History written in stone: Sam Hunter’s quest to preserve Black Mountain battleground
FORT IRWIN, Calif. (Dec. 26, 2013) — When retired first sergeant Sam Hunter was hired to work as a tank simulator technician at the National Training Center, little did he know that he would be spending much of his life outside Fort Irwin documenting a great battle that happened 7,000 years ago in a 25-square mile battle space west of Fort Irwin.
It was in November 1999, said Hunter, that a friend from Newberry Spring invited him and his wife Nadine to visit Inscription Canyon, about eight miles north of Hinkley, Calif., to look at some rocks inscribed with hundreds of Native American petroglyphs thousands of years old.
Hunter compared what they saw to photographs in a book published in 1984. Some of what was in the book was no longer there.
“We started to do an informal inventory to see what was missing. It just kept getting bigger and bigger.”
More troubling was another issue.
“We ran into the problem of archaeologist and anthropologists telling us we don’t know what they [the petroglyphs] mean, because the Indians didn’t have any form of writing.”
Hunter refused to take that for an answer.
“That made no sense, because they [archaeologists and anthropologists] said the same thing about the Egyptians, Aztecs and Mayans,” Hunter explained. “There are cultures around the world as far back as 3,500 years ago that had forms of writing, all except in the continental United States. The whole concept of aboriginal peoples ‘only in the United States’ not having any form of writing defies rational logic. There had to be something else there.”
Hunter came to the realization that many anthropologists today continue to follow the lead of research conducted more than 150 years ago by a pioneering anthropologist of that era, Lewis Henry Morgan.
In reading Morgan, Hunter learned that Morgan was much more than a pioneer of scientific anthropology. As a lawyer and investor, Morgan was using his research on Native American tribes to help his clients gain legal possession of Indian lands during the great western expansion of the United States, in the 19th century.
“Morgan set up the concept that only the American Indians had no writing, no record of the land that they owned,” Hunter said.
As Hunter began his readings in cultural anthropology, he continued his field investigations in the Mohave Desert. Sometimes with his wife and sometimes with his grandson, Hunter has spent thousands of hours on foot, exploring miles of desert scrublands and dry lake beds, climbing over boulders, ridges and escarpments of the Black Mountain complex.
Hunter’s explorations also took him outside the Barstow area, to a thousand mile-radius around it, to New Mexico, Arizona, and other parts of California.
A casual visitor to Inscription Canyon may find the petroglyphs interesting — some crude, some intricately designed, but nothing much more than graffiti left by hunter-gatherer tribesmen crossing the Mohave desert between their winter and summer homes. Hunter sees something else.
Hunter saw the geometric designs repeated in many petroglyphs, but he also noted how they were clustered at strategic points on rocks that were themselves chipped into certain shapes.
“I have 46 binders with four thousand data sheets and some 40,000 photographs,” Hunter said. “Everyone is telling me, ‘That is your interpretation. But when you see the same thing repeated hundreds of times, it is more than that. We are at a point where it is not just an interpretation of one thing. It’s the same thing over and over and over again. So now, we’re settling into evidence.”
Hunter said the stories embedded in the petroglyphs are reinforced by stories he has heard from Native Americans living in the Barstow area. He has also found Indian narratives written in accounts published by anthropologist studying Native American cultures of the southwestern United States.
Hunter said his thoughts about the Black Mountain complex came together about 12 years after he had begun his research, when he was trying to explain to a Fort Irwin Soldier what he was doing within the complex.
“As a military man, I was familiar with how the military uses diagrams. That’s exactly how I got the idea. The military uses a flat map and icons to represent units moving through the terrain. If we do it today, why couldn’t they have done it then?
5,000 YEAR-OLD BATTLE MAPS
“All of a sudden, it occurred to me that Fort Irwin and the Black Mountain complex have been continually doing the same mission for 5,000 years, although with different people, using different technologies and different logistics. We have newer technologies, but the mission is the same, the need for logistics is the same.”
Drawing on years of field research corroborated by many anthropology publications, Hunter has proposed a comprehensive theory that brings together all he has learned. Inscription Canyon is part of a scaled down replica of the battlefield several miles on the other side of the Black Mountains.
“The big battle was 7,000 years ago,” Hunter said. “The Uto-Aztecan lost. The Hokan had better technology. They used atlatl darts against the cruder, handheld spears of the Uto-Aztecan who then scattered, all the way to the Great Basin and down to Mexico. Two thousand years later, the Uto-Aztecans re-united and came back and retook their homeland.
“Once the Uto-Aztecans retook their homeland, they made the Black Mountain battleground into a war memorial. They made it an annual mourning site where they would mourn the dead and honor those that died in that battle, and to educate their young warriors. They took a look at that mountain, and when they made those clusters of petroglyphs, they actually laid them out and designed them according to the way the battle went.
“Most researchers who go in Inscription Canyon see this little part and that little part, and they can’t figure it out,” Hunter said. “But this is a compact little place. Once I plotted the site locations, I could trace the progress of the battle. It started out simply by finding all the sites and tracing a line from site to site and seeing what made sense. Now, we test the hypothesis by going in and look at the petroglyphs and rock faces to see if it holds up from one site to another.”
“I went back to a place I call Dictionary Rock, and all of a sudden, those designs that didn’t make any sense, started to make sense,” he continued. “Once I started to match up the rock faces with the terrain, I could ‘read’ the petroglyphs and began to understand what they were trying to say.”
Hunter theorizes that many of the rock faces he has examined here and elsewhere have been altered to create a rough map of the final battleground, including a distinctive notch to represent the tip of the narrow spur where the battle ended. The rock faces and/or nearby boulders have petroglyphs that are meant to depict the final battle as it proceeded up the mountain where Uto-Aztecan defenders were pushed to their deaths, landing on the jagged rocks some 30-40 feet below.
TRADITIONS AND HISTORY
In 2010, Hunter went public with his research and his thesis, publishing a monograph with extracts from his writings for the past 14 years. His 94-page thesis, “Native American Religious Site Attacked,” had a public purpose. He published it to gain public attention and support for the Black Mountain complex to be designated a National Monument. That designation would afford it federal protection status and attract funding to preserve and conduct further research on the Native American artifacts and earthworks in the area.
Hunter is concerned that the off-road enthusiasts and extreme tourists could knowingly and unknowingly vandalize the area. Large rocks and boulders on hard desert pavement that once signified an important Native American memorial ritual site near Barstow has already been vandalized.
“They took rocks from the site and made fire pits. This site is over 5,000 years old, and they’re using it for a campfire,” Hunter said.
“Traditions are living history, memories which define us as a people and honor the lives of our ancestors and those who came before us,” reflected Hunter.
“In U.S. history, the American Indian was condescendingly perceived as both primitive and brutal or as a noble savage with only verbal traditions and absolutely no history, written or otherwise. We need to change that.”