Petroglyph National Monument

The Petroglyph National Monument is a 17 mile long volcanic basalt escarpment, encompassing approximately 7,236 acres (29.28 km²), located on the West Mesa of Albuquerque, New Mexico. This area has a long history of occupation, being used by Native peoples for prayers, offerings, gathering of medicinal plants, and is considered sacred to dozens of tribes in the Southwest.

Petroglyph National Monument: A Sacred Place

By Valerie Rangel

The Petroglyph National Monument is a 17 mile long volcanic basalt escarpment, encompassing approximately 7,236 acres (29.28 km²), located on the West Mesa of Albuquerque, New Mexico. This area has a long history of occupation, being used by Native peoples for prayers, offerings, gathering of medicinal plants, and is considered sacred to dozens of tribes in the Southwest.

The name Petroglyph National Monument reflects the monument’s greatest treasure, an estimated 25,000 images carved by native peoples, and early Spanish settlers. Rock paintings are called pictographs, while petroglyphs are rock carvings, made by pecking directly on rock surface using a stone chisel, exposing lighter rock underneath.

Many rock carvings at the Petroglyph National Monument are depictions of animals in the Southwest: rattlesnakes, birds, frogs, coyotes, mountain lions, eagles, parrots, toads/frogs, and dragonflies. These images reflect the natural history of the area, as well as animal-human interactions throughout the area’s history.

Thousands of images etched onto the monument’s basalt rocks reveal more than cultural heritage, world views, and traditional ideals of the inhabitants of the area; they perhaps are the physical transcript of personal dreams, revelations, and visions. The placement and orientation of these images contain cultural information, and are the documentation of historical events, environmental observation, and cosmological occurrences. According to a Pueblo elder, “The petroglyphs keep the traditions”.

Some of the petroglyphs are believed to have been etched by early hunters and gathers more than 3,000 years ago. Carvings of parrots reflect the period of time when ancient trade routes of the Camino Real brought goods from Mexico to the Ancestral Pueblo people; ancestors of the current19 Indian Pueblos in New Mexico.

It is estimated that 90% of the monument's petroglyphs were crafted by Rio Grande Pueblo people who lived and farmed the area from about 1300 through the late 1680’s. Images such as kachina masks, star beings, and flute players, are thought to be associated with cultural and religious practices of other tribes within the southwest region. Hopi masks of Kachina dancers are an important part of the Kachina dances held by Pueblo tribes; masks are revered and considered living spirits.

Recent carvings mark the arrival of Spanish people to the Southwest in 1540, and are illustrated in the form of names of Spanish Explorers, dates of arrival, as well as Hispanic Christian crosses often placed near earlier carvings of snakes and animals. After the Pueblo Revolt, resettlement of the area by Spanish began about 1692. Because Catholic missionaries discouraged Pueblo ceremonial practices, rock image making decreased during this period.

Phoenician, old-Hebrew inscriptions, and a zodiac calendar have been found in Los Lunas basalt rock petroglyphs; experts believe that it is possible that there are similar inscriptions among the carvings at the Petroglyph National Monument. Some analysts studying the weathering of the rock carvings in Los Lunas speculate that the carvings date from 500-2000 years ago.

Archaeologist, Ellsworth Huntington, stated that during the first millennium the area of the southwest had sufficient moisture, allowing boats to travel from the Gulf of Mexico up through the Rio Grande and Rio Puerco. King Solomon and Hiram sent out ocean fleets through the Mediterranean and Red Sea, exploring regions across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Historians continue to debate the presence of Sephardic crypto-Jews in New Mexico. Many believe that Spanish-Jews migrated to the United States, seeking religious freedom and fleeing the scrutiny of the Spanish Inquisition, during the late 1500’s. Descendents of these Jews hid their ritual practices and cultural identity until Spanish control ended in 1821.

In 1985, New Mexico legislator Joseph Carraro, passed legislation allocating monies to begin building Paseo del Norte and its accompanying bridge across the Rio Grande to eventually extend beyond what is now called the Petroglyph National Monument. In 1986, "The Friends of the Petroglyphs," organized a meeting with members of nearby community organizations and American Indian groups to discuss the possibility of establishing an urban park on the West Mesa of Albuquerque, N.M. Their aim was the prevention of petroglyph, damage, removal and or desecration.

Authorization to create a National Monument out of this cultural place and unusual topography came on June 27, 1990.  The Monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources including five volcanic cones located to the west of the basalt escarpment containing hundreds of archeological sites. The volcanic basalt escarpment is an ecosystem of diverse populations of plants, shrubs and trees, mammals, reptiles, rodents, and insects.

