At first, Patterson didn't understand the significance of the trees in the panel. Duncan explained that trees are important in many Ute ceremonies and are always included on the Bear Dance grounds. In the mythical story, Bear leads a boy to a tree with five branches representing the levels of the universe. At the tree, the boy learns Bear's songs, which he takes back to the village to use in the Bear Dance. Those songs are the key to the dance's healing aspects.
"I just listen," says Patterson. "The ideas in his head give you a glimpse into the mind view behind all of this -- as close as you can get for sure."
Patterson, who has written two books on Pueblo rock art, did her Ph.D. research on Aboriginal rock art. (She notes that the Aborigines she met sang at rock art sites, as Duncan does, and told her that "every site has a song.") She was mentored by Levan Martineau, an early researcher who applied his Korean War training in cryptanalysis, a military code-breaking science, to petroglyphs (carved images) and pictographs (painted images) across the West. Martineau painstakingly recorded symbols, noting their context and relationships, at hundreds of sites. He built frequency lists and consistency checks that allowed him to decode some of the basic grammar used in the picture-writing system.
Martineau had an important insight: He employed the universal Native American sign language, which was used for trade by tribes from Alaska to Mexico, to decode the meanings embedded in the symbols. He realized that the symbols for passing through, near, hidden, water, in front, going up and coming down were almost identical to the hand movements used for the same concepts in sign language. These initial discoveries opened up the possibility of uncovering other links.
"Gestures are the verbs in the stories," Patterson says. Messages are communicated through the gestures of figures, which often evoke sign language movements. Arm, hand and foot positions can indicate action -- driving game or following a trail, for example. Other shapes and lines are abstract depictions of sign language; upward and downward spirals indicate going up and down. Patterson says gestures are used with animals, humans and deities, and are consistent from site to site across large geographical areas. She has found the same signs for movement, stopping, looking and talking in Colorado and Peru.
Jonathan Kent, a Metro State College anthropologist, says that Patterson has uncovered something that other researchers had completely overlooked.
"There is absolutely no question that gestures are important in the meaning of the symbols," he says. "The trick is knowing when you are looking at a symbolic gesture or something that simply reflects the whimsy of the artist. Carol has provided the corroborating evidence that makes the connection."
Despite her growing understanding, Patterson says that many of the embedded messages are metaphorical and require a deeper cultural knowledge to comprehend. For that, she turns to Duncan.
Duncan is one of the last of the Utes "raised in the old ways," Patterson says. His mother was active in the Sun Dance and his father led peyote ceremonies. "Sort of a mixed marriage," he jokes. Duncan carries on the family's religious traditions, holding peyote ceremonies on the Uintah-Ouray reservation and leading the Sun Dance, a rigorous ceremony involving three days of prayer without food or water. As we examine the Shavano Valley panels, he takes a spiritual and decidedly unscientific approach.
"What I am looking for is a thinking pattern," he says. "What is hidden in that picture? Those drawings are depicting something that is still there -- still faintly there today. They have a spirit that throws out a certain feeling if you are looking for it. It is just a matter of unlocking yourself from the inside to read it."