Former Rapid City Journal reporter Steve Miller shares stories of people and places that make the western South Dakota region unique.
Thousands of years ago, humans clambered up the steep, rocky slope until it met a sheer sandstone wall rising to the top of the canyon.
There, the ancient people painted images of animals such as buffalo and antelope, as well as rows of moons, suns and stars. They also painted a map on the rock wall, indicating trails and camp sites
George Hey first saw the images in 1932, when he was 14 years old and rambling around Craven Canyon near his parents’ ranch in the Southern Black Hills.
He was awestruck. “They were very magical,” says Hey, who still lives on the ranch north of Edgemont.
Hey, now 93, has remained awestruck and respectful of the ancient images, which scientists believe were made 4,000 to 8,000 years ago — or possibly even earlier.
The images on the sandstone wall look out over a big flat spot in the canyon that Hey figures probably served as a camp for the ancient people who hunted in the area thousands of years ago.
Hey says the flat area in the canyon would have provided good shelter for a winter camp.
They probably ate the big tubers of the mountain morning glory plants that still dot the floor of the canyon as well as the buffalo and other game they killed on the prairies above.
Up over the canyon’s rim, a bulldozer for a uranium mine decades ago discovered a deep deposit of charcoal ash, indicating a long-ago campsite that scientists say was used for roughly 700 years.
There are several other rock art sites hidden away in Craven Canyon, depicting people and the animals that were important to them. Some of the images were made more recently, and show people with bows and arrows and even rifles.
Hey scrambled up the slopes to show me two of the ancient sites, stopping only to rest his legs, which hurt him since doctors removed veins from them for his heart bypass operation six years ago.
At one site, where a buffalo is painted on the sandstone wall, Hey said the paintings (called pictographs) have changed color over the years. “It was more of a blue color when I first saw it,” he said.
Another site is high up on a ledge that is too steep for him now, but he called out directions to me as I scrambled up through rocks, junipers and cactus to a ledge on the canyon wall.
Standing on the ledge, ancients carved into the flat sandstone a hunting scene with a variety of animals, along with stick men of varying sizes. The etchings, pecked out of the rock, are called petroglyphs.
Tom Willems, a recreation planner with the U.S. Forest Service who has worked with Hey, said the site is one of the oldest in the Black Hills, probably dating to 8,000 years ago or older.
The panel holds a series of images of ever larger elk, goats and a mountain lion. (I never could make out the mountain lion image -- maybe it was the sun). But Hey has climbed up here many times and has seen it.
He says that at another site, there are images of a buffalo and the head of another animal, which is distinguished only by a short face. Hey thinks it could be a short-nosed bear, now extinct.
At one of the sites, an image depicts a figure with a head on both ends. Hey thinks it could show a woman giving birth.
Hey remains fascinated by the evidence of the humans who lived in this canyon thousands of years ago. “It was a hard life,” he said.
Hey has tried to protect the ancient pictures for three-quarters of a century, excluding four years he spent on his “vacation” with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II.
But there has been some vandalism in the form of modern graffiti painted by less evolved members of our species.
Still, Hey and the U.S. Forest Service have tried to provide some protection. The Forest Service has a locked gate that prevents motorized travel from Hey’s property line into the part of the canyon that’s within the boundaries of the Black Hills National Forest and that holds the ancient rock art. There is no public access to the canyon by vehicle. But it is open to horseback and pedestrian foot traffic, Willems said.
In February, the Forest Service, along with the South Dakota State Historical Society and the state archaeologist, honored Hey for his stewardship of the ancient images.
He has helped deter vandalism and keeps an eye on who goes into the canyon.
But his stewardship also includes teaching people about the ancient images.
“George has been a genuine educator down there,” Willems said. “He has worked with the local community but, more significantly, he has been working with tribal communities. It is a very sacred site to the Lakota.”
Willems said Hey has guided many interested people, especially tribal youth groups taking part in the Forest Service’s youth conservation program.
In short order, Hey became the leader. “These kids were just following him,” Willems said. “George is family to them.”
Willems said Hey, along with Black Hills native Linea Sundstrom, a Wisconsin professor, have taught him “more about Black Hills pre-history than you read in most books.”
“George was my mentor and my guide,” Willems said. “He’s a very intelligent, well-read man. He’s a phenomenal resource.”
Hey says he enjoys guiding people in to look at the rock art. “I think people should see it who want to see it,” he said.
He particularly likes to show it to Native Americans who tell him they get a sacred feeling in this ancient canyon.
Hey says no one can really interpret the images with certainty.
Maybe that’s part of the magic.
In any case, Hey remains in awe of the evidence of these ancient humans.
“Think about it. Somebody that far back lived here,” he said. “They’re our ancestors. I tell Indian boys and girls they’re important to all of us. We all date back to something like this.”
The Lakota have an expression in their prayers, Mitakuye Oyasin, which means something like: We are all related.
The pictures in Craven Canyon are evidence of that. So is George Hey.
Steve Miller is a freelance writer based in Rapid City. Contact him at email@example.com.