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Collaboration aims to preserve ancient knowledge of rock paintings in West Texas

Mary Weahkee explaining paintings to tribe members.
Sheridan Wood
/
KACU
Mary Weahkee explaining paintings to tribe members.

Over the course of history, Indigenous knowledge and culture has been lost due to colonization and the changing times. A group of professors and anthropologists is working to preserve that knowledge through an interactive website, specifically focusing on rock art.

Just a little over an hour away from Abilene, Paint Rock, Texas features a stretch of rocky cliff. A short drive down into a small canyon brings visitors to the rocks that hold over two-thousand years’ worth of history in tribal paintings. The paintings tell stories of birth, life, and death, and are testimonies of sacred spiritual practices warriors engaged at the site.

And they’re on private property.

A solar interaction, dedicated to Equinox, where a shadow is cast over the rock to create a path of light for the soul to walk.
Sheridan Wood
/
KACU
A solar interaction, dedicated to Equinox, where a shadow is cast over the rock to create a path of light for the soul to walk.

Associate professor of English at Abilene Christian University, Jeremy Elliott, first encountered Paint Rock in 2019. Elliott, alongside other historians and researchers, began brainstorming ways these sacred religious sites could be more accessible to Indigenous people. The solution they came up with was to build a website featuring digital 3-D models of the paintings. But, after Comanche/ Pueblo anthropologist and archaeologist Mary Weahkee visited the site, Elliott realized the project had the potential to be so much more than just digital models, “She got it in a way that we didn’t. We realized that we probably need to reorient our research away from ‘how do we model these the best way’ to ‘how can we, in part of the process, document this Indigenous knowledge?’.”

After watching Weahkee interact with the paintings, the team expanded the vision for the website, adding videos of Indigenous people reading the paintings, with a focus not just on what they mean, but how they are meant to be read. The dynamic paintings rely on solar interactions to tell their full story, as the sun casts different shadows during different times of the year to give the paintings new meanings.

Mary Weahkee points out detail on a rock painting.
Sheridan Wood
/
KACU
Mary Weahkee points out detail on a rock painting.

“I think he’s related to this guy,” Mary Weahkee explained as she pointed out details of the paintings with a long stick. “So these two people have not gone yet but they might be on that rock over there.”

Weahkee was eager to share her unique ancestral knowledge, and worked to bring the Comanche people to Paint Rock where she could teach a new generation about the rock art, “I prayed in the morning, and I prayed that evening, and the next day they fell out of the sky.”

Weahkee was able to bring around 20 tribal members of the Comanche Nation, from Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, together with academics and researchers, to the sacred site earlier this month. The group, a mix of the young and old, over a weekend they studied the paintings, and they set aside special times for elders to teach children other elements of Comanche culture and language.

The elders who gathered at Paint Rock are some of the last speakers of the Comanche language in the world. Weahkee also specializes in making weapons. During a lunch break, she taught the tribe members how to spin yucca to make rope. As she spun the yucca fibers, Weahkee spoke to the children, stressing the importance of the younger generations preserving ancient practical and cultural knowledge.

Mary Weahkee holds the rope she's spun from yucca fibers.
Sheridan Wood
/
KACU
Mary Weahkee holds the rope she's spun from yucca fibers.

Paint Rock holds significant spiritual value to the Indigenous tribes that once passed through it, not only seen in the paintings, but also in the location of the art being so close to a river. Water was an essential element nomadic tribes sought on their journeys, especially when passing through West Texas. Comanche Nation Historic Preservation Officer Martina Minthorn says the ability to come out to the site and see a gathering place for their ancestors is very special, “Just being able to see that we once came through this area and we left our marking, and our young men that did their vision quests here, and the prayers that were said on behalf of the generations to come. And looking at us, it came full circle. We came back here.”

Texas has many sacred indigenous sites, but these days most of them are on private land, making them difficult to access. The Campbell family has owned the site at Paint Rock since 1880. Kay Campbell says she and her family are excited about the project, “I’m so interested that Jeremy and some other folks are documenting things that they’re finding here that haven’t been documented before, because this is full of history.”

Kay Campbell tells researchers the story of how her family acquired the land at Paint Rock.
Sheridan Wood
/
KACU
Kay Campbell tells researchers the story of how her family acquired the land at Paint Rock.

Humanities Texas provided a grant for the project to support the effort to preserve and share the ancient knowledge and make the sacred sites more accessible to the public. Jeremy Elliott says as part of the effort, the team will build a separate website for elementary teachers to use as they teach Texas history from an Indigenous point of view, “So we can have kind of a deeper and richer education in regards to Texas history. Because I know, what, 2nd and 4th grade both you go over Texas history, so let’s get something other than the Alamo in there. Let’s go back 2,000 years.”

A camera crew films Mary Weahkee explaining paintings for the website.
Sheridan Wood
/
KACU
A camera crew films Mary Weahkee explaining paintings for the website.

Elliott and the team plan to organize more gatherings at Paint Rock not only with the Comanche, but other tribes such as Apache, Hopi, and Pueblo that likely have paintings on the wall as well. For now, the project will focus on the site in Paint Rock, but has the potential to broaden to other historic rock art sites across the state.

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