Her work with elders such as Duncan has earned Patterson praise in the archaeological community.

"Many archaeologists have mistakenly believed that Native Americans do not understand rock art, but they have unique knowledge, especially in terms of mythology," says Larry Loendorf, a New Mexico State University archaeologist.

To demonstrate, Patterson and Duncan lead me to another Shavano Valley panel that Duncan was instrumental in decoding. The petroglyph -- a tree and an abstract symmetrical figure that resembles a winged creature -- had stumped Patterson for years. Then she brought Duncan up to have a look. "I even asked if the Utes had a story about butterflies in their mythology," she said. Duncan took one look and said that those were not wings; they were the arcs of the universe. He then pointed to the horizon and explained that the Utes viewed the earth and universe as existing within a series of arcs. He noted the small tree at the center with tiny roots. In Ute religion, trees allow communication between the upper and underworlds. Duncan thought that this had been a place for a spiritual teacher to sit with an initiate and explain Ute cosmology. "Those are just the types of insights you can't get from the archaeological literature," says Patterson.

We move on to a panel that Patterson has had no luck in deciphering. Some of the older, abstract mythological sites are "beyond her realm," as she puts it. She looks to Duncan and says, "Maybe Clifford knows what it is and just won't tell me." 

Duncan chuckles and begins singing as he makes his way slowly back down the trail.