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The Rocks That Speak

Hueco Tanks State Historic Site has a magic all its own.

By Carol Flake Chapman

Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people.

- attributed to Chief Seattle

It was so quiet inside Cave Kiva that the sound of my errant ballpoint pen skittering down the tilted rock floor startled me. Five of us were wedged inside the narrow, cave-like crevice on North Mountain, one of the three prominent rock formations within Hueco Tanks State Historic Site. Like reptiles, we had slithered headfirst into the narrow space, inching our way along a slippery surface polished to a sheen by the wriggling of previous visitors, including the creators of the eerie relics that had drawn us there. We must have made an odd spectacle, lined up side by side on our backs in our jeans and khakis, gazing in awe at the overhead gallery of ancient pictographs.

There was just enough light inside the crevice on this late March morning to gradually locate the eight painted images that seemed to hover like anchored spirits on the rock ceiling above us. I found myself peering up at a fierce-looking, one-eyed, horned mask and a less intimidating bonneted companion, both a reddish-rust color that appeared to be stenciled on the rock by a steady hand. Linda Hedges, regional interpretive specialist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department based in Fort Davis, and Phil Hewitt, state-wide director of interpretation and exhibits for TPWD, were positioned near a reddish mask with large vacant eyes, while John Moses, the site superintendent, was lying face-to-face with a mask that was topped by what appeared to be an ochre-colored rainbow. As I craned my neck to get a better look at the rainbow mask, I realized why Cave Kiva has been called the Sistine Chapel of rock art, though observers seldom get the chance to view an ancient masterpiece at such close range, lying in the probable same position as its original creator.

Hedges and Hewitt had arrived at the site to help iron out the final details on the master interpretive plan for Hueco Tanks that had been in the works for nearly a year, and Hewitt was relishing the chance to finally get a look at some of the site’s most compelling art. From watching a video required of all newcomers to the park, I had learned that not all visitors have felt such reverence for these rare and haunting images. In 1992, a vandal defaced the Kiva by spray-painting his name on the wall, obscuring the horned mask and its companion and requiring thousands of dollars for removal.

More than 200 of these enigmatic painted masks have been discovered around Hueco Tanks, hidden within enclosed spaces or under deep overhangs, making them the largest collection of such images in North America. They have been attributed to the pre-Pueblo people known as the Jornada Mogollon, who inhabited the area from about 450 to 1400 A.D. and then moved on. The images evoke motifs from early Meso-American cultures to the south as well as from later Pueblo cultures to north. For the late anthropologist Kay Sutherland, who made a life’s work of studying them, the images seem to suggest the bringing together of opposite entities and forces into harmony and balance.

Earlier indigenous people from the archaic period also left images on the rocks — some etched and some painted — of animals or hunting scenes. Later peoples, from the Tiguas of nearby Ysleta del Sur, to traveling bands of Mescalero Apaches and Kiowa, contributed their own distinctive records to Hueco Tanks. One large, dramatic panel of figures known as the Kiowa Siege appears to record the nearly miraculous escape from a cave by a group of outnumbered Kiowa warriors. A smaller group of images at another location appears to depict the healing dance of the Mescalero Apache mountain gods. A series of computer-enhanced photographs, taken as part of a survey of the site by Rupestrian CyberServices, has revealed the presence of even more images, either overlaid by graffiti or eroded by nature, bringing the total number of known individual pictograph and petroglyph figures at Hueco Tanks to more than 3,000.

Standing out like an enormous reddish-pink cairn on the desert east of El Paso, the 35-million-year-old igneous rocks of Hueco Tanks have been beckoning travelers and offering sanctuary for at least 10,000 years. And the main source of their attraction to early farmers and thirsty travelers should have been as obvious to us as the features on the faces above us. I nodded in agreement when Linda Hedges remarked that the eyes on the mask above her reminded her of the huecos, meaning hollows in Spanish, for which the site is named. The site’s highly porous syenite rocks, which appear from a distance to be pocked and pitted like the surface of the moon, collect rainwater like stony sponges, creating unique microhabitats for plant, animals and humans.

