Celebrating the life of George Hey, keeper of Craven Canyon

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Legendary southern Black Hills rancher fought for country and canyon

In a side room at a Rapid City funeral home, George Hey’s family and friends shared cookies and conversation nearby as Linda Hasselstrom spoke of her uncle’s gentle ways and how they changed whenever the rock art in Craven Canyon was threatened or damaged.

“There was something we called the floating antelope. It was an antelope without legs,” Hasselstrom said. “And people would shoot at the thing. We’d go in and we’d find big bullet holes there. And George would just become incoherent with rage.”

It was a rage born of love, however. Because George Hey loved Craven Canyon and the ancient pictographs and petroglyphs as he loved few things on earth beyond his own family. And, indeed, the canyon and its rock art were central to life and living for the Edgemont-area rancher.

Hey died Dec. 30 here in Rapid City. But he lived — really lived, in the corporeal and spiritual ways — almost all of his 99 1/2 years on a southern Black Hills ranch near Edgemont.

And from there, Craven Canyon and its awe-inspiring artwork were just a short horseback ride or pickup jaunt away.

That’s how and that’s where Hasselstrom, a rancher and widely read poet and author, first witnessed the depth of her uncle’s passion. They often traveled deep in the canyon and looked back in time through the figures painted or carved into the sandstone walls.

“I can’t remember how early I knew about the pictographs and petroglyphs,” Hasselstrom said.  "But George grew up knowing about them. And, of course, he took us there.  I remember being down there when I was probably 6 or 7 years old. And we’d take a picnic in there, and end up at the writings, as we called them.”

They called them “writings” for good reason, because the art tells stories of the past and of the people who lived in or visited the Black Hills hundreds and even thousands of years ago. That’s how old the rock art is. And that’s why George Hey had such a powerful commitment to its appreciation and protection — always showing respect, Hasselstrom said, to “the people who came before us.”

Long, long, long before us.

The Craven Canyon artwork is on U.S. Forest Service land, and it’s accessible by foot on Forest Service property, by way of a trail that can be difficult to find and follow for first-time visitors. But access to the canyon by vehicle goes through Hey’s ground or land owned by another ranch family. And Hey has long been serious about limiting such access.

“He started doing things like locking the gate and not letting anybody in and talking to the neighbors about the place and how important it was,” Hasselstrom said. “And if people did get in there and do something, he’d get their license number. He didn’t have a cell phone back then, of course. But as soon as he got home he would call the Forest Service and turn them in.”

George Hey did more than work to limit access, however. He also offered it to those who came with a good heart and an eager mind. Some were family members. Many were not. And he teamed with Forest Service land managers and archaeologists in both protecting and sharing the special places in Craven Canyon, in a controlled way.

“He spent a lot of time working with Lakota youth that would come up there in groups to go in and look at the canyon,” says Tom Willems, a retired Forest Service archaeologist and recreation manager. “And George always took them down to the pictographs and petroglyphs. And I think they really had a special time down in there with him.”

Willems had his own special times in the canyon with Hey when he was working as the archaeologist in the Hell Canyon Ranger District in the southern Black Hills. In getting to know Hey, he also got to know the canyon.

Willems was also instrumental in nominating the rancher for a stewardship award for the protection of historic places, which Hey received in 2011 from the Forest Service and the South Dakota State Historical Society and state archaeologist.

But Willems feels like he got his own reward in friendship and deeper understanding of the landscape.

“George and I spent a lot of time together. He was taking me around when I first got here to all the places that he held close to his heart,” Willems said. “It focused on the canyon and the rock art. But really, I think the Black hills and especially the southern Black Hills and Edgemont area were all close to his heart.”

Willems said the experiences working with Hey elevated his feelings about the canyon from interest and appreciation to love.

“Just like George, that is my most treasured spot in the Black Hills, Craven Canyon,” Willems said. “Our hearts are down there.”

George Hey’s heart never left, not even when he went off to Pittsburgh for a year as a young man to see some of the country and study far-ranging career options. And not even when he spent four years in the military, most of it overseas during World War II, as a mechanic with Service Company 133 Infantry Regiment, 34th Division, U.S. Army.

