corporate-ready commercialization of the Coso rock art, the petroglyphs themselves depict strange and often violent imagery. On nearly every cliff face of Renegade Canyon, you find not simply pictures of bighorn sheep, but bighorns etched in the throes of death, their bodies impaled with spears and torn by arrows.
The mood on petroglyph tours is, if not somber, generally one of quiet reverence. Tour guides do an especially good job just hanging back, allowing the art to sink into the group, and not pushing forth any interpretation. Though they do occasionally step in. I remember on my first tour of Renegade Canyon, a woman kept pointing out the strange round-headed humanoids carved in the walls, and saying, "Look, an alien wearing a space helmet," or, "Look, an alien with a cell phone."
"Archeologists call those 'patterned body anthropomorphs,'" a guide eventually told her, adding that the art was still sacred to the tribes throughout the region, and it was disrespectful to infantilize the art of their ancestors in such a way.
When the festival isn't happening, normal tours of Renegade Canyon, arranged through the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, take 20 people on select weekend dates determined by the military during the fall and spring months. The Navy makes you sign a form that releases them from responsibility should you break a leg or catch a stray bomb, and the background checks conducted by the military usually take two to three weeks. The tours cost $40 and nearly ever one sells out. Excluding the festival, only about 800 people make it in to see the art each year.
In many ways the tours seem like a routine trail walk. People park in a dusty lot, tightening their boots and backpacks while guides take a headcount. In the distance below, the black gash of Renegade Canyon cuts west across the wide desert terrace, its exit at the lower ridge too far off to see.
A trail winds out through the fragrant burrobush, sage, and creosote, out from the edge of the dirt lot to the rim of the canyon, where it drops down through a steep side wash. Below, bright lichens cover the brown walls of the canyon, but you can't see anything yet. Guides remind you to watch your step as gravel crunches underfoot. Sunlight burns against your back, painting your blue outlines as you file forward and the walls narrow and voices hush. A carpet of soft sand covers the canyon floor. Like children sneaking into some forbidden sanctuary, everyone keeps trading excited and worried glances, scanning for the first petroglyph—but there's only the vast silence of the canyon, impenetrable as the rock walls closing you in. You glance back. Faraway, along the eastern horizon, a pair of perfectly formed volcanic domes lay like soft breasts tanning in the morning sun.
By the time most people reach the cliff at the end of the canyon, they've stopped taking pictures, stopped talking altogether—they just sit and stare off into the expanse below.
Then, without a word, the digital camera shutters start clicking. Up ahead, a dozen people stand aiming at the rock wall, while others crouch and kneel, jostling for position. Five pale shoe-sized sheep engravings cover the dark basalt. Geometric designs wrap around the periphery. A man crawls up for a closeup and one of the guides tells him that it's close enough: "Everyone, please keep back at least two feet from the petroglyphs." People keep vying for position, standing on their toes with cameras raised, as though the tiny darting sheep were actually alive, actually running away, fleeing the hungry tourist photographs.
Just minutes later, this initial flurry of photography seems absurd. The canyon contains more petroglyphs than any camera eye or human memory can record. By the time most people reach the cliff at the end of the canyon, they've stopped taking pictures, stopped talking altogether—they just sit and stare off into the expanse below.
The cumulative effect of the canyon is hard to describe. It's not something you can get from simply looking at a few panels of petroglyphs. You have to spend the whole day walking the canyon's entire length to let the images wash over you. Not everyone who takes the tour hikes the mile and a half down to the end—some people only go halfway and then return to the shaded picnic table beside the parking lot. You cannot get this cumulative effect if you turn back. Nor can you get it from other petroglyph sites off base or the tours during the Petroglyph Festival, which only spend an hour at the canyon's entrance.
Everyone's experience differs, I'm sure. For me, an initial impression, if there ever was one, that the petroglyphs resembled something inspirational or alien faded away the further I walked down the canyon. It was replaced by a sense of awe at the sheer number of etchings, which in turn gave rise to a sensation of mild dread when I realized that they all mostly depict the same image—bighorn sheep.
