NINE MILE CANYON, Utah — Remarkably well-preserved depictions of animals, symbols, and human figures adorn the sleek red rocks of Nine Mile Canyon, composing what experts refer to as the largest continuous collection of Indigenous rock art in North America. Located in the Book Cliffs mountain range three hours south of Salt Lake City, the canyon takes its name from famed western explorer John Wesley Powell’s mapping triangulation of a nearby area. In reality, Nine Mile Canyon encompasses a stretch of approximately 45 miles with perhaps as many as 10,000 ancient petroglyphs (images carved into rock surface) and pictograph (images painted on rock surface) sites, many of which are visible from the paved roadway.
Since the discovery of rich natural gas reserves on the nearby West Tavaputs Plateau two decades ago, conservationists have found themselves at odds with regional energy interests pursuing these resources.
Nine Mile Canyon has long been a cultural wonder for the various tribes whose ancestors created the images: the Pueblo, Pueblo of Zuni, and Hopi. The latter tribe refers to their ancient predecessors as Hisatsinom or “The People of Long Ago” while Euro-American settlers have labeled this ancient group as the “Fremont Indians,” by virtue of their proximity to the Fremont River (namesake of white politician and western explorer John C. Fremont).
The ancient architects of Nine Mile Canyon’s rock art congregated in this area because of the canyon’s proximity to nearby water sources — vital in an otherwise arid environment — and are thought to have mastered corn cultivation in addition to hunting and plant foraging. Centuries later, the Ute tribe, who were ancestral foragers in the region, added to the panels with narratives about their existence after the arrival of white colonizers, evident from depictions of figures on horseback. Combined with the ancient petroglyphs, these depictions add a historical dimension to this rare visual account of the region’s past.
Archeologist Jerry Spangler is a regional expert who has researched the site for decades. While his work has revealed the richness of this region’s history, he acknowledges that much remains unknown. “Though carbon dating places the Hisatsinom in the region nearly two thousand years ago, contact may have occurred during the archaic period centuries before,” he told Hyperallergic in a phone interview.
Spangler hypothesizes that the Hisatsinom may have been viewed as ethnic outsiders to other ancient peoples in the region. Various depictions of warfare suggest this theory, along with dwellings that were placed in hard to reach, defensive positions.
Now, centuries later, conservation groups are battling with state officials over the region’s booming oil and gas industry, which some worry may adversely impact the preservation of the ancient sites.
The road running through Nine Mile Canyon was completed in 1866 by the “buffalo soldiers,” an all-African-American regiment of the 10th Cavalry. In 2014, much of the road was paved. Local officials claimed to want to prevent dust accumulation on the ancient art, but the road plainly facilitated energy extraction efforts.
In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) scrapped plans to lease two parcels of the canyon for oil and gas exploration after outcry from various organizations drew attention to the risk to the site’s preservation.
Earlier this year, the Utah State Legislature proposed SB51, which sought to draw $53 million from an existing fund to finance a highway through Nine Mile Canyon, according to reporting by the Salt Lake Tribune. This funding proved controversial and was scrapped before the bill’s passage in March of this year.
Nine Mile Canyon sits in Carbon County, which has in recent years collaborated with federal officials to plan the construction of the Uinta Basin Railway through nearby Price Canyon. Although the railway will not run through Nine Mile Canyon, it will likely exacerbate traffic in the area, something conservation groups will continue to monitor.
The preservation of Indigenous cultural heritage is continually contested in a state that has seen drastic shifts in policy surrounding monuments and public lands, the protection of which is often subject to the political ideologies of the present administration. In October 2021, President Joe Biden restored federal protection over Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, a sprawling area in Southern Utah that is home to countless cultural sites. The work of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition has been instrumental to restoring and protecting invaluable artworks, artifacts, and other sacred locations from reoccurring threats of vandalism, theft, and neglect.
Though less widely known, local experts consider Nine Mile Canyon an equally irreplaceable cultural heritage site. Ute spiritual leader, filmmaker, and storyteller Larry Cesspooch describes Nine Mile Canyon as one of the great wonders of the world, saying, “To me, the cliffs and the whole structure of the canyon are like cathedrals. The rock writings are like scripture. It’s a holy place and a sacred space like any church, but it is God’s church, it’s the Creator’s church.”