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Petroglyph art displayed in Petroglyph park on China Lake Blvd. Laura Austin Photo

Kawaiiau Tribe objects to local Petroglyph Art displays

BY HELEN TOMLIN News Review staff writer –

For the past two regular City Council meetings, a spokesman for the Kawaiisu tribe has utilized the public comments segment to air the tribe’s grievances about the petroglyph art displayed throughout the City of Ridgecrest. Robert Blackwell, who says he is an unpaid business advisor for the tribe, first appeared at the November 15 meeting shortly after the annual Petroglyph Festival. At this first appearance, Blackwell reported that some tribal members had staged “informational protests” at this festival. He said he was pleased these respectful protests got the attention of some of the festival’s “key stakeholders,” and he reported the tribe was given “an extremely good reaction.” However, Blackwell said there is still “one important issue” he wanted to address: the petroglyph art displayed throughout the city.

Blackwell said the various art pieces displayed on city and state property are “kind of cheap copies of native art, and the local natives find it objectionable.” He proposed to the City Council members “a joint effort by the City and tribal officials to survey the art” and have it reviewed. He said some of the “made-up stuff, kind of cloud stuff, is just silly.” Even if the art is not “objectionable,” the tribe believes the city needs to get their approval to use depictions of the “real art from the rocks.” He said, “If you’re a Christian, you would not want to see baby Jesus hung upside down in the middle of the street.” He said, “There’s a lot of stuff that [the tribe members] consider mockery and blasphemy.” Blackwell claims the entirety of the petroglyphs have been crafted by the ancient members of this particular tribe he represents.

Blackwell appeared again at the December 6 City Council meeting. This time, he brought two senior tribe members “to observe.” He began by asking the council and audience to stand for a minute of silence for “the tens of thousands of Kawaiisu people who have been enslaved and killed in Kern county since 1950.” He then distributed a handout containing eight questions he wanted the council members to answer. He first asked if the council had a response to what he requested in the last meeting: a joint survey “of all the Kawaiisu art and images on public property in the City.” He then asked whether the City or its affiliates had obtained written permission from “the owners of the petroglyphs” before “purchasing and displaying the alleged native images throughout the City on public property.” If the City did not obtain permission, he wanted to know if the Council members were aware that “there are State and Federal laws” that address the “misappropriation and misuse of tribal images, including native rock art.”

Blackwell’s last four questions were specifically directed toward Councilman Skip Gorman. He said, “We have discovered that certain City Council members might have been involved in producing and selling art to the city without the tribe’s permission.” He stated, “This is clearly inappropriate.” He said no one “has the right to reproduce it without their approval.” So, Blackwell continued asking the questions directed toward Gorman, who has created much of the metal petroglyph art displayed on China Lake Boulevard. He asked if Gorman “produced art sold using petroglyph likenesses for the City of Ridgecrest or its affiliates in 2015 and 2016.” He also asked if Gorman had obtained written permission from the tribe before using their images for commercial purposes. Blackwell wanted to know how many items Gorman sold to the City. Lastly, Blackwell wanted to know how much the City paid Gorman for the art and whether the City purchased any other native images. If so, he wanted to know how many and the total cost of the art purchased. When Gorman was asked about Blackwell’s list of questions highlighting his metal art, he responded, “It made me angry that they’re focusing on me.” He referred to the cover letter’s title, “Stop the Genocide of the Kawaiisu People and Culture.” Gorman said, “It was annoying that under the heading of genocide, he offered my name.” He said, “Just because I am an artist and I use [rock art] images, I am questioned like I am filling out a tax form.” He compared Blackwell to some “carpet-bagging Christian” who suddenly claims the copyright “of, say, the cross, or even the Jewish Star of David” and asks whoever used those images to send him money. Gorman said, “To my way of thinking, [Blackwell] is indeed a carpetbagger.” There are widely differing opinions about this almost 10-year-old festival that Ridgecrest created as a “respectful celebration honoring the diverse histories, traditions, and artistry of Native Americans and the Indigenous peoples.” Advertisements for the festival promise attendees that Ridgecrest is the “perfect location for the events” because it is “home to artifacts and petroglyphs dating more than 10,000 years old” and is “one of the largest concentrations in the Western Hemisphere.” However, author Barret Baumgart calls it “A Festival of Theft.” He writes in his Substack blog that the Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival “is the one big desert fest you’ve never heard of and do want to miss.” After his visit to the annual festival several years ago, he writes it is “one of the most astounding, tone- deaf, and blatant celebrations of cultural appropriation I had ever witnessed…” Baumgart has been out to see the petroglyphs and believes the “Native American rock art of China Lake’s Coso Range should be celebrated and protected as one of the most important surviving cultural and religious achievements in the Western Hemisphere.” He believes these “sacred symbols handed down from the deep past” should be treated “with reverence and respect” and “not appropriated as shameless booster fodder by a complacent city council.”

Blackwell commented on Ridgecrest’s last event: “Everything about that festival the Natives find insulting.” He referred to it as a “carnival atmosphere” where they bring in Natives “not from this area.” He asked, “Are they Cherokee, or what are they? There are all sorts of different ones; all like entertainment people.” He said they call it a “pow- wow,” but “pow-wows weren’t done in this area.” He said the theme of their protest was “Stop the Steal” because the tribe’s heritage is being stolen. Blackwell said, “The whole thing is an insult to the local tribe because they were the ones who did the petroglyphs. It’s their art, their history.”

David “Laughing Horse” Robinson was one of the two tribal members who attended the City Council meeting on December 6 and led the recent protest. He was voted chairman of the Kawaiisu nation in 2003 and 2009 and is one of the few living tribe members who can read the Po-o-ka-di (Petroglyph writings). He said, “This art is our language” and covers such subjects as “math, science, history, religion, and calendars,” all in a numeric format. He said it is “simple and perfect.” Robinson, who lives in Kernville, has seen the artists’ renditions of the petroglyphs displayed throughout Ridgecrest many times. He said that when a piece of these writings is displayed on China Lake Boulevard, “it is taken out of context.” For instance, he said if a car is driving north, the driver sees the “hollow” image one way, but if he heads south, the image is different. Asked what his desires are from Ridgecrest, he said he would like to take some of his tribal representatives along with city leaders and do a “survey of the current images.” He would like to “walk through and discuss it.” He has also been working with the Maturango Museum about setting up some sort of village “for real education” about their tribe.

Blackwell echoes Robinson’s sentiments. He said the festival offers no history about the real tribes in the area. What the Kawaiisu tribe desires is to be included in the festival with a chance to teach about their heritage. What he envisions for next year is to work with the festival to bring the real history of the Kawaiisu tribe. They want something from the tribe – “These are the people who drew these.” They want it to be informational. What did they eat, and how was it gathered? How did they hunt? He said a lot of people from the festival came up to the tribal members during the festival and were very gracious. “We want to open these communication lines to the city and hopefully get some resolution over time.”