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Kanab Creek Canyon

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Late 19th century, Paiutes. Kanab Canyon Rd. off U.S. 89.
  • (Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management)

Kanab Creek Canyon possesses one of Utah's richest rock art sites dating from the late nineteenth century. Southern Paiutes created the site for the Ghost Dance, a Native American movement that was begun in 1870 and reached its height in 1889–1890 as a response to the social, economic, and cultural destruction brought to the native peoples by Euro-Americans. The Ghost Dance sought to reunite the living with the spirits of the dead and it flourished as a revitalization movement, spreading to hundreds of Native American tribes, each adapting the ceremony to fit to its own culture. The rock art at Kanab Creek Canyon links geography, artifact, resources, political context, and prayers; it infuses landscape with meaning, memory, history, and cultural associations. The site forms part of the living memory of elders who have visited it since their childhood. Because of this continuity, the site offers scholars a deeper understanding of rock art.

There are a number of petroglyphs and pictographs at this site, but the rock art associated with the Ghost Dance consists of a 400-meter-long panel on an easily accessible outcrop. It possesses a number of pecked and incised petroglyphs, though it is dominated by paintings. In one spot, there is a four-meter-long zigzag pattern, its scale and composition accommodated to the shape of the ledge. The most prominent segment of the panel has a natural overhang and is painted in bright white pigment made from limestone. Like the zigzag pattern, it unrolls along a narrow sliver of rock. In the front panel human figures predominate, some with rounded shoulders and torsos, others rendered as stick figures. Read from right to left, the panel begins with concentric circles around a central dot with an undulating line bleeding out of it like a horizontal smoke line. In some contexts, the circles have been defined as representing astronomical bodies (sun, stars, moon), in others the cyclicality of life, and yet others the shield of a warrior. Researchers believe the spiral in this case may be related to the spiral painted on the center pole used in the Ghost Dance. That spiral is presumably a representation of the route used to enter a trance. The concentric circles on the rock in question could then be a representation of a representation (a pole) that in turn stands for something else (the path to the trance or another state of consciousness). Here, image and reality are so deeply intertwined that these sharply defined analytical categories are inadequate.

What stands next to this potent symbol can be described as a battle scene: a dead horse and a dead person lie on the ground while other figures run frantically in different directions. Below the concentric circles is a smoky white smear that represents confusion or chaos. Above them is a headless man. The Paiutes believe that the headless figures in the scene are the Paiutes killed by white people.

To the left of the battle, the scene abruptly changes to stick figures in white clothing. Over their shoulders they hold ceremonial rasping sticks and a pole from which a long object with an oval head hangs (interpreted as a rattle or musical instrument used in the dance). Next to these three figures are more stick figures with white paint smeared over them like a veil. To the left of these are three-toed stick figures, a geometric design, and two more stick figures. Some of them seem to be wearing feathers on their heads and shoulders (eagle feathers were an important part of the Ghost Dance). The white pigment may represent the white clothing worn by Ghost Dancers; some participants painted their faces and hair white for the ceremony, while others highlighted their lips, eyes, nose, and hair in white, leaving the rest of the face its natural color. The overhang above this set possesses six flying figures. These could either be spirits of the elders recalled by the shamans or the participants of the prayer, people who climbed up the central pole and fell into a trance. The flying figures of this panel connect it to a related ceremony in Whitmore Wash, farther south in the Grand Canyon.

The scene of the dance is connected to the next set of figures by a three-foot long, crooked zigzag line. This may denote either temporal or spatial distance. Two of the next three figures are again beheaded, with two having grids of dots over their heads. The remainder of the panel contains two distinct animals, headless figures, and smears. This is a register of the stresses experienced by Native Americans at the turn of the twentieth century as well as the last resort of the helpless or the first impulse of the religious—turning to the gods.

The rock art at Kanab Creek was either made as part of the Ghost Dance ceremony or afterwards as a means to record the event. At the most general level, we regard rock art as an emblem of attachment to place and a record of beliefs and history. Anthropologists have celebrated this piece as manifesting the history of Paiutes in place and space. But Pauites believed that the dead animals and humans represented in these paintings would return to life after the Ghost Dance. The arrangement of the panel, with the flying figures at the top, suggests a cosmic map with spirits of the sky shown above the figures in the main panel. These flying figures are often the vehicle used by shamans to explore other worlds. As such it is impossible to reduce the panel to historical evidence or as marked territory. The act of drawing was essential to the miracle that would reverse the order of things—depopulation, displacement, destruction of the ecosystem, and unjust laws that undermined the Paiutes’ whole way of life. Rock art, in this case, is a record of man’s struggles and pain, and a response to the stresses brought on by Euro-American settlement. It is not just a marker of man’s attachment to place, but also the production of place, meaning, memory, history, and identity. On this site drawing becomes prayer and rock art becomes integral to the powers of the shaman.


Aberle, David. “The Prophet Dance and Reactions to White Contact.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 15 (1959): 74–83.

Akerman, K. “Tradition and Change in Aspects of Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Religious Objects.” In Politics of the Secret, edited by Christopher Anderson, 43–50. Sydney: University of Sydney, 1995.

Stoffle, Richard W., Lawrence Loendorf, Diane E. Austin, David B. Halmo, and Angelita Bulletts. “Ghost Dancing the Grand Canyon: Southern Paiute Rock Art, Ceremony, and Cultural Landscapes.” Current Anthropology 41, no. 1 (February 2000): 11-38.

Writing Credits

Shundana Yusaf
Shundana Yusaf



  • 1875



Shundana Yusaf, "Kanab Creek Canyon", [Kanab, Utah], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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