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Katherine Wells honored for petroglyph project

LYDEN – Her Realtor told Katherine Wells there were a few petroglyphs on the rugged hills of a 188-acre property she would be shown in the river valley near Velarde.

That was in 1992.

Katherine Wells points out petroglyphs at Mesa Prieta, near Velarde north of Española, in 2014. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

It wasn’t long after seeing those first few examples of petroglyphs that Wells and her partner bought the property and settled in. And, since then, some 60,000 petroglyphs have been discovered on what is now the known as the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project.

For Wells’ work in cataloguing and preserving this vast concentration of Native American rock pictures – some dating back thousands of years – the Historic Preservation Division of the state Department of Cultural Affairs presented Wells with its Lifetime Achievement Award at a ceremony Friday in Santa Fe.

Among the other honorees Friday, Santa Clara Pueblo was given the 2019 Tribal Heritage Preservation Award for its Youth Conservation Corps restoration of the Puye Cliff Dwellings. Several hundred tribal youth have been trained in the program, which encourages embracing pueblo culture and nature, and healthy lifestyles, since its inception in 2011.

Local young people play a large role in what goes on at Mesa Prieta, as well.

In addition to a wave of adult volunteers who scour the basalt-infused terrain for new and unrecorded petroglyphs – about half of the original property has been properly surveyed – local teenagers have been brought in to help with the process.

“What we do is take teenage kids, train them to record petroglyphs in the same exact scientific, archeological way that our adult recorders do it and then they go out in the field for two weeks,” said Wells, who has since donated 156 acres to the Archaeological Conservancy to establish the Wells Petroglyph Reserve. “We work with them intensely (along) with our professional archeologist and other adult volunteers.”

Katherine Wells has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the state Historic Preservation Division for establishing the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

It’s a tremendous learning experience for the teenagers, she said, and exposes them to a part of their own culture while also giving them experience in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – techniques.

“They learn to do this, they get a whole bunch of academic skills in the process, and they get a stipend from their work and they learn a whole lot about their culture and other cultures, all the cultures on the mesa,” Wells said. “We’re very proud of that.”

The teenagers are from the local pueblos and Hispano communities, she said.

“This is the 18th year. We think it’s important because these kids, Hispano and Indian, do not have in many cases a lot of pride in their culture and we’re trying to give them some of that,” Wells said. “This is their history. In recording, they get to go find pieces of their history. And they might even find images their own ancestors did. We don’t know that, of course. And they’re doing the recording. Nobody goes back out afterward to check their work or change it.”

Mesa Prieta has also developed an educational program that local educators can tap into in teaching the history of the area.

“We have a 300-page curriculum primarily for fourth to seventh grades, which is used in 15 to 20 schools every year from Taos to Santa Fe,” Wells said. “It’s bilingual, it’s free online. We train teachers to use it and several hundred kids a year are exposed to it. We try to get as many as we can here after they’ve done some class work. It’s also STEM-based.”

A key to that program is an ensuing field trip to Mesa Prieta.

“We try to get them here for a hike afterwards because most of them have never been on a hike,” Wells said. “And they’ve never been exposed to anything like this, even though it’s in their own neighborhood.”

As a matter of fact, many area residents who grew up in the area never realized just how special Mesa Prieta is.

“It’s really weird, but hardly anybody in Española knows about the site,” Wells said. “And even the local folks, you say petroglyphs and they say ‘what?’ People who live along here, lived here all their lives, tell me, ‘When I was kid, we played up there and there were some drawings, but we didn’t pay attention to them. I came and I paid attention.’ ”

And now the state is paying attention to her work.

“I can’t tell you how surprised I was to know that somebody else is paying attention,” Wells said. “It’s really nice. This is a really important … piece of New Mexico history. To have it recognized and protected is what I’ve been doing the last 25 years because it is so important to the history of the state. I’m thrilled that people are starting to recognize it.”

As for the award itself, Wells said it’s something she never expected, but is a testament to the efforts of all the volunteers that have worked on the project over the years.

“I’m just little ol’ me just doing my thing,” she said. “So it’s very gratifying. And while it’s gratifying for me, what’s really gratifying is what we’ve achieved. There’s a whole lot more work to do, but what we’ve been able to do in 20 years is pretty amazing. This award is not just for me by any means. We have more than 100 volunteers. For more than a decade, we’ve had more than 100 volunteers. Some leave and we get new ones, but the last 10 years at least, we’ve more than 100 volunteers. It takes a lot of volunteers to get the job the size that we’ve cut out for ourselves done.”