The Battle For Mesa Prieta’s Petroglyphs

Anne Minard Ancestral Pueblo petroglyphs at Mesa Prieta, a privately owned, 8,000-acre area the Pueblo of Pojoaque and a local citizens group are trying to preserve.

Mesa Prieta rises above the Rio Grande Valley in remote country west of Santa Fe, New Mexico

Its black, volcanic rocks contrast stunningly with classically open Western skies and the fresh green of juniper. After a rain, the scent of sage fills the air. Besides being gorgeous, Mesa Prieta (“dark mesa” in Spanish) is literally picturesque. Tens of thousands of petroglyphs adorn rock faces across the 36-square-mile area. They date from the time of Puebloan ancestors as recent as 1,000 years ago, to archaic visitors 3,000 years ago or more. Potshards, arrowheads, water management features and structures go back as far as 7,500 years.

What worries Joseph Talachy, governor of the nearby Pueblo of Pojoaque, is that most of the area is privately owned, and afforded no protection. One sand and gravel mine already operates on the Mesa’s edge, and he worries about the threat of more. Modern graffiti is etched in some places next to the ancient art, and off-terrain vehicles are carving up some parts of the greater Mesa area. Talachy and a local, non-Native, nonprofit group have joined forces to change that.

“There’s so much that has been destroyed over the years,” Talachy laments. “Our Pueblos are typically checker-boarded, interspersed with private land. If we don’t hurry, we’re going to lose this land. I don’t want to see it destroyed due to mining or other destructive practices.”

The movement to protect the area began in the late 1980s with one of the landowners, who donated a nearly 200-acre tract at the bottom of the Mesa to the Archaeological Conservancy; that became known as The Wells Petroglyph Preserve, named after the owner, Katherine Wells.

“I was astonished that there were so many petroglyphs, and nobody was taking care of them,” Wells said. “I appointed myself the steward of the land. In the beginning, I was in a state of amazement all the time.”

In the late 1990s, Wells helped to start a nonprofit called the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project, through which a small band of neighbors began to inventory the petroglyphs and other artifacts. They’ve now documented more than 45,000 petroglyphs across the Mesa, and estimate that there are actually up to 75,000. The site contains more petroglyphs than both Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, which harbors 27,000, and the Bureau of Land Management’s Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in south-central New Mexico, which boasts 30,000.

“It’s turned out to be beyond my wildest imaginings,” Wells said.

But when it came to protecting the acreage, the non-Native group’s efforts stalled without the support of the area’s pueblos. So they started reaching out, and they found a willing partner in Talachy. He explains that his Pueblo’s history began in Utah, with ancestors spending significant time in Chaco Canyon before settling in the Rio Grande Valley where they live today. The Mesa lies along the way, and Puebloan ancestors left ample, and artful, evidence of their passage.

The Puebloan art is still white enough to stand out against the dark, volcanic rock. From a single, rugged dirt road leading up the Mesa, one doesn’t have to look hard to see serpents, shields, human figures including flute players, game animals of all kinds, and even religious icons chronicling the arrival of Catholics who moved into the area starting about 1600. “Archaic” art, some of it 2,000 years old and older, has been gradually darkening and fading with time. Sometimes, petroglyphs spanning thousands of years co-exist on the same boulder faces, causing the researchers and Pueblo observers to wonder if the more recent artists noticed the older forms already there.

“The area has been visited for hundreds of years, all the way back to the archaic period,” Talachy said, adding that, aside from the Puebloan art, observers have also noticed Comanche and Apache images. “What concerned me was all the graffiti that is all over these petroglyphs that came from my ancestors,” he said.

The Mesa includes some BLM land, but is primarily private. One of the landowners, a member of a prominent local family, has offered to sell his nearly 9,000 acres for $15 million; the tract includes the heart of the mesa. The landowner, Richard Cook, wants the sale to go to an entity that will protect the land; he has been allowing access for tours and the inventories, and patiently awaiting the efforts of the Pueblo and Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project.

All of the advocates are hard at work. Jane MacKenzie, an archaeologist and coordinator for the Project, has been leading painstaking surveys and documentation of the petroglyph sites. More than 35 volunteers are trained to do the work of mapping and documenting the cultural resources. The group also leads a hands-on youth education program in the summers, something Talachy has said he’ll support even if the Pueblo ends up controlling access to the land.

Wells said the youth project takes on special significance when Pueblo kids participate: “They’re out there recording their own history, and it’s not just an exercise. It is the record that will be put into the database, stored in the Laboratory of Anthropology and studied by researchers.”

For his part, Talachy has been working to enlist the support of the All-Pueblo Council of Governors, which includes all 19 New Mexico pueblos plus one, Ysleta del Sur, in Texas. The Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council—including the pueblos of Nambe, Picuris, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Tesuque, Santa Clara, Taos and Ohkay Owingeh, has also pledged its support to protect the area. Next, Talachy said, he’ll work to obtain support from the National Congress of American Indians. With all that backing, Talachy thinks, supporters of Mesa Prieta will have an easier time securing either grant funding to purchase the land, or a federal designation to protect it.

Talachy called Mesa Prieta a special place, with some of the most beautiful and articulate petroglyphs in New Mexico, and maybe even in America. “Our lands, our water, our languages and in this case, our arts and petroglyphs, our story, is slowly being eroded just like the land is,” he said. “If we don’t make deliberate attempts to protect this land, it’s going to continue to be eroded and we may lose it all. We have an opportunity here to preserve what’s left of this land and keep it for our children, and their children, so they can see, and get a taste of who we are and where we come from.

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