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Borderlands: Hueco Tanks is Site of Controversy 23 (2004-2005)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Hueco Tanks is Site of Controversy

Article first published in Vol. 23 (2004-2005)

By Stella Perry with additional research by Lorena Perez,Beatrice Gallegos, Yusaf Kahn, and Gisel Carrillo

Hueco Tanks is not just an ordinary state park. Some Native Americans in the Southwest called it home, and others used it as a stopover in their journeys. The history and spiritual symbols of various tribes have been recorded on the rocks in paintings and carvings. This 34-million-year-old magma intrusion is the site of much controversy.

Today, the archeological records hold great value for researchers who desire to understand the tantalizing mysteries of ancient societies. Hueco Tanks also serves the aesthetic mind and nature lover with its unique structure, flora and wildlife. Furthermore, the site is also considered sacred by Native Americans. Many different groups put demands on Hueco Tanks, and the difficulty arises as to how best to serve anyone.


Image caption: Hueco Tanks Photo by Rachel Murphree 

It was the hope of Dr. Kay Sutherland, an associate professor of anthropology at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, that indigenous knowledge and scientific understanding could coexist in the task of deciphering the pictographs at Hueco Tanks. More than 3,000 pictographs have been found there, hidden in crevices, shelters and caves. Sutherland spent 30 years of her life documenting and interpreting these pictographs.

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In her booklet, Rock Paintings at Hueco Tanks State Historical Park, Sutherland says the paint colors used for pictographs were extracted from minerals like hematite, limonite, shades of ochre, carbon, manganese, white clay, gypsum and copper oxides. Plant juices, egg yolk, animal fat and even urine may have been used to bind these minerals that were applied to the rocks with yucca, human hair or fingers.

Researcher and author Jay W. Sharp in his article, "The Native American Peoples of Our Western Deserts: The Enduring Mysteries" writes that during the last great Ice Age, people appeared for the first time in the Southwest. Living in shallow caves, they hunted bison and mammoths in small bands all across the plains and deserts.

drawing of rock artThese Paleo Indians were the predecessors of the Desert Archaic Indians , whose culture endured from 6000 B.C.E to about 200 C.E. Their rock paintings portrayed hunting scenes with sheep and deer, but only a few are found at Hueco Tanks. Subtle changes in their rock art created what researchers call the Early, Middle and Late divisions of the Archaic period. Abstract figures of the Late period can be seen at Hueco Tanks.

Farming and the importance of community for the Archaic culture emerged during the first millennium. The people built pit houses for shelter and community ceremonies. Sharp says reliance on crops brought about concern over rain and water. Raising corn, beans and squash became more important than hunting and gathering.

In the latter part of the millennium the pit house dwellers abandoned their underground shelters for structures of stone and mortar. "Over the next several centuries, they evolved, culturally, into the Puebloan people," says Sharp. Populations expanded, and the tribes built irrigation systems for vast fields. Semi-subterranean chambers, known also as kivas, became the site of ceremonial rituals.

drawing of antlered mask rock artMany of the paintings at Hueco Tanks are from the Jornada Mogollon period (600-1400 C.E.), including numerous masks or spirit images, presumably representations of the deities of the Mogollon. Hueco Tanks State Park has the largest collection of painted masks in North America, more than 240. Forrest Kirkland, author of The Rock Art of Texas Indians, discovered in 1941 that there were two different types of masks: solid and outlined.

Red drawing of maskOutlined masks are red, black and white and include eyes showing pupils, semi-circular mouths and triangular noses (see figure at left).The less accessible solid masks are more abstract, appearing to be stenciled in red, white and yellow. Eight of these solid masks appear in Cave Kiva at Hueco Tanks.  (See figure)

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In a Texas Parks & Wildlife online article, Sutherland and Polly Schaafsma, rock art expert and curator of the Museum of New Mexico, agree that recent discoveries of new pictographs of masks lend evidence that the Hueco Tanks masks are predecessors of modern Pueblo kachina figures.

The Historic Period began around 1500 C.E., marking European contact as seen with depictions at Hueco Tanks of horses, people and churches. The 1680 Pueblo Revolt forced Spanish colonists in New Mexico and their Isleta Pueblo captives to retreat south toward El Paso, which resulted in the establishment of the Ysleta del Sur settlement in Socorro.

