Annotated Bibliography: Navajo Rock Art

Rebecca Steenstra, December 16, 2002

Schaafsma, Polly

1963  Rock Art in the Navajo Reservoir District.  The Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe.

This book focuses on the Pueblo and the more recent Navajo rock art in the Navajo Reservoir District.  The reservoir lies in the canyons of the San Juan River and the lower reaches of its tributaries, the Pine and the Pierda.  These canyons are located in northwestern New Mexico and the adjoining parts of Colorado.  Many of the sandstone cliffs contain Navajo pictographs.  Schaafsma talks about the colors used from the plants in the area and the techniques used such as yucca plants for brushes or just their fingers to create pictographs.  She also covers how Navajo petroglyphs were made whether it be incising or pecking.

Schaafsma shows how the subject matter of the Navajo rock art represents the activities and setting of this group of people.  Many bison and deer were depicted because these were the primary animals that the Navajos hunted.  Their other source of main food, corn, was also represented frequently in the Reservoir.  Mythical and supernatural figures occurred often such as panels of stars, lightning arrows, snakes, rainbows, and figures with headdresses of various kinds, masks, etc.

Lastly, Shaafsma noted how the Navajo rock art was influenced a great deal by the Pueblo rock art.  The Pueblo people’s influence was a result of the close association of the Pueblo and Navajo while the Navajo inhabited the Reservoir District.  Religious and mythical Navajo rock art show a great likeness to the Pueblo religious and mythical rock art.  One of the greatest differences between the two is the much greater complexity and dynamic qualities in the Navajo material.  According to Schaafsma, the Navajo pictographs in the Reservoir are believed to date from the Gobernador Phase of Navajo occupation from A.D. 1698 to 1775. 

Welsh, Liz and Peter

2000  Rock-Art of the Southwest.  Wilderness Press, Berkeley.

The authors of this book argue that the notable settings in which rock art was created, the care with which designs were planned and accomplished, and the Native American view on rock art sites being sacred prove that rock art is significant.  Liz and Peter Welsh focus in on the rock art in the southwest because Native Americans have created virtually all of the rock art throughout the Americas.  They acknowledge the Navajo people in their book through the pictographs in northeastern New Mexico of elaborate “star charts” in which dozens of crosses and dots are painted on the ceilings of rock shelters depicting the stars, planets, and the moon from their sky watching.  The book provides a good overview of Native American oral histories and traditions, but it does not go into Navajo rock art in detail.

Thybony, Scott

1995  Rock ArtNative Peoples 9:  34-38.

This magazine article starts off with some history of the Navajo and Pueblo Indians in the Southwest.  Thybony explains how the historic Navajo were generally thought of as nomadic herders that lived in hogans (mud houses) and raided their peaceful Pueblo neighbors.  However, he makes it clear that more than a generation after the Spanish reconquest of New Mexico in the 1690’s, many of them lived in pueblitos (small villages defended by a network of stone walls and towers) and they lived alongside Pueblo Indian refugees who had fled from Spanish rule.  Together, the Pueblos and the Navajos, sought protection from the New Mexican militia and Ute raiders.  This is why archeologists find Navajo and Pueblo rock art quite similar.

Furthermore, the article describes how archeologists have been trying to determine the purpose of why the Navajo created rock art.  They believe that it may have served as a shrine, a record of clan migrations, or an archive of ritual knowledge.  Some Navajo people believe their ancestors carved ceremonial designs on the cliffs in case the medicine men that knew what they meant died before passing on their knowledge.

The article ends with the input of an anthropologist, John FarellaFarella tells Thybony that the Navajo stopped depicting ye’i, the Holy People, in permanent media around 1750 in the Dinetah (Navajo holy lands).  After that time, sand paintings continued to be created but were purposely destroyed as part of a curing ceremony.  During the same period, they stopped making pueblo-style pottery and abandoned their pueblo-style dwellings.  For reasons still unknown, the Navajos “purged these alien ways and moved away from their homeland.”

Jacka, Lois E.

1994  Enduring Traditions:  Art of the Navajo.  Northland Publishing, Flagstaff.

This book is a great guide for understanding all of the different Navajo art forms including modern day Navajo pottery, jewelry, sculpture, rugs, paintings, sand paintings, and baskets.  It also gives a brief history of the traditional rock art pecked into the cliff faces or painted under protective overhanging walls.  Jacka points out how the Navajo art itself developed from a fusion of Pueblo, Spanish, and Navajo styles and materials.

Jacobs, James

2000  Rock Art Pages,, last accessed [November 1,


This website contains pages of “the best rock art from the desert West and Southwest”.  The pages give an overview about the rock art in the Colorado Plateau, West Texas, Barrier Canyon, Northeastern Utah, Bullet Canyon, Painted Cave Arizona, Europe, Ekonk Hill in Connecticut, and Navajo rock art in Canyon de Chelly.  The Canyon de Chelly link provides photos of Navajo pictographs and information about the canyon.

Saffer, R.

14 Dec. 2000  Archaeoastronomy, last accessed [November 1, 2002].

This website focuses on how rock art was used by the Navajo in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico as a way to depict the arrival of solstices and equinoxes in the 18th and early 19 th centuries.  He backs up his argument by explaining how rock art appears to only be carved on boulders that provided a clear confirmation of the arrival of solstices and equinoxes.  The rock art contained on these panels vary from panel to panel which suggests that they each served as different ceremonial functions for the different seasons.

Gilpin, Laura

1968  The Enduring NavajoUniversity of Texas Press, Austin.

Laura Gilpin does not speak about rock art, but she gives a great depiction of the Navajo people both with explanatory text and many visual images.  She worked among the Navajo and was able to gather a multitude of information about their culture and present day conditions.

Campbell, John F.

24, Sept. 2001  Petroglyphs and Rock Paintings., last accessed [November 15, 2002].

Images of Navajo rock art can be found on this website from Canyon de Chelly, Arizona.  These images give a good depiction of the rock art found in the Gobernor phase of the original Navajo Dinetah landscape—a time when the horse becomes an important portrayal.