The natural cisterns and channels that lie within the rock formations were enhanced by the Jornada Mogollon to ensure the presence of water in Hueco Tanks for themselves and their crops of corn and beans, even when the surrounding desert remained dry. Later groups who sought refuge here included 49ers on their way to California and workers on the legendary Butterfield Overland Stage route. One 19th-century wayfarer with a spelling disability scrawled a message in Comanche Cave with happy news for parched travelers: Watter Hear.

Fittingly, the new master interpretive plan for Hueco Tanks describes the site as “an oasis of nature and culture.” Wanda Olszewski, the site’s interpretive technician, also likes to talk about it as a crossroads in time. As Olszewski notes, people come to the site for many different reasons, and it holds different meanings for different people. Within a compact area of less than 850 acres, the site encompasses an extraordinary range of geological oddities, cultural relics and rare plants and animals, including the last known examples of comal snakewood plants and a thriving population of a newly discovered species of rotifer (tiny aquatic plankton), which dwell in a seasonal seepage pond below an early 20th-century dam built to water cattle. It was one of the last strongholds of the old ranching era in El Paso. In the 1990s, the site was “discovered” by rock climbers and became one the world’s top destinations for “bouldering,” the sport of free-climbing improbable rocks. And it even harbors a substantial population of horned lizards, which have been known to inspire tears of nostalgia in visitors from other parts of Texas where the endearing reptile has disappeared.

With such a variety of visitors and stakeholders and such an abundance of treasures to be protected, the site offered a daunting challenge for TPWD’s interpretive team, which has embarked on the ambitious project of creating master plans for each state park and historic site. The goal set out by State Parks Director Walt Dabney is for every site to have a plan that defines the site’s primary purpose, meaning and themes, sets interpretive goals and establishes practical timetables. Much of the planning process has moved to the field, according to Julie Martenson, who coordinates interpretive programs. “We’re taking the process to the sites and consulting with community leaders and stakeholders,” she says.

With a site as fragile and important as Hueco Tanks, which also happens to be much in demand by climbers and sightseers as well as those with deep cultural connections to the place, says Martenson, “You can’t simply close off the place to the public. You try to get people so impressed and involved with a place that they want to take care of it. You walk the razor’s edge in protecting it through knowledge.”

For Hueco Tanks, the first crucial steps toward protecting its resources and educating the public came in 1998 and 2000 with the enactment of public-use plans that restrict the number of visitors to the site at any one time and require visitors to East and West Mountain sites to be accompanied by a trained guide. An educational video describes the site’s place in Texas history and its importance for Native Americans, depicting the damage that has been done to the priceless relics in graphic detail. The awareness-building efforts are paying off: The defacement of the site by graffiti has been halted, and the fragile habitat that had been trampled by over-visitation is beginning to recover.

Among those who supported those protective measures was Dewey Tsonetokoy of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma. “Implementing the public use plan was a significant gesture,” says Tsonetokoy. “I think they set a good precedent.” Tsonetokoy is the great-great-grandson of legendary Kiowa chief Dohasan, who was among the Kiowa warriors who were trapped at Hueco Tanks and whose story is believed by many to be depicted on the rock wall near Mescalero Canyon. Tsonetokoy had heard about the site from oral accounts of the siege that had been passed down through the generations. When he visited the site with the tribal chairman, he was astonished by details in the panel that appeared to corroborate the old stories. Tsonetokoy says that he eventually realized that one of the figures on the panel was an image of his great-great grandfather, wearing the red band around his waist that was the symbol of the warrior society to which his great-grandfather belonged.

Tsonetokoy felt so strongly about this deep connection to Hueco Tanks that he worked there as a ranger during the summer of 2000 and has continued to lead tours to the site and to train guides in its history. Tsonetokoy recalls visitors who would tell him that they had lived in El Paso all their lives and had visited Hueco Tanks before, but that they had never understood what the place was all about. He learned from those experiences, he says, that education could actually work to protect a place. “I tell people that those pictographs are not like old graffiti,” says Tsonetokoy. “They are there for a reason, and there was sacrifice and prayer involved in creating those images.” Those prayers linger at Hueco Tanks, he says, making the site sacred ground. When you walk there, he says, “It’s like you are walking on the prayers of the ancients.”

