As people look for mini day trips to enjoy as the summer winds down, there’s an historic site in a most beautiful setting quite nearby that might just foot the bill – the Indian Painted Rocks area – just a quarter of a mile north of the Rutter Parkway Bridge over the Little Spokane River.
The site – listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and given to the state’s park commission by landowners Mr. and Mrs. H.M. Hart Jr. – provides a parking lot, interpretive information and, of course, the rock paintings themselves, set back among the trees.
Thought to be found initially by fur traders, they are estimated to be more than 200 years old, made of pulverized red rock covered with animal or perhaps fish oil. This painting process allows the iron oxide stain to seep deep into the granite and thereby make the paintings permanent.
There are two groups of these pictographs in a 6-foot-square area on a 25-foot-tall rock. One is rather worn and faded but the other is in better condition, showing 10 clear figures. It is believed they were done by a member or members of the Spokane Tribe of Indians and might be depictions of hunting, records of inter-tribal gatherings or religious iconography – though the meanings are not clearly known.
When application was made for the historic designation of the site, William Trogdon of the Eastern Washington Historical Society wrote about the puzzle of determining what the painter was portraying. For example, he noted the cross that is depicted. Was this in reference to the Catholic missions located within 60 miles of that area in the early 1800s, he asked, or perhaps a directional sign or a notation of the crossing of trails?
There are two forms believed to be water devils. Trogdon asked if they are warnings about danger in fishing, bad spirits nearby or simply depictions of water insects. There is an arch depicted near the top of the rock, which could be a sunburst or a headdress or perhaps an unfinished basket.
“The function of Native American rock art was likely ceremonial, linked to burials, food collection or, perhaps, vision quests,” said Stephen Emerson, program director at Archaeological and Historical Services at Eastern Washington University. “There are hundreds of examples in the Inland Northwest.”
Trogdon suggested that while further study might reveal answers, the paintings are exciting just to view and enjoy. He also noted that since many Inland Northwest Indian pictographs are now submerged behind dams, most of them having been created near original water shore lines, it is delightful to find ones like these that are intact and easily accessible from a road. This is a mixed blessing, according to Emerson: “It’s a blessing for those who are interested in viewing the paintings, but such proximity can also be a curse. The iron bars that protect them were put in place to prevent vandalism that has plagued the paintings in the past.”
In addition to the rock paintings, the Little Spokane River can be heard nearby, which offers its own delights when exploring the area – a decided bonus for a mini day trip into the history of the region.