Black and white drawing of rock artDuring the Historic Period, Hueco Tanks was primarily inhabited by the Jumano Indians, and the Mescalero and Lipan Apaches, with occasional visits by Kiowa, Comanche and Tigua Indians. In Comanche Cave during this time, the Apaches left white, curvilinear painted forms depicting the puberty rite for young girls entering womanhood. Today, the puberty ceremony still may be witnessed, by invitation, on the Mescalero Apache Reservation .

Much debate exists whether there was any Mesoamerican influence on the Jornada Mogollon culture and who has historical claim to Hueco Tanks. However, Indian tribes today still have powwows to trade objects and to interact socially. That the highly developed Mesoamerican cultures traveled and visited resident tribes is not unlikely.

Sutherland proposed that Puebloan spiritual beliefs were influenced by Mesoamericans, transferred in the form of ideas and goods by traders. In an article published in the El Paso Archeological Society's journal The Artifact, Sutherland writes, "The Puebloan cosmovision bears numerous similarities to the Mesoamerican cosmovision. In both, for instance, the origin myths are similar. The number four is significant. The cardinal directions are associated with colors, mountains and animals."

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Sutherland continues, "There is a concept of a Mother creator, a concept of binary oppositions (e.g. the Hero Twins, the twin war gods, the Flute Boy and Girl, the Snake Boy and Girl). There are many other examples." The term "cosmovision" refers to the mystical order of the universe held sacred by indigenous peoples, similar to the origins of the calendar year and zodiac signs of Anglo culture. 

""The figure of Tlaloc (see figure on left), a rain god of prehistoric Mexican Indian cultures, convinces some scholars and rock art drawingscientists alike of the Mesoamerican influence of the Jornada Mogollon people. Their culture evolved around the need for and control of rain for their crops.  This symbolism of water is seen in the Tlaloc Altar painting and the jagged stair-step designs of the Tlaloc figure, both found on East Mountain of Hueco Tanks.

Another controversial topic involves control over Hueco Tanks. In February 2000, the Tigua Indians released a plan of management for Hueco Tanks State Park that would make them the legal stewards of the land. They felt the interests of Native Americans have been overshadowed by the interest of archeologists who have driven much of the park's existing policies. The Tigua Plan would open many now-restricted areas. Marc Schwartz, tribal spokesman, said that, "this is a plan that opens up the park for everyone in the community. Hueco Tanks are part of the history of this community, certainly very important to Native Americans and the tribe, and it's also a recreational facility."

The Tigua Plan states, "The sacredness of the area for the Tigua is apparent in a creation story that tells of the Tigua emergence from a cave at Hueco Tanks. The Tanks are specifically mentioned in tribal members' accounts of the abuelos or grandfathers, living entities who reveal themselves as 'sin cleaners' to the Tigua during times of stress." The Tigua Plan includes several recommendations, including special protection of sacred pictograph sites, some of which are distinctly Tigua; the consultation on treatment and interpretation by all Indian tribes affiliated with pictographs; continued use of the Escontrias Ranch as an interpretive center; and monitoring the plant and animal species of the region.

Others working in the park feel that Texas Parks & Wildlife has done a fine job since 1998. The east and west mountains are restricted to guided tours only, while the north mountain can be accessed unaccompanied; only 70 visitors are allowed at one time, however. Although the numbers of visitors has decreased since the new restrictions, former Park Manager Ray Sierra pointed out that since 1998, there has been a decrease in fires, new graffiti and minor injuries.

Prayer, ceremony, meditating, hiking, rock climbing, bird watching, photography, listening, learning, research  -- all can be done at Hueco Tanks Historical State Park. Interpretation of the figures and symbols on the rocks, cannot be certain, however.

"We can discover, examine, measure, record and classify images, but our interpretations of the messages, especially those involving the spiritual realm, will always be laced with uncertainty," writes Sharp, referring to the continued investigations of archeologists, anthropologists and other researchers fascinated with the silent, stately Hueco Tanks.

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