Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grapevine Canyon

For the Yuman-speaking inhabitants of the Colorado River region, no location was more sacred than Avikwa'ame, or Spirit Mountain, which we call Newberry Peak, in southernmost Nevada. According to the Mojave creation myth, the oldest spirit was Matavilya, made from the mating of Earth and Sky. Matavilya had two sons, Mastamho and Kaatar, and a daughter, Frog. Matavilya committed an unwitting indecency that offended his daughter, who then killed them. Mastamho directed the cremation and mourning ceremony for his father and, when completed, strode up the Colorado River Valley. When he got to the top Mastamho created the river by plunging a cane of breath and spittle into the earth, allowing the river to pour forth. Riding a canoe down the waters to the ocean, he created the wide river bottom by twisting and turning the boat. He returned from the ocean with his people, the Mojave, taking them in his arms to the northern end of Mojave country. There he piled up earth, creating the mountain Avlkwa'ame, and built himself a house on it. There too Mastamho plotted the death of Sky- Rattlesnake, an evil spirit and the source of dark powers. Mastamho killed Sky-Rattlesnake by cutting off his head, with his spilt blood becoming noxious insects. Mastamho then gave land to the different tribes and taught them to farm. Finally, Mastamho turned himself into a fish-eagle and flew off into oblivion.

The importance of this cosmogenic myth to rock art is two folds. Known as the "Shaman's Tale," it was precisely this myth that the shaman "dreamed" to obtain his supernatural powers: In Yuman fashion, the shaman was believed to re-experience and witness these mythic events of creation in the supernatural world and, from them, obtain his power. As the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber wrote in 1925, "It is of [Mastamho's] house that shamans dream, for here their shadows were as little boys in the face of Mastamho, and received from him their ordained powers, confirmed by tests on the spot." It is at the foot of Spirit Mountain that the important Grapevine Canyon petroglyph. Grapevine Canyon is Atastamho's House, where the Mojave shaman went to witness, in his dreams, the creation of the world

Grapevine Canyon is the biggest petroglyph site in southern Nevada. As at other Colorado River locales, representational or figurative motifs are rare at the site; they are heavily outnumbered by entoptic designs, many of which are deeply and widely engraved. The depth and width of these engravings reflect the fact that Yuman petroglyphs were studied and examined by initiates, and sometimes repecked by them. Still, considerable variation in the degree of revarnishing is evident at the site, indicating that Yuman shamans used this locale probably for many thousands of years. Recent accounts, on the other end of the time scale, tell us that it continued to be used into this century.

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