And as you continue to wander down the length of the narrow lava canyon, despite the open sky, the clean desert light, and the quiet conversation of the people around you, a feeling of claustrophobia begins to assert itself. And the further you venture, the more the canyon narrows, and the more pictures you pass, the deeper this feeling extends, until you come to understand that you've entered a place that is not your home, gawked at pictures not made for your enjoyment, photographed panels of bighorn sheep never made for pleasure but rather in pain, ripped out from the walls by desperate men with bloody fingers over so many lonely millennia, and once you reach the end of the canyon and see how many times that single intentional image occurred, a final conclusion presents itself: Something went wrong here.
No one knows for certain what the rocks record. But they have been perfectly preserved thanks to airtight military security. Even the tribes who revere the rock art of the Cosos have to jump through hoops to pay their respects.
"The sites still have their power but we can't use them properly; we have to be escorted and they watch us down at the hot springs and it's very irritating," says Kathy Bancroft, the Cultural Officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone.
"At this point in the journey," says Jodie Benson, "I'm just grateful that the art is out there on Navy land, and not just anybody can go out there."
Not all the petroglyphs are on land protected by the military, however, and as the art has become more famous, Native Americans and archaeologists worry about people damaging other unprotected sites or stealing the petroglyphs right off the walls.The worst case of vandalism occurred not long before the first annual Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival, in an area north of the Cosos. In a matter of hours, looters wielding power saws, electric generators, and ladders managed to steal a handful of petroglyphs that had survived thousands of years of natural erosion.
"Anybody could have driven out on top of them, there would have been a dust cloud," Greg Haverstock, an archaeologist at the Bureau of Land Management, tells me. "These people were extremely bold." The event was the worst case of vandalism ever seen on the nearly 1 million acres of public land managed by Haverstock's BLM office.
Though multiple people I talked to say that cases of vandalism were on the rise, there was some disagreement about the cause. Donald Storm, another BLM archaeologist, says that China Lake's severely restricted access is a problem—if people can't enter the base they might go looking for petroglyphs on unprotected land. "If they're out in the public domain, damage is more likely because these sites are hard to control," he says.
Bob Robinson, the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Kern Valley Indian Council, thinks that the festival is not helping to reduce the destruction. "As it is we have enough problems with sites being vandalized without all the promotion of the festival." Robinson says that tourists need to know that the petroglyphs are not doodles on rocks, but put there for a reason, and they're part of a living ongoing culture that is here today: "People need to understand that they're sacred and they need to be treated with respect." According to Robinson, this is the "education part that I hope will be there at the festival, and not this thing of creating this whole New Age story around aliens putting them there."
But Robinson isn't very optimistic. He describes the festival as "commercial exploitation. They're turning it into a Roswell bullshit."
This, ultimately, is the dividing line between Ridgecrest and some local Native Americans, who see the festival not just as a commercialization of their culture but something that could literally fuel the destruction of their sacred symbols.
"The worst thing about it is the town of Ridgecrest," says Kathy Bancroft. "They want to be the petroglyph capital of the world. I heard that on the local radio station and I thought, Who said they should do that? " Bancroft says it's incredibly disrespectful for the festival to be promoting the petroglyphs with vandalism on the rise.
On this point, everyone agrees: Protecting the petroglyphs is the most important thing. "The only way that the petroglyphs will continue to be here for a very long time is by protecting them and respecting them," says Debbie Benson, the current director of the Maturango Museum, which organizes tours of Renegade Canyon. "Not all petroglyphs are on the base. If people are harming them and don't understand them and not respecting them, they will not last."
Some of the materials in Petroglyph Park are of dubious educational value, however. One large engraving near the entrance is entirely unlike any of the actual petroglyphs; when I asked archaeologists about it they said they had never laid eyes anything like it. "I can honestly say I've never seen an image in rock art that resembled that even closely," Greg Haverstock said. "I look at that and I think 1950s sci-fi aliens."
