America: Still expressing ourselves after 1,000 years

PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA. Ancient pictures etched into “Newspaper Rock.” Photo: David CrummPETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK, Arizona Can you read these headlines, still posted on Newspaper Rock for all the world to see a millennia after they were etched in stone? Self expression is one of our most fiercely defended American values, a newly released survey of Americans has found, and that truth has extremely deep roots these ancient etchings suggest.

Historians for the National Park Service agree that these shapes and symbols, painstakingly made about 1,000 years ago, amount to what we’d see on a newspaper front page today: reports on major weather cycles, movements of game, public safety and important celebrations. This particular collection on several huge boulders is called Newspaper Rock. The publishing process required talented eyes and hands. Many stone surfaces in this region naturally developed a dark varnish, perfect for early natives to peck at with small, hand-held, pointed rocks, one dot at a time, until an underlying lighter tone was revealed. Snakes, dogs, mysterious figures and rake-shaped rainstorms were incised here along with swirling shapes and hundreds of figures no one can decipher anymore.

Not much has changed in Americans’ strong desire to publicly voice our viewpoints, according to a new nationwide survey released this month by Dr. Wayne Baker at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. “The U.S. is distinctive among nations around the world because of our unique blend of a very strong importance placed on religion coupled with a very strong desire for self expression,” Baker said.

In a time of widespread anxiety and political feuding, the right of self expression is one of the few things on which we all agree. In Baker’s survey, 92 percent of respondents define American freedom as “being able to express unpopular ideas without fear for my safety.” In response to another question, 94 percent agreed that “if I oppose some U.S. policies, it is because I want to improve my country.” The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

As our American journey turned east this week from Los Angeles along the historic Route 66, we found one example after another of self expression in signs, songs and roadside attractions, but none as old as Newspaper Rock. At the Grand Canyon, we found Americans celebrating self expression at every outlook along the South Rim, spending as much time tapping handheld devices as they spent peering into the vast canyon.

We’re part of global transformation in expression. In early 2011, the world will close out our first handheld decade. The year 2001 is best remembered in the U.S. for the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, but it also marked the birth of iTunes and the iPod. The first BlackBerry, delivering wireless email to our palms, arrived in 2002; the iPhone in 2007. And the iPad now is in the hands of millions of Americans just months after its release. We’re not alone. Iranian protesters Tweeted their plight. More than half of Africans use cell phones, a technology expanding faster than water treatment or full-scale electric networks on that continent. Third-world phone users recharge from motorcycles and gas-powered generators. In some areas of Asia, especially Singapore, people own an average of more than two handheld devices.

Those thumb-tapped messages, images and Facebook updates obviously are fleeting sparks compared with the Petrified Forest petroglyphs. But another way to understand Newspaper Rock is that it also represented native communities’ version of Facebook: a public record for friends and visitors of what was going on in the ancients’ communities.

What exactly do those Newspaper Rock postings mean? The National Park Service sells various guidebooks and even a thick, hardback study of the images by rock-art scholars Patricia McCreery and Ekkehart Maloki. But the conclusion in every book on the shelves is this: Who knows for sure?

Newspaper Rock still draws visitors many centuries after the last updates were posted, so McCreery and Maloki filled their big book with tantalizing clues gathered from oral histories in Southwest tribes: News about rain and growing seasons was a matter of life and death, so comb-like or rake-like etchings relate to news about rainstorms. A looming downpour in that region looks like a densely toothed comb as it moves across the mesas. Slithering snake shapes also are closely related to water. A snake’s movement resembles a rivulet of water and a snake’s attack suggests the speed and power of lightening.

But, if you think the Newspaper Rock headlines are getting clearer, then think again. Scholars often disagree, McCreery and Maloki admit. Images that seem to be dogs, companions of native peoples since ancient times, may be coyotes, wolves or other animals entirely. Human figures may have been stylized images of lizards. Horned animals actually may have been human shamans with spiritual powers symbolized by those horns. And birds come in a dizzying range of shapes and sizes from long-legged water birds to eagles, owls and even parrots. Or are all those bird-like images really birds?

We spent an afternoon puzzling over the ancients’ mix of headlines and Facebook postings and we’re at a loss to report on their actual meaning to you today. Ultimately, they’re beautiful but mysterious.

Just like Americans thumbing their handheld devices today, those rock-in-hand ancient reporters tried hard to express themselves clearly but very concisely in each symbol. Today, your guess about the meaning is as good as ours. In fact, your guess apparently is nearly as good as the scholars’ speculation. In a very American way, everyone’s got a right to say what they think it all means.

So, look closely at the images once more. Can you read these signs of the times?

(Today’s photos and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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