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Storytelling Across Cultures - Rex Buchanan on the Petroglyphs of Kansas

Cover of the book. A carved human figure depicted with dots on its clothing.
Via the University Press of Kansas.

This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of seeing Rex Buchanan speak about his book, Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.

Buchanan, a former director of the Kansas Geological Survey, worked with Professor Burke Griggs of Washburn University School of Law and Joshua Svaty, the fourteenth Kansas secretary of agriculture, to create this photographic guide to the images left behind by the Native American populations of Kansas and the surrounding areas. Before seeing him speak, I hadn’t known that any of these amazing sites existed, and I was fascinated to learn what they meant and who had put them there.

I quickly discovered that this wasn’t Mr. Buchanan’s purpose at all; instead, his work and the work of his colleagues served a longer-lasting ideal held by multiple cultures of humanity through centuries of history.

What is a petroglyph?

A petroglyph, according to Buchanan, is a carving made in stone of some description. He distinguishes petroglyphs from pictographs by simply stating that a pictograph is made by drawing with pigment on a surface, while a petroglyph is made by carving from the surface to leave an image behind.

The petroglyphs he showed were, according to his study, separated into three different general categories:

  • Anthropomorphs, or human-like figures

  • Animals

  • Geometric figures such as angled lines and circles

They were left behind by the local tribes — in this instance, often by the Pawnee and Wichita tribes — on the sandstone of cliffs, ridges, and caves. Sandstone made for an excellent medium for this particular artform because of its softness; it was easy to carve and chip into shapes, and is plentiful in the state.

Unfortunately, this also made the stone prone to erosion and damage, as well as vandalism — it’s fairly easy for “collectors” to carve out chunks of stone with images they found particularly appealing.

Interpreting petroglyphs

Buchanan made it a point to say that the location in which he found these petroglyphs matter to him. “I believe these things are where they are for a reason,” he said of the subjects of his survey, “even if I don’t know what that reason is.”

His belief is that the locations represented a connection between the visible and invisible worlds of the Native Americans. As such, he categorized his findings into four main schools of interpretation:

  • Stories, often depicting battles or encounters with other tribes and colonizers

  • ID marking, a way of saying “I am here” and leaving a personal stamp on the world

  • Sky watching, or the interpretation of celestial bodies like star patterns and the paths of the sun and moon for practical applications such as navigation and spiritual reasons

  • Shamanism or spirituality, using the glyphs as a method of either telling the stories of the spiritual world or connecting to it in some way

These interpretation categories, he reminded the audience, were very broad intentionally. Though he had worked in collaboration with the Pawnee tribe to gain some insight into the meaning behind the glyphs, Buchanan notes that he, as a “middle-aged white guy” has an extremely different life experience to draw from, and so cannot with any certainty know exactly what it is the images were meant to represent, if they were meant to represent anything at all.

A chunk of sandstone carved with concentric circles, an arrow, and crosshatched lines.
From Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.

Why context in anthropology matters

This constant awareness of his cultural distance from his subject gave me a sense of immense respect for Buchanan and his work. His view of trying to gauge the meaning behind these figures is that he will never be able to see the same thing that the original creator saw.

He illustrates this point by drawing attention to an image of a cave in Ellsworth, covered in petroglyphs inside but on the outside, relatively unassuming. Buchanan says that he grew up not too many miles from this particular cave, and played near it as a child, so was incredibly familiar with the area.

Yet, he didn’t learn the cave’s disturbing past until he visited Kansas University and happened to see a painting depicting a Native American man being brutally decapitated.

Researching the history of that piece, he found the story of several Pawnee tribesmen who acted as scouts for the US Army. On their way home after their service ended, they upset a group of settlers in the area, who summoned cavalrymen to “protect” them.

Though the Pawnee men tried to prove their innocence using their discharge papers, the cavalrymen refused to listen, and instead began to shoot. Seven Pawnee men were killed and several more were injured; they were left at the side of a local creek.

Shortly after the fight ended, a local surgeon traveled to the site of the later-dubbed Mulberry Massacre, dragged several of the bodies into the cave, and decapitated one of them to bring the head back for “ethnographic studies.”

This offensive and devastating incident is not well known in Kansas, even in Ellsworth County, but it is well known to the Pawnee tribe. Despite the sparse records, every Pawnee tribesman Buchana met knew the story and felt the pain of the event. Buchanan realized that this cultural knowledge colors everyone’s interpretation of the world around them in vastly different ways. In his words,

“We’re all looking at the same thing but there’s a difference in what we see.”

In every instance where he displayed and spoke about his work, the audience mattered in how it was interpreted. He brought the petroglyph images before a group of children at his son’s former junior high, and the vast majority of them focused on the handprints and other anthropomorphic figures in the images.

When brought before scholars, on the other hand, the questions he received tended to skew toward larger pictures and animal drawings, trying to identify them and assign some kind of meaning.

Everyone saw something different — something unique.

Less Interpretation and More Representation

Buchanan prefers not to try to interpret at all. Instead, his primary motivation for creating the book was documentation.

The images may not have been intended for preservation — it’s doubtless that the tribes who created them a mere few centuries ago were well aware of sandstone’s proclivity to falling away — but they were created to tell some kind of story. They represent a way of life that was largely wiped out with the oppression of Native American culture, and, as Buchanan noted, serve as a way of opposing that decimation. “We were here,” the petroglyphs remind us, “we lived.”

The glyphs themselves, as he said, were fragile. So many challenges lay in the way of preserving them — the erosion of the sandstone wiped out images quickly, vandalism meant that many more were lost to private collections, and most of the pieces were on inaccessible private land that the owners were not keen to have plundered by tourists—that he and his co-authors felt they needed to create a way for these images to be appreciated without being endangered.

So, Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills acts not as a guidebook — there are no exact locations given for any images — but as a reference and as an anthropological study. It is a more permanent record of the people who lived and died in these cultures, who saw the same stars that you and I do and wrote them down.

Buchanan wondered if he even had the right to make a book like this, and so he and his team have made every effort to be as faithful to and respectful of the cultures they observed as possible. They donate all of the royalties made from the sale of the book to local historical societies and Native American support networks.

So far, he says, he has had mostly positive feedback, especially from the Native American community, which he sees as the most rewarding part of it all.

You can find Rex Buchanan’s Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills online at the website or through most major bookstores.

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