The particular stand of petroglyphs is labeled "Shamanic Visions or Alien Visitors." The placard in front of it pays lip service to the popular New Age concept—promoted by Erich von Däniken's 1967 bestseller Chariots of the Gods—that many rock art images throughout the world portray aliens who visited earth, planted the seeds of consciousness in primitive humanity, and made possible all the cultural achievements of ancient man. This notion has been criticized for minimizing the actual artistic achievements of indigenous people and for simply being shoddy history. "That writing as careless as von Däniken's," Carl Sagan wrote in 1976, "whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times."
"They're just cashing in on something sacred. They're selling it. And I don't want any part."
As it stands now, the tribes have no interest in participating in the Petroglyph Festival. None of the Native Americans I spoke to had ever attended it, and some, like Bob Robinson, openly condemned it. "They're just cashing in on something sacred. They're selling it. And I don't want any part," he says. "We don't want to participate because of the money."
Kathy Bancroft says that Ridgecrest never even approached her tribe about the festival. All they did was send advertisements. "If I really felt they cared and wanted to do it right maybe I'd participate," Bancroft says. "They've taken something sacred and spiritual and created a stereotype, a team mascot for the city of Ridgecrest, and it makes me sick."
Some Native Americans I spoke with emphasize that a festival that educated the public about the petroglyphs could be beneficial, if it made people more aware of the sacred nature of the rock carvings and the history behind them. Barbara Dutton, a member of the Death Valley Timbisha-Shoshone, tells me the festival was "a good opportunity for educating the general public about how important these sites are to the native people." But Dutton did admit, "I don't know what kind of information they have out there."
Given the information I encountered there, the Petroglyph Festival appears to have little interest in educating the public about the sacred nature of the rock art or the history behind it—which is truly a shame.
The petroglyphs at China Lake can be interpreted many ways. I prefer an explanation offered by archeologist David Whitley, who thinks that the Coso Range was once the central pilgrimage point for rainmaking shaman throughout the Great Basin.
"The images should not be interpreted in a literal sense," Whitley says. The petroglyphs represent not literal hunting scenes but rather "graphic expressions of the visions of rain shamans that, themselves, were metaphors for the rain shaman's supernatural control over the weather." The images of mutilated bighorns represent prayers for rain, not bighorns, according to Whitley.
As anyone who has lived through California's ongoing drought knows, we still pray for rain, though we do it in different ways. It was in China Lake where the military crafted the rain-making technology of "cloud seeding," which was deployed during the Vietnam War in an attempt to flood the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Today the technique, which involves shooting particles into clouds to form ice crystals, is used across the American West, including California, to ward off drought. It isn't clear, however, that cloud seeding is any better at bringing rain than carving bighorns into the sides of rocks.
If you go to the Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival, or if you visit the rock art of the Coso Range, don't approach the art lightly. Don't dismiss its creators as being primitive, or assume they needed to be influenced by UFOs in order to make their art. Think about their world, plagued with uncertainty, their struggles to scratch out lives against the harshness of the Mojave Desert. And think about the uncertainties of our own world today—the reality of global climate change and a perpetual war on terror. Remember that at China Lake, while the military continues to protect the traces of past man, in the same breath, in the same location, they continue to perfect the art of erasing him from the present.
And if you have a chance, take a look some of the most impressive petroglyphs, the rare ones depicting the skinny men riding strange animals, the white men arriving—the aliens. Ask yourself: Who will last longer—us or the petroglyphs?
Barret Baumgart has published essays and stories in the Gettysburg Review, The Literary Review, The Seneca Review, and Camera Obscura. He is currently working on a book about the history of military weather modification and the future of global climate engineering. He cleans beer glasses for a living at brewery in downtown Los Angeles.