Since its inception, the monument has been in the midst of controversy. During the 1960’s and 70’s, developers sought to expand housing and urban growth beyond Albuquerque’s western edge- the volcanic escarpment, and onto the West Mesa.

A proposed development plan for thousands of homes required the City of Albuquerque to extend a six-lane highway through the northern section of the park, which required a vote of the U.S. Senate.

In 1997, the Senate returned 8.5 acres of federal land to the City of Albuquerque for construction of the Paseo del Norte road extension. Never before had a National Monument been split by a major roadway. After the U.S. Senate’s decision a lawsuit was immediately filed by the SAGE Council, a local citizens group, challenging the decision.

On June 22, 1999, the Extraterritorial Land Use Authority (ELUA), the joint city and county body that governs planning and zoning within five miles of the City of Albuquerque, approved the Black Ranch 6,700-acre master plan. An appeal was filed by 1000 Friends of New Mexico, SAGE Council (formerly the Petroglyph Monument Protection Coalition), Greater Albuquerque Spokespeople, West Side Citizens for Better Development, and SRIC, all represented by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Archaeologists confirmed that the proposed road construction would damage at least 50 petroglyphs. Pueblo leaders said that the region offers sacred protection, which should not be violated. "It is like an umbilical cord for the tribes around here," said Arden Kucate of Zuni Pueblo. "It ties into our songs and our prayers."

Zia Pueblo Gov. Peter Pino said the petroglyphs are where life is sustained for his people, who long journeyed through this region. "It is used for the Spirit World of the Pueblo people to continue to exist."

At a city council meeting on September 9, 2002, Sister Agnes Calmarron, a Catholic nun, spoke reverently about the need to respect spiritual beliefs of Native peoples. "The land has a sacred meaning to the Native people of America. Do we really understand what holy and sacred mean to the land? What motivates us to change the landscape to fit our agenda about growth and traffic? We need to value this sacred area in a more honorable and respectful way."

During the five-hour heated debate, at the city counselor meeting, city councilor Eric Griego said the 1.7-mile road was approved without public input and notification. "Someone snuck a road in, that's what happened," he said. Griego said he was alarmed by the thought of as many as 10,000 cars passing through the temporary road that connects to a narrow, downhill two-lane road that runs through the monument and sponsored a resolution to halt construction for 90-days while city officials examined public safety, environmental and transportation impacts resulting from its construction, however the resolution failed by a 5-4 vote.

Allegedly Albuquerque Mayor, Martin Chavez, had authorized building a road through the monument in collaboration with a  private land developer and the road project was given the go ahead without the prior input of the National Park Service, the Albuquerque City Council, the City’s transportation and planning board, and thousands of local residents whose voice had been active participants in the city's long-range transportation planning.

In September of 2002, 75 Ventana Ranch residents held a rally to support construction of the Paseo del Volcan Road, while members of the SAGE Council group (Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality) made a decision to block trucks and bulldozers, as a peaceful act of civil disobedience. Police quickly arrived on the scene, in full riot gear; seven people were arrested trying to block construction of the new unplanned road.

Laurie Weahkee said that the SAGE Council group considered legal action and other means to protect the area from what she believed would be a further push to open as many as three roads in the area. "Desecrating these sacred sites takes away from the entire community. We are weakening all these prayer sites and our connection to our ancestors. What will we leave to our children?” Weahkee stated.

On April 21, 2003, the Albuquerque City Council approved a design to build the controversial extension of Paseo Del Norte through the monument. SAGE Council member Sonny Weahkee discussed the “Unser Road Project,” which would extend the road through the Petroglyph National Monument, with the United Nation's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in New York City, on May 14, 2003.[1]

In October of 2003, in the city's municipal election, residents of Albuquerque failed to pass a bond measure that would have paid for the multi-million dollar project; this was the first time in 15 years that a road bond had failed to pass. City officials would have to seek federal grant money to complete the road project, which would require a federal review and environmental impact study.

In an interview with New Mexico Business Weekly, on Wednesday, October 13, 2004, Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez said, "I have been involved with this issue for some 15 years. I will not let the future of the city of Albuquerque be held hostage by a small group of people."

Mayor Chavez insisted the road was an extension of Universe Boulevard, a "temporary" solution to ease traffic delays for some 10,000 residents in Ventana Ranch and Paradise Hills who only had access to a two-lane road that currently backs up for miles during rush-hour traffic. Later Mayor Chavez announced on a local radio station that the two-lane road would be the start of a more expansive project that would include a full artery with bike lanes. He said the road was being paid for by Sandia Properties, developer of Ventana Ranch, and would cost an estimated $700,000.

