Mesa Temple petroglyph rock returned to Native American community
By Jill Adair
For nine decades, a 9,000-pound rock with Native American petroglyphs was a prominent feature in the gardens of the Mesa Arizona Temple. After the temple closed for building and landscaping renovations in 2018, it was determined the rock should be returned to the community from whence it came. Those coming to the temple grounds for the open house this fall may wonder where the rock went.
The Rock’s History
The petroglyph rock was installed on the grounds of the Arizona Temple in Mesa in 1934, seven years after this seventh operating temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was dedicated by President Heber J. Grant.
According to historical records, the church was given permission to remove the petroglyph from a canyon south of Mesa and above Olberg, Arizona (Oberg is located approximately 5 miles east of Sacaton, and south of San Tan Mountain Regional Park), by the superintendent of the Pima Indian Agency and placement on the temple grounds was approved by President Grant. It was moved under the direction of James Warren LeSueur, who was a counselor in the Arizona Temple presidency from 1927 to 1944, and 10 men were needed to help because of its immense weight.
“The rock was a gift to the temple by the Indian department at Sacaton,” a local news article stated at the time.
President LeSueur’s Interest in Native Americans
Ten years ago, Margaret Steverson, LeSueur’s last surviving child, said her father was greatly interested in anything related to Native Americans.
“He studied it all his life,” she said, adding that he wrote several books, including “Indian Legends with a Comparison between the Book of Mormon History and Various Indian Legends,” which he published in 1927.
The Rock was on both the South and North Side of the Temple
Early on, the rock was placed directly south of the temple along with some other artifacts including Native American grinding stones and small pieces of petrified wood. After the first visitors’ center was built and opened in 1956, the rock was moved to the north side of the temple, east of the reflecting pond between the temple and visitors’ center.
The Rock’s Characters
Numerous petroglyphs on its face made it special, according to an article in the Mesa Journal-Tribune published shortly after the rock was originally situated on the temple grounds. One in particular is the “series of circles that correspond in number and in subdivisions with the ancient Mayan calendar stone.”
The article stated that another interesting petroglyph on the stone “is a character with 10 marks with a line under them, which is the exact reproduction of a similar character in a copy of the characters which Joseph Smith copied from the plates of the Book of Mormon and gave to Martin Harris to take to Professors Anthon and Mitchel, Columbia University, and which in the professors’ interpretation mean “The Book,” or in other words, being the leaves of the book with the back fastened to it.”
An article in the Latter-Day Sentinel, after the opening of the newly renovated visitors’ center in 1981, stated: “The Hieroglyphic Rock was found in the San Tan mountains about 25 miles south of Mesa. The large circle with many radii suggests the early Indian (Mayan) calendar which was a much more precise calendar than we use. Other discernable marks include: four-legged animals – probably dogs or coyotes (upper right); snakes (lower right); and the cross, suggestive of Christ (left center).”
The rock also shows up in a book, “Arizona Characters,” by Frank C. Lockwood, published in 1928. Arizona Gov. George W. P. Hunt stands in front of it on a mountainside, but the location is not mentioned.
Did You Know?
As nouns, the difference between a hieroglyph and a petroglyph is that a hieroglyph is an element of a writing system while a petroglyph is a rock carving, especially one made in prehistoric times. Often these terms are used interchangeably, but they do mean different things. Petroglyphs are created by removing part of a rock’s surface by incising, picking, carving, or abrading, as a form of rock art.
Where Did the Rock Come From?
In an interview in 2012, 80-year-old Wallace Sabin remembered being a young boy who accompanied his father, Dewey, to help move the rock.
“I vaguely remember riding out with him, loading it up and bringing it back,” he says. However, he doesn’t recall the exact location.
Former Visitors’ Center Director Elder Linford Beckstrand said that in a fact book about the temple and surrounding grounds it was recorded that the rock is “a large calendar stone found 30 miles south in the San Tan Mountains. It appears to be some type of Hohokam calendar stone reminiscent of those created by the ancient Aztecs and Mayans.”
In a local news article in 2012, local historian Tom Kollenborn said regardless of where it came from, one thing was certain – it is unique.
“You don’t see those calendar rocks very often,” he said. “It is the only one I have ever seen that is that prominent.” He said that moving it probably saved it as it would have been used for target practice like many other local petroglyphic rocks that have been marred by bullets. “It wouldn’t be what it is today,” he added.
What Happened to the Rock After the Temple Closed in 2018?
Church lawyers researching the history and legalities of owning and/or returning the rock determined that neither the Native American Graves Protection and Repartriation Act of 1990 nor the Arizona Antiquities Act applied to the petroglyph because of the year and under the circumstances it was received. However, their recommendation was to return it, stating in a 2018 letter that the “most appropriate group to offer the petroglyph to is the Akimel O’odham (Pima) tribe located on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona.
“The Pima Tribe would be the Indian tribe on whose tribal land the artifact was found, as this is where the Pima Tribe’s tribal lands are currently located and were located at the time the petroglyph was acquired,” the letter stated. “The evidence presently available about the petroglyph is that it was discovered on lands within the geographical proximity of the Pima Tribe and that the Pima Tribe has been historically located on these lands.”
Who are the O’odham?
O’odham = “the people”
Akimel = “of the river”
Pima = the name applied by the Spanish to the river-dwelling O’odham people.
The O’odham live in the Sonoran Desert and are descendants of the ancient Hohokom people, who thrived despite the harsh desert climate, according to an article by the National Park Service. Using the Santa Cruz River and the yearly downpours from the monsoons, the Akimel (River) O’odham carved out elaborate acequias, or canals, and basins to water crops.
The O’odham’s relationship to the landscape is paramount in their cultural and spiritual beliefs. Their mythology tells that the land was given to the O’odham by Elder Brother to live on when the earth was created. Therefore, the O’odham have become experts at living not only on, but with the desert and all of its plants and animal life.
The Rock is Returned to the Gila River Indian Community
Roc Arnett, former director of the Metro Phoenix Public Affairs Council, contacted a representative of the tribe who said they would love to have the petroglyph back. Arrangements were made to load it onto a truck by crane, provided by Porter Bros. Construction, and haul it to the Gila River Indian Community, where it was placed on a mound of dirt near a community center on Nov. 9, 2018.
Brother Arnett said he was touched by the reverence shown by those tribal elders who came out that morning, showing “such respect for this bit of earth.” Women also participated in this ceremony, wearing traditional attire and holding baskets.
“They sang about three songs and fanned smoke from a creosote dish around it, blessing this rock,” he said. “It was done in their way, with their shakers, and with their tradition, and they blessed this rock to be returned.”
He added, “I will not soon forget this spiritual experience and blessing it is to have been involved in the return of this property to its appropriate and proper owner.”