Owning History

You'll love Katherine Wells' amazing tale of her developing relationship and her fight to preserve artifacts

Talk about a woman multitasking: This account of a decade in the life of a newly minted New Mexican weaves together a half-dozen strands of activity—emotional, relational, professional, house-building, archeological, activist.

And they're all, in one way or another, "on the rocks."

In 1992, Katherine Wells and her partner, Lloyd Dennis, decided to move from Southern California to northern New Mexico. Wells had been struck by the beauty and "primal" psychic connections of the place after seeing her first native ceremonial dance, and Dennis yearned to retire somewhere that wasn't "entombed in asphalt." They were 55 and 60 years old, respectively, with former spouses, children, job histories and property in suburban California. They'd also known each other for only a year.

Initially shopping for a house near Santa Fe (Wells is a mixed-media artist and hoped to break into the Santa Fe market), they were shown a 188-acre vacant plot on Mesa Prieta north of Española that might contain "some" petroglyphs. When Wells saw her first bedecked boulder—it sported snakes, clouds, a crescent moon, a four-pointed star and a "mysterious" bird—she was hooked. They bought the property, moved in a 30-foot trailer and embarked on their "adventures" as stewards of more than 6,000 petroglyphs.

Stewardship can have its down side, however.

One of the sobering revelations of Wells' book is that "rock art" (the term is debatable among scholars)—in this case, petroglyphs possibly as old as Egyptian pyramids—can be "owned" by private landowners, and are subject to minimal governmental protection or oversight. At least in New Mexico in the 1990s.

Wells' nemesis in this book is George Baker, a politically connected owner of a mining business who owned adjacent property with as many carvings as Wells', but who exhibited none of her archeological or cultural sensitivities. We're introduced to him as one of his trucks hauls away a boulder with a 12-foot Pueblo-period serpent on its face.

After a few flashbacks (including Wells' long-standing interest in American Indian artifacts, and the discovery of a Cree great-grandmother), Wells tells her story chronologically, interweaving strands of her experience of the time.

The house-building aspect is significant. In order to carefully plan their "dream house," they initially decided to first live there a full year, to get a feel for the location, views and seasons. That worked fine for Wells, who busied herself hiking and discovering "her" glyphs, but retired concrete-contractor Dennis needed something else to do with his time.

Wells resisted jumping the gun on house construction, but she agreed they could build a studio structure before the year was up, and Dennis set about designing and planning it. Wells and Dennis had decided to use the then-little-known technique of straw-bale construction to create an organic Santa Fe structure. They read up on the process, ordered the bales and hired their own crew, with Wells as the (admittedly grumbling) procurement officer.

When living out dreams means inhaling peat moss from a faulty composting toilet and bathing in the mosquito-infested Rio Grande, nerves can fray. Add to that cabin fever in a single-wide over the winter, and their young relationship began to experience growing pains. Eventually, although they remain together, Dennis will reconnect with Southern California—and then Baja by boat—as Wells dives into her art.

After a rapturous opening, Wells takes off on a complicated story of her and her neighbors organizing to force Baker to comply with government ordinances. As it doubtless did in real life, the narrative of Wells' fight with Baker focuses more on complaints about speeding trucks, noise and dust than on monitoring the glyphs themselves.

As a non-Native American lover of all things Native American, I'd have preferred less about the Baker fight, and more about the petroglyphs. But the other fight at the end of the book—Dennis' battle against prostate cancer—had me reading well into the night.

The aspects of the book, however, that will keep it in my possession are the descriptions and illustrations of the glyphs: page after page of figures, symbols, animals, signs and animal tracks, presented as if they were pencil-rubbings or spray-stencils of the rock art. She offers moving representations of what one Tohono O'odham tribe member calls "long ago told" images.

It's amazing that someone should be able to "own" such pieces of history. But it's not amazing—given what we learn of Katherine Wells—that she should prove a tireless steward of it.

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