On October 11, 2005, State District Court Judge Linda M. Vanzi ruled that the City of Albuquerque had followed mandated procedures in determining whether extending the West Side road through the monument was the best option for handling future traffic demands.

The SAGE Council organized a "March to Give Homage to the Petroglyphs," on November 20, 2005. The march commemorated the 10-year battle to stop the extension of a road from going through a portion of the Petroglyph National Monument. The march brought hundreds of Tribal officials, activists, organizers and scholars together. Some of the participants included members of the Indigenous Environmental Network, Save the Peaks Coalition, Youth of the Peaks Coalition, UNM/IAIA/SIPI students, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Gwich'in Steering Committee, Native Movement, Tonatierra, NYM, Indigenous Youth Coalition, Kanaka Maoli (Hawaii) organizers, Mexica organizers, CO AIM members, University of New Mexico students, and citizens of New Mexico.

When the National Monument was established in the early 1990’s, it was on the far outskirts of the city, now some homeowners have petroglyphs right in their backyards.

Currently, the monument is cooperatively managed by the National Park Service and the City of Albuquerque, allowing recreational use and tourism activities to take place.  These activities are generally opposed by native peoples who use this sacred site.

The Petroglyph Monument serves to “protect the dynamic history of physical, cultural, and psychological connections, communities of New Mexico share with this extraordinary place.” Many fear additional traffic and urban sprawl will lead to further vandalism and desecration of this national treasure and may ultimately interfere with the right and access of native peoples to conduct religious ceremonies. Petroglyph vandalism continues to be a growing problem throughout the southwest. Petroglyphs have been chipped away, stolen, and sold for profit from as far north as Salt Lake City, Utah to western Reno, Nevada, and south near the border of Mexico and Texas.

Oral histories, songs, cultural traditions, and environmental stewardship are part of the Native American physical and psychological connection with this place.

Sacred places, such as petroglyph sites, are deemed as holy and religiously important to Native communities of the Southwest and compare to churches, temples, and synagogues used by other groups of people. Native communities share the same basic rights to freedom of religion, life, liberty, personal privacy, and cultural respect, as any other citizen of the United States of America and these communities continue to advocate for respect of their history, culture, and religion through the protection of sacred places.


1.      Kennedy, Frances H. Petroglyph Naional Monument, N.M., by Polly Schaafsma. A Historical Guidebook: American Indian Places. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston, NY, 2008.

2.      Indian Country Today. Carraro: The Petroglyph National Monument – You had to be there, by Joseph Carraro.

3.      National Parks Service. Petroglyph National Monument.

4.      Wikipedia. Petroglyph National Monument.

5.      Indian Country Today. Mayor "sneaks in" petroglyph road, by Valerie Taliman. Story Published: Sep 16, 2002; Updated: Sep 10, 2008.

6.      Indian Country Today. Southwest struggles to preserve petroglyph sites, by Ryan Slattery. Story Published: Feb 6, 2004; Updated: Sep 10, 2008.

7.      Indian Country Today. Pueblos struggle to protect petroglyphs – Developers press for highway, by Brenda Norrell.

8.      New Mexico Sacred Land Film Project.

9.      NEW MEXICO- Road project presses through petroglyph park. 7-25-2006. Source: KRQE News 13.

10.  Road Set to Open. Albuquerque Tribune. 2007 Update:

11.  Petroglyph National Monument and its sacred significance to Pueblo Indians and Hispanic Land Grant Heirs.

12.  No Roads Through Sacred Land-Albq. November 22, 2005.

13.  Run supports Sacred Sites, by Mervyn Tilden. The Independent.

14.  Black Ranch – Driveway to Sprawl, by Adolfo Mendez. 1000 Friends of New Mexico.

15.  Chavez pushes forward on Paseo del Norte, by Dennis Domrzalski. October 13, 2004. New Mexico Business Weekly.

16.  Monumental chaos, by Cathy Robbins. October 25, 1999 issue of High Country News.

17.  Indian Petroglyphs at the Los Lunas site.

18.  Schaafsma, Polly. Indian Rock Art of the Southwest. Santa Fe School of Research, 1980.



[1] The 16-member United Nation Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was formed in 2002 to allow indigenous representatives from around the world to speak on numerous issues affecting their lives, such as land, air and water, among many other issues. The Forum advises and makes recommendations to the Economic and Social Council on economic and social development, culture, human rights, the environment, education and health issues.


Petroglyph National Monument; West Mesa of Albuquerque; Native American Culture and Religion