Vandalized petroglyphs near Santa Fe, New Mexico (image courtesy the FBI)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of an individual or group of individuals responsible for vandalizing protected petroglyphs in Santa Fe, New Mexico in January.

On January 19, officials from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reported that several petroglyphs in the La Cieneguilla site, located west of Santa Fe, were spray-painted with pentagrams, swastikas, and racial slurs. According to the agency, it was the third time the site had been vandalized in less than a year, but the latest incident was the gravest.

There are hundreds of petroglyphs carved on a volcanic mesa above New Mexico’s Santa Fe River. Most of them were placed there by Keresan- and Tano-speaking Puebloan people who lived in the area between the 13th and 17th centuries. The descendants of these communities still live around the Santa Fe River and the Rio Grande in pueblos including Santo Domingo, San Ildefonso, Cochiti, and Santa Clara.

“This area is very sacred to the Pueblo people. We have direct ancestral ties to it, and our oral traditions, prayers, and stories are linked to these places,” Santa Clara Pueblo’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Ben Chavarria told Outside Magazine. “We go visit them on pilgrimages, for ceremonial reasons, and to teach future generations about our ancestors, traditions, and culture.”

La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs west of Santa Fe were spray-painted with pentagrams, swastikas, and racial slurs. 

Under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, defacement of cultural sites is punishable by up to two years in prison and/or a $20,000 fine per charge. The FBI and the Bureau of Land Management have been investigating the incident for months with no luck. In early April, they sought information from the public, announcing the cash reward.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance also announced another $5,000 reward in February.

“The impacts of damage to these petroglyphs reach beyond public enjoyment of the landscape; it destroys the tribal history within this sacred place,” said BLM Taos Field Manager Pamela Mathis in a statement.

La Cieneguilla wasn’t the only ancient rock art site vandalized in January. That same month, petroglyphs at Big Bend National Park in Texas created between 3,000 and 8,000 years ago were “irreparably damaged” after vandals scratched their names and dates onto a rock panel. The National Park Service said at the time that graffiti vandalism is “extremely difficult if not impossible to remove.”

“We like to say that these petroglyphs are our footprints, and without your past you can’t have a future,” Chavarria told Outside Magazine. “So these sites give us a sense of identity. And they make us more resilient. They remind us of everything our ancestors endured and sacrificed to get us to the place we are today.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...