He came home as a worldly and well trained young man, with options for work and a life just about anywhere on earth. But after his father died in 1944, the only option that really mattered to George Hey was to come back to the ranch and stay. For good.

 The southern Black Hills, and especially Craven Canyon, are better because he did. Like Willems, Forest Service archaeologist Michael Engelhart got to know Hey and Craven Canyon almost as one lving being during his years in the southern Black Hills.

“For me, George Hey was like the personification of that canyon,” says Engelhart, who now works as the North Zone archaeologist for the Forest Service in Spearfish. “He was like the living embodiment of that canyon. It’s hard to separate him from the land he lived on and was steward to. He seemed completely inseparable from that canyon.”

He was separated from the place physically in July of 2016, when his worsening health forced a move to Rapid City. But he still got out and about with friends and family. And even in September, Hey was at Hasselstrom’s ranch near Hermosa for a cabbed utility vehicle ride with his niece out across the pastures.

The trip was the beginning of goodbyes between Hey and Hasselstrom, who was raised in her early years by a single mother who turned to her brother for support.

“He and my mother were half-sister and half-brother, but they were very close,” Hasselstrom said. “George was the first father I knew. And I knew him longer than my own stepfather, John Hasselstrom.”

Through the years and through the decades, Linda Hasselstrom would develop her own reputation as an accomplished writer and environmental advocate on the northern plains. But she would also return and return and then return to Craven Canyon and the Hey Ranch, which she calls her second home.

It’s an extraordinary home, after all. While rock art is scattered across the Black Hills, there’s nothing quite like the amount and variety in Craven Canyon.

“Some of those sites down in there are definitely unique not only to the Black Hills but to the whole region,” Willems said.  “And back when I was working down in that district, pretty much every time we went in there we were documenting new sites.”

With George Hey’s passing, some are wondering about the future of the rock art, the canyon and access to it. But there's not that much to wonder about. That’s because Hey’s family shares his commitment to the place, and the need to protect it and work with the Forest Service on limited access and education.

“It was amazing in talking the family after the service how he has passed that on to his family — that respect and passion for Craven Canyon,” Willems said. “That’s George’s legacy. He passed it on.”

To help assure that legacy lives far into the future, the family has established a fund and is seeking donations to help protect the rock art and educate the public on their value. Donations may be sent the George Hey Writings Preservation Fund, c/o John Hey, 918 Quincy St., Rapid City, SD 57701.

The Forest Service still works with Native groups, colleges and others for limited vehicle access for educational and spiritual purposes. But beyond that, vehicle access remains limited to ranchers with grazing permits, Forest Service personnel and others with special permits or permission. Access on foot is open, which is not to say it’s easy to find or easy to traverse.

“The north end is blocked by George Hey property. The south end of the canyon is the Stevens Family land. And you need permission to go in on either,” Engelhart said. “You can still get down from the west rim, entirely on the forest. But there is no developed trail. So it really take some knowledge on how to get off that canyon rim and down into the canyon bottom, and how to explore and find the spots.”

Such visits shouldn’t be easy, however. Those with a burning desire to see the place can make a few calls to the Forest Service, or to locals, and figure it out.  Then, those who don't secure special access with a group or tour should be prepared to walk. And during the warm months, watch for rattlesnakes. Because it's not just good snake country. It’s great snake country.

That will help keep out those with a casual interest, who might not be as committed to cause and the canyon as they should be.

“It is just not a place that should ever be casually visited,” Hasselstrom says.

And rules of proper behavior should apply to all visitors.

“There’s a body of ethics you should abide by when visiting rock art,” said Engelhart. “Don’t touch it. Don’t harm it in any way. Don’t write your name on the walls.”

That seems logical, to those of us in the human species who are capable of logic.  But not all of us seem to be. And people have been fined for vandalizing the walls in the canyon, and even damaging the rock art itself.

That’s the kind of stuff that made George Hey “incoherent with rage.” And it’s what future management of the canyon will seek to prevent, along with any unintentional damage by visitors.

“That stuff is fragile and irreplaceable,” Engelhart said. “Treat it with the respect it deserves.”

Treat it, that is, as George Hey would expect you to.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.