A passion for rock art combined with a love of justice have been the driving forces in Lawrence Baca’s life for decades. Famed among his peers, Baca is hardly a household name, but his work in Indian Law brought about important changes in Indian country over more than 30 years.
Baca said his career with the U.S. Department of Justice definitely gave him access to places others don’t have. “It gave me the opportunity to be in spiritual places and absorb the culture that was there; and it was very beneficial to holding me together.”
Baca got his first camera after he graduated from Harvard Law School and said that soon after, “I saw the Great Gallery in Utah in an airline magazine. There are 45 figures on the wall, human size, maybe 2,000-3,000 years old. From then on, I just got hooked hunting down rock art.”
This rock art from the Three Rivers area of New Mexico can be difficult to find unless you know how to look. The sun is so strong off the volcanic rock that unless you have polarized glasses or use a polaroid filter, you don’t even see the image right in front of you.
Of the petroglyphs, carved into the rock, and pictographs, which were painted, Baca, Pawnee, found the latter the most inspirational. “The artist discovered which pigments would last, which is why the Great Gallery has lasted 3,000 years,” he said.
Baca said one site in Utah had huge, red figures, maybe a dozen or more. “One panel will lead you to a dirt road and what used to be a ghost town. That site was shot full of holes and two were painted over by people who had stenciled their names in foot tall letters in green,” he said.
Angry at the desecration, Baca simply left, but later decided to go back. “The state of Utah had a specialist in rock art come in. I got there the day after the panel had been cleaned and was able to photograph it. There were all these reds and stunningly bright colors.”
In one photo, Baca is seen standing next to a panel called 13 Faces. “Some have a fairly elaborate painted chest and possibly there were legs,” he said, noting that sometime in the late 1960s, a massive flash flood came through the canyon, carrying a tremendous amount of debris. “As it came around the corner, it literally scrubbed many of the figures off. The faces are still there, but much of the lower body is gone.”
Because of the rivers in the Three Rivers area, people lived in the area for a long time. These were carved into volcanic rock about 300 to 400 years ago. A trail starts about 100 yards from the parking lot, which leads to 5,000 or more petroglyphs, within 10 feet of the trail.
While nature poses a great danger to rock art, humanity causes the most destruction. Audibly irritated, Baca said, “Some people believe that when you find something 1,000 years old that is not yours, the only appropriate thing to do is put a bullet in it or carve your name over the top.”
Considering the similarities between his work at the DOJ and his photography of the rock art, Baca said, “I learned how stupid people can be, and their inability to appreciate what’s there.”
Before he retired, Baca investigated civil rights cases in the Southwest and photographed the ancient rock art in his downtime. Baca’s wife JoAnn said, “The places speak to him in ways he doesn’t speak about. It’s not just the inherent beauty. It has been very precious to him.”
Lawrence agreed. “I believe all the rock art sites are spiritually oriented. I am always compelled to stop and put down my gear and talk to the spirits and the paintings themselves. I ask permission to photograph them, and when I feel it is appropriate I will set up my camera and begin to take pictures.”
Baca says according to archaeologists these were done by the Jornada people, but there is very little known culturally about them. However, those who study rock art describe it as the Jornada style. In terms of artifacts, there is very little, the rock art is what they left behind.
Stacy King, deputy executive director of the Federal Bar Association, said Baca’s photos graced many a cover of their conference journals. “Lawrence’s photos were always a breath of fresh air. He was always able to capture the majestic feel of those monuments.”
Baca is taking his retirement seriously, but reflects on his past. He said, “I learned that you can do a lot while you are here. You can leave something that is lasting, and you should. After 1,000 years, the rock art is still here. We can see the artist’s good works and though we don’t know his name, it doesn’t matter. When you can leave lasting impressions on people you meet, it helps you remember, it is not me as an individual, it’s what you leave behind.”
Baca was the first American Indian attorney hired through the Attorney General’s Honor Law Program, and he received the Outstanding Leadership Award as founding chairman of the Indian Law Section of the Federal Bar Association. He was deputy director of the Office of Tribal Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice; the first American Indian president of the Federal Bar Association, a founding member of the Indian Trial Lawyers Association in the Department of Justice and the first recipient of an award named for his work, the Lawrence R. Baca Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Federal Indian Law, from the Federal Bar Association. The list of awards he has won would line a wall. Baca blazed trails through Indian Law and leaves behind him a legacy that those who may never know his name will long benefit from.
Baca at the Department of Justice.