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Tribal leader David “Laughing Horse” Robinson (foreground) and Tim Dawson paint over petroglyph images that were displayed on Desert Dog’s outside walls. / Laura Austin Photo

Kawaiisu Tribe paints over City’s petroglyph art

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–
This week, Kawaiisu representatives began ridding Ridgecrest of petroglyph art painted on the walls of local businesses. Desert Dog was the first to allow it.

The tribe’s grievances began publicly when the tribe protested at last November’s Petroglyph Festival.  Their theme was “Stop the Steal” because they believe their heritage is being stolen. Kawaiisu spokesman, Robert Blackwell, said they find the entire festival insulting. Instead of educating festivalgoers about the true origin of the petroglyphs, festival promoters bring in tribes from other areas and use them as entertainment in a “carnival atmosphere.”

But the festival is not their only complaint.  The Kawaiisu tribe also objects to the petroglyph art displayed throughout the City. Blackwell said they are insulted because their ancestors created the real petroglyphs. “It’s their art; their history.”

So shortly after their protest, Blackwell spoke to the City Council members. He said the  protest received “an extremely good reaction” and brought attention to the festival’s “key stakeholders.”  But he was there to address another issue: the petroglyph art.  He said the tribe members find much of it objectionable and asked City representatives to join tribal officials “in a survey of the art.”  Even if some are not objectionable, the City should have asked permission to depict “real art from the rocks.”  Blackwell claimed the tribe’s ancestors crafted all the area’s petroglyphs and some of the City’s art is “mockery and blasphemy.”

At the next council meeting, Blackwell appeared again with some senior members of the tribe.  He handed out two papers. One chronicled the government’s sordid treatment of them since 1950.  The other asked questions. Was the city willing to survey the art with them? Did the city get their “written permission” before purchasing and displaying it?  Blackwell mentioned laws addressing the “misappropriation and misuse of tribal images, including native rock art.”

Half the questions were directed at Councilman Skip Gorman, who created the metal art displayed along China Lake Boulevard. Blackwell said it is “clearly inappropriate” for a council member to produce and sell art to the City without the tribe’s permission.  He wanted to know if the City paid Gorman for the art, and if so, how much.

With no response from the City, the Kawaiisu’s next step was to post “cease and desist notices” on the petroglyph art. The notices claimed the art to which they were attached is “a copy of native images owned by the Kawaiisu nation” and has been “replicated without permission for commercial purposes.”   The notices also claimed by doing this, the city was “violating California and Federal law.”  Therefore, they demanded the “religiously offensive and racist” sculptures either be removed immediately or fully covered for later removal.

When Mayor Eric Bruen was asked about the notices, he called it “non-news” since there has been “no formal legal action” and the art was not vandalized.  “Individuals have a right to speak their mind.”

Blackwell, who had taken part in posting the notices, agreed with Bruen’s stance on freedom of speech because “it is a powerful tool for citizens to get their voices heard.” However, he disagreed with Bruen’s attitude that there was no reason for the City to respond unless formal legal action was present.  “The mayor only takes it seriously if they get sued.  That’s not our goal.”  He said if the City Manager and Council Members “had taken a different approach and worked with us, we wouldn’t be in a confrontation.”  He believes the City leaders “have their heads in the sand and want to ignore the issue.  They just want it to go away.”

However, this issue has not gone away.  Council members are not the only people Blackwell has spoken to. He also approached local business owners with petroglyph depictions painted on their outside walls. According to him, many of these proprietors told him the City initiated and paid for these images. But now, many of them want the images gone because “they did not understand this was a controversial issue.”

So, now the petroglyph image removal has begun, starting with Desert Dog on Balsam.