Not everyone, however, was pleased, at first, by TPWD’s protective measures, including rock climbers who had been accustomed to climbing wherever the ledges and crevices led them. But by June 25, 2003, the date of the interpretive master planning session held in El Paso for Hueco Tanks stakeholders, some of the site’s most knowledgeable and passionate defenders and most frequent visitors were ready to talk about their hopes and their vision for the future of Hueco Tanks. Among the stakeholders present at the session was Robert Rice, a rock climber who had first come to Hueco Tanks in the spring of 1998 and never wanted to leave. “Hueco Tanks is the Mt. Everest of bouldering,” says Rice flatly. He now offers guided climbing tours and operates a campground near the site that has become a kind of clearinghouse for site volunteers. “The rock-climbing community wanted to show that we’re a concerned user group,” says Rice, “and that we want to make sure the site can work for everyone.”

Birders were represented at the meeting by Bob Johnson, a member of the Friends of Hueco Tanks who leads regular birding tours at the site, and who has been known to do a creditable imitation of the noisy cactus wren that resides in a tall torrey yucca next to park headquarters. Representing the Tigua people of nearby Ysleta del Sur Pueblo was Rick Quezada, the tribal war captain. The Tiguas have been visiting Hueco Tanks for centuries to acquire materials for medicine and ceremonies, and they claim as theirs a powerful image in Comanche Cave. In that figure, a solar nimbus surrounds a square, which the Tiguas say represents a pueblo, and an arrow piercing the image points north, referring, they say, to their original home to the north in New Mexico. The image has become an important tribal symbol, which the tribe used as the name for their former casino: Speaking Rock.

Another participant was Ellyn Bigrope, a Mescalero Apache, who says that she thinks the rock art in Hueco Tanks attributed to the Mescalero Apaches came from bands that were traveling through the area on the way to and from wintering places in Mexico and their homes further north. “They would stop and refresh themselves on their travels back and forth,” she says. “The Apaches,” she says wryly, “know how to find water.” The dancing figures on the face of Comanche Cave, she says are “pretty close” to the dancers who still perform the dance of the mountain gods, or gaje. That dance, she says, is always performed for a reason, usually for someone who requires healing.

As the stakeholders spoke about their ties to the site, they found more in common than they had expected. “I think we educated each other even more than we educated the representatives for the state,” says Robert Rice. “We learned why the place was important to each group and what each group valued, and that made it easier for us to come up with a well-rounded mission statement. I think our interests were very well considered at the meeting and in the plan. I was happy that climbing was included as a resource to the site.”

Among the goals that the group agreed on wholeheartedly, and which became a key part of the master plan, was to strengthen the site’s connections to the Native American communities represented at the site. To follow up on that goal, Wanda Olszewski and then-lead ranger Alex Mares traveled in September to the Mescalero Apache reservation to formally request to the leader of the tribe’s mountain spirit dancers that they perform at the annual Hueco Tanks Interpretive Fair. Olszewski and Mares had to be in Mescalero, New Mexico at dawn to present a special offering, the details of which Olszewski says that she cannot reveal. “That was how it needed to be,” she said. “You have to go through something in order for your request to be answered.”

As so it was, that during the site’s annual Interpretive Fair last October, the dance of the mountain gods was performed, perhaps for the first time at Hueco Tanks in well over a century, bringing the plan for the site full circle, and perhaps bringing history full circle as well. As the campfire burned hot, and the shadows of the dancers flickered on the rocks of North Mountain, they seemed to echo the pale silhouettes on the rock face of Comanche Cave. It was as though the rocks themselves had come to life and had begun to speak.

For Wanda Olszewski it was a magical moment. “It was beautiful to have a great blessing like that for this site,” she says. “When people get to watch something like that, it gives them a feeling of stewardship, a feeling of connection with the land that we’ve lost. That’s part of the reason this place is so important.” And the dancers who brought their healing ritual to Hueco Tanks may also be conveying another message as well. They may be suggesting, as some say the masks of the Jornada Mogollon do, that opposites can be brought into harmony and balance — at Hueco Tanks, if not in the world at large.

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