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Vandals, Weather Scar Rock Etchings

by Linda Ashton, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 7, 2003

ROOSEVELT, Wash. -- The ancient images of water devils, lizards, hunters and wild game that once graced the Columbia River Gorge now haunt an abandoned park off Washington 14.

Among the weeds, cow pies and a couple of crumbling brick barbecues, there are two dozen petroglyphs - massive rocks that would have been submerged forever when the John Day Dam was built - some now scarred by vandals and others worn nearly smooth by the elements.

"I would call this the ruins of a dream," said Bonnie Beeks, president of the Klickitat County Historical Society.

For nearly a decade, the historical society has been trying to find a good home for the furniture-size pieces of basalt, some significantly defaced by slicks of paint from souvenir rubbings.

But interest in protecting the rocks dates back much farther. A 1930 article in the old Portland (Ore.) Telegram speculates on the meaning of the Roosevelt rock art and encourages the public to study them.

A 1958 article in the Goldendale Sentinel characterizes them as "magical rocks."

That same year, a 74-year-old Yakama Indian named George Gibson told the Yakima Herald about pounding stones on the sides of Old Lady or Old Woman rock to bring the snow-eating chinook winds.

"Sometimes it would take a long time. Then the wind blow for five days. No more. That is enough for a chinook wind to blow," Gibson is quoted as saying.

Portland artist Lillian Pitt is a descendant of the river people who etched and painted the rocks. Ask her about Roosevelt Petroglyph Park and the first words out of her mouth are: "Oh God, how depressing."

Pitt, 59, with Wishxam and Wasco tribal roots, would like to see the Roosevelt petroglyphs placed in a protected setting - facing the Columbia River as they once did - and interpreted by the tribes.

"They tell of a living culture that was here 10,000 years ago," she said. "There needs to be some respect given to the paintings and etchings."

In historical society correspondence from the early 1990s, several representatives of the Columbia River tribes expressed interest in taking custody of the rocks but none ever did.

The Yakama Nation, in a 1994 letter, said that its best information was that the petroglyphs originated on the north side of the Columbia River, called N'chi-Wana, and even in contemporary times they held profound meaning for the tribes.

"Our traditional stories and legends tell us that some of these cultural properties are as ancient as the creation - when the animals, birds and plant first gave themselves to the human peoples," wrote Rory Flint Knife, then-tribal counsel.

"Other petroglyphs and pictographs originated with the Wahteetas, the 'little' people or spirit people who lived in the cliffs and rocks, and contain information about past events and about how the people should behave."

Now, it will likely fall to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move the rocks, which might one day end up part of a larger display with some of the Northwest's most recognizable petroglyphs and pictographs - including Tsagaglalal, or "She Who Watches" - at Horsethief Lake State Park.

Later this summer, the corps will move 43 pieces of rock art from The Dalles Dam across the river to the 338-acre park on the Washington side, and corps architect Gail Lovell is working with the tribes to coordinate a move also for the Roosevelt petroglyphs.

Ideally, Lovell would like to get them transported at least to a place where they'd be protected from vandals before the year is out.

Pitt would like to see an interpretive center established for the rock art of the Columbia River, where they can be both secure and shared. It's a possibility. The state of Washington is developing long-term plans for Horsethief Lake State Park and nearby Dalles Mountain that could one day include something of that nature.

She wants to see the rocks done justice.

"I do cry when I see them at The Dalles Dam site, with birds roosting above them. The bird droppings practically have them all covered. It's just depressing to see them," Pitt said.

"It's worse at Roosevelt. It's just heartbreaking."

A half-century ago, the petroglyph preservation plans were grand. Members of the East Klickitat Gem and Mineral Club even envisioned a museum for rocks, minerals and artifacts. They began with the roadside park, planting dozens of black locust trees and honeysuckle, laying pipe to provide cold spring water. There were picnic tables and barbecues.

The Coyote and Old Woman rocks were placed at the entrance to the park, and the petroglyphs were placed on concrete slabs.

"A lot of people kind of feel the call of these things," Beeks said. "They pictured this being a park where people would come respectfully and think and enjoy."

But as times, traffic and cultural understanding changed, the park fell into disrepair.

The setting is a remote and now lonely stretch of highway. A huge regional landfill is located nearby. Interstate 84 on the Oregon side of the river gets most of the vehicle traffic through the gorge.

So a barbed-wire fence limits access to the park until the rocks can be moved.

"We just don't have the money to preserve and protect them," Beeks said.

Related Sites:

Linda Ashton, Associated Press
Vandals, Weather Scar Rock Etchings
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 7, 2003

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