Medicine Rocks State Park named to National Register of Historic Places

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Eastern Montana’s Medicine Rocks State Park is the newest site to join the pantheon of historic properties listed on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places.

The announcement of the listing was made on Jan. 17, representing a small victory for Montana State Parks and for the MSU-Billings professor who has painstakingly researched and catalogued the centuries-worth of rock art and inscriptions carved into the whimsical sandstone formations.

For those unfamiliar with Medicine Rocks, the park is located right along Montana Highway 7 in Carter County about 10 miles north of Ekalaka. It has drawn attention for thousands of years. It was a sacred site to native peoples and used by them for centuries as a communal meeting place and hunting ground. When white explorers and pioneers found their way into what would become Montana, they too were drawn to the place. Future president Theodore Roosevelt visited in 1883 when he was living on his Elkhorn Ranch north of Medora, N.D., describing it as “fantastically beautiful a place as I have ever seen.”

The strange, oddly-shaped sandstone formations jutting abruptly out of the nondescript prairie are interesting enough in themselves, but it’s the more than 10,000 documented inscriptions in the rocks — ranging from prehistoric native petroglyphs estimated at over 1,000 years old to inscriptions left by pioneers and visitors up through the mid-20th century — which led to its listing on the National Register.

Dr. Tim Urbaniak, who recently retired from MSU-Billings where he served as a professor of drafting and design technology, spent years researching and documenting the thousands of inscriptions, rock art and petroglyphs scattered across Medicine Rocks. He also wrote the nominating document to list the site on the National Register. A specialist in human communication, Urbaniak said Medicine Rocks is kind of a communal bulletin board through which people have been communicating with each other for centuries.

“Something that’s happening at Medicine Rocks is a form of communication that has been going on for quite some time,” Urbaniak said. “This communication method of using those rocks as a palette to carve on has been going on through pre-contact up to modern times.”

Besides all the research he has done on the rock inscriptions, Urbaniak led the original survey and mapping of Medicine Rocks. He said from his earliest research on the place, it was intriguing how people have always gravitated towards it. That ancient Native Americans knew it and used it is belied in the carvings they left behind on the rocks, but white Americans quickly found it as well as soon as they entered the region.

“It was interesting finding that on the very earliest military maps of the region we have, Medicine Rocks appears,” Urbaniak said, though noting that the actual name used for the place has changed many times over the years.

As for what listing on the National Register means for the park, it opens doors to obtaining additional state and federal grants to fund improvements.

“It’s always a positive coming out on the National Register, you have access to other money like that,” said park manager Chris Dantic, who is also the manager of Makoshika, Brush Lake and Pirogue Island state parks.

Dantic added that being on the National Register could help boost visitation to Medicine Rocks by virtue of putting it “more in the limelight.”

That being said, Dantic doesn’t have any immediate plans to pursue any additional grant funding for Medicine Rocks at this time.

“There could be future projects, but currently we’re focusing on Makoshika,” he said.

Makoshika is not on the National Register and Dantic said there are currently no plans to nominate it. The process of getting a property on the register is very long and complex, he noted, and State Parks has higher priorities for Makoshika. It took over three years from the time Urbaniak completed the nomination document for Medicine Rocks to the time it was finally named to the register.

For Urbaniak, finally seeing his work pay off was something of a thrill for him. He is hopeful that people will begin to take a greater interest in Medicine Rocks, to visit and listen to the communication in the rocks from people long gone, as they tell a story of the region’s history more profound and moving than any narrative found in a history book.

“When you’re at a place like that and you’re standing there in history you can see, it makes it real,” he said. “It makes it so real, it makes it so tactile.”

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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