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Understanding Stone Prayers in the Northeastern Cultural Landscape

Updated: Apr 20


Nipamuk Kodtonquagkash and Hassun Nipau at Tohkekomuash, Sanakkomukit (Shutesbury, MA).


( This report was prepared for the 2024 Annual Meeting of Northeastern Anthropological Association)


Introduction


The United Nations Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples was signed by the USA, recognizing the right to cultural narrative on indigenous matters to Indigenous people, the right to preserve those cultural elements, and to interpret them publicly.  Despite international cultural rights of Indigenous peoples, the discourse on all things Indigenous does not consistently reflect those rights.


Regarding the subject of ritual stone constructions and ceremonial stone landscapes, Indigenous researchers and Indigenous communities at all levels of recognition attest adamantly to them as our heritage. Despite this, non-Indigenous institutions such as Massachusetts Historical Commission maintain flat denial. Overall, state historical commissions, archaeological offices and agencies do not consult with Indigenous researchers or communities on the subject of Indigenous ceremonial stoneworks.


Colleges, universities, agencies and offices of both historic preservation and archaeology rarely refer to Indigenous sources, researchers, or nations when forming public statements and teaching materials on Indigenous heritage, especially in matters of archaeology.  None of the Northeast states have any plan for proactively locating Indigenous heritage places, ranking their priority for preservation, and forming any proactive preservation plan that reflects those priorities.  Indigenous sites are mostly dealt with when they are discovered in the course of their destruction for repurposing the land where they lie.


There are few cases in which Indigenous sites have been pro-actively identified and even fewer that have been preserved pro-actively, once again, even fewer that have been preserved against a plan for repurposing that space.


State planning in no state of the Northeast responds in compliance to the articles set out in the Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Federal preservation rules are only enforced when federal monies are inarguably invested in a project, and even then, the rules of consultation are violated – this according to repeated complaints from federally recognized nations in the Northeast, among them Narragansett and Aquinnah Wampanoag.  State recognized nations do not enjoy any intercessional rights on behalf of their historic sites, again despite the Declaration on Rights as signed by the USA. Historic but unrecognized nations are ignored completely. That said, I hasten to add that the current State Archaeologist for Connecticut and their office continues a recently-established practice of accepting the filing of standard archaeological site reports for Ceremonial Stone Landscapes.


In the face of these obstacles, Indigenous researchers and Indigenous nations have applied vernacular sovereignties – a term borrowed from Manuela Picq, researcher, author and Indigenous rights activist in Ecuador - to gain agency on our lands.  Following the traditional path, I have spoken in my role as a medicine person for Our Mother, the sacred places, and the shared wellbeing of all our communities. Unsupported by political and often by social frameworks, Indigenous researchers and communities have followed traditional oratory and negotiation paths to speak directly to the People. People from different longhouses and different paths have coalesced around the urgent concern for historical preservation, as well as spiritual and ecological wellbeing of the land we share. This has resulted in preservation wins on different levels through some atypical avenues. Indigenous researchers engage with different agencies and organizations, towns, and communities for the preservation of sacred spaces, supported or unsupported by allies, sometimes meeting with resistance.


Oso:ah Foundation was able to intercede directly with the Department of Conservation and Recreation in Massachusetts twice to prevent logging in maunumuetash – stone prayer groupings – while also helping to prevent destruction of a unique archaeological site and stone ceremonial objects by the Department of Transportation. With grassroots community support, we were able to intercede with the Town of Northfield to avert destruction of an archaeological site. In Chappaqua New York, we prevented demolition of one of the last stone prayer places still intact in an affluent suburban town where six luxury mansions were to be erected.  It bears telling that just a half-mile away from the Chappaqua maunumuet, a suite of seven archaeological sites from Early Archaic through Late Woodland periods were demolished for a housing development in the early 2000’s.  In that case, Oso:ah was able to support local residents and recruit the intercession of all the tribes with homeland claims to Chappaqua. Brothertown Indian Nation, who are still pursuing full recognition, partnered with Indian Land Trust, a land rematriation organization that I used to work with, and with the community have made an offer to purchase the land in trust through Brothertown for all Indigenous ceremonial access and conservation. These are achievements of vernacular sovereignty independent of mainstream privilege, true grassroots preservation.


Some towns are setting aside maunumuetash in conservation areas, and some are signing memoranda of understanding with Indigenous nations that have recognition, but these cases are in remain the minority.


Since the early 2000s, there have been many reports describing maunumuetash across our region. From the beginning, attempts to interpret them are a feature of these reports, though only a few authors bring Indigenous self-knowledge to their interpretation. Today, there is a sufficient body of literature describing maunumuetash with a fair amount of data about their content and distribution. The quality of data has improved over time while the body of data is more complete. Interpretations about purpose and cultural expression remain flawed, worse in popular media.

 

Understanding Versus Interpretation


Attempts to explain stone prayers may be taking the wrong tack. Interpretation is tricky, more so when it comes to spiritual matters. Misnaming, mis-associating, and misplacing are verbs that still attach to the body of literature on stone prayers, excepting mostly those few pieces that have been written by Indigenous descendants of this region. Writers who get the facts and figures right about stone prayers often wander off the path when it comes to explanation. Indigenous narrative about spirit-inhabited stones starts the path into the cultural narrative that built maunumuetash.

When Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they immediately began to rewrite our culture and history to conform to their hegemonic and supremacist agenda.  The overwriting and politicization of Indigenous legacy has not ceased. But there are always those who bridge toward reconciliation.


One of the first comments from William Bradford after the encounter known as First Meeting was to fictionalize Indigenous reality.  On November 28th, the Dissenters, a.k.a. Pilgrims, had come upon some Nauset folks, who are described as having been in the process of storing food - except Bradford manages to draw another conclusion.  The Nauset, traumatized since 1497 by European slave raids, killing sprees, rape raids, and the advent of devastating plague brought by that contact smartly fled at the sight of the foreigners.  Bradford and party looked at what they had been doing and happened upon the Nauset’s food stores for the winter.  Declaring that “no human hand” could have wrought such excellent basketry, Bradford concluded that the huge storage baskets and the whole wadtashnutet - place of food storage chambers - was the work of angels, and therefore that their post-Calvinist sky-god had provided this food for the starving immigrants. This is all detailed as given in his book on The Pilgrim’s Progress. They promptly stole all that food, the fine baskets “as big as carriages,” and left the Nauset to starve. “The First Meeting” is officially marked on the landscape and in public messages, but the facts you just heard are nowhere in government or NGO statements.


Undoing this history requires hard work and some pain. There is much that can’t be told. Many parts are prohibited from sharing. Traditions are unevenly remembered across the cultural and physical landscape. Explanation and interpretation of any artifact belong to the cultural community. Understanding is different from interpretation; the first is more about listening and relating, and the second is more about speaking and asserting. Much can be told by way of understanding.

 

Cultural Landscape and Mapping Culture

Cultural landscapes have both physical and psychic elements, the first being outside the body and the second being within.  Mapping a cultural element resembles other charts in that a thing is described by its relationship to other things, or in another word, context. Cultural contexts will be inventoried here; those details inform ethnogeographic mapping in the context of case studies.

 

Language and Meaning

When we don’t understand what someone says, we ask, “What do you mean?” Meaning is in the word, it shows intent, which rises from thought. Words are the most direct path to thought.


Here, the linguistic context will be Nashaue, Lenape and related languages of Northeast Algonquoia south of the Canadian Shield, that geologic formation roughly defining a cultural and ecological boundary line, between Algonquians who engaged in horticulture and Algonquians who did not engage in horticulture before Contact.

Much has been said by non-Indigenous people about Indigenous spiritual worldview. Many Indigenous people wish that would simply stop. Because so much has been said, there is now a burden to put stray words on the good path.  To paraphrase the complaint of Onaquepin of Paugemtekw, in the 17th century, Those that came spoke much knowing but little. We desire that those who come listen much and think long before speaking.


Regarding  maunumuetash, kodtonquagkash, and mandowangan, to apply the Nashaue terms, let’s begin with naming.  “Manitou stones,” for example, is not any form of Indigenous naming; it is a wholly European naming.  Starting over from Algonquian:


1.    Manitou is pronounced mah-NII-tuu, and it does not mean god, spirit, or any English noun form because it is a verb phrase and it means “someone makes.”  In Lenapeuw, one says exactly that – manitu - to say “someone makes,” for example as in the traditional narrative about Na Okwes ok na Chemames (The Fox and the Rabbit) where the fox “manitu kinhasik hitkweteta,” meaning they “make knives/stakes out of small branches.”  In this case, past tense is implied.

 

Dialectically, manitou takes many forms, all similar.

 

Manitou Hassunash, given to a preserved site in Hopkinton, RI, has been criticized by at least one tribal cultural officer as being a non-Indigenous moniker. I have to agree, disregarding all other arguments, based on the flawed grammar of the label alone. Algonquian languages are idiomatic and grammatically precise.

 

2.    People say we consider all things to have spirit, which is sort of true.  However, we do not consider all things to have pomantam – or a mind, a will of their own. Stones are not normally spoken of as animate in any Algonquian language that I have ever seen. Algonquian languages do not apply gender except in the form of animate and inanimate, which have special meaning to us and do not conform to European ideas about animacy.  For us, animate applies to those things which are considered to literally have pomantam, or moving mind.  We say hassunash for stones, not hassunog, which would be the animate plural form. That’s because stones are not “animate” until a spirit enters them. 

 

3.    What Europeans may consider to be inanimate objects can have animacy in Algonquian and are spoken of the same way as living beings.  Modern cases of this include automobiles, which are animate (largely because they imitate living systems and carry a certain amount of manitowakan). Aman, or oman, a fishing hook, is animate, as is anything that carries mpisun, or nepison, medicine. Stones are not animate, but once a medeinu blows on them and speaks to them, they are.  A feather is animate until its tip is cut off to release the spirit, and it is capable of being resentful if not released. Tobaccco smoke is animate and speaks to nog manitowak and Kichtan, the Creator.  The fire, moshoma shquttin, moxomsa tentay, grandfather/uncle fire, is a manitou, and anything placed in the fire is said to go straight to the Creator.

 

4.    That spirit in a stone can be a manitou, or it can be medeu.  Medicine persons change form, enter other worlds, and inhabit other objects and beings – including manitowak, and vice-versa. Possession in all forms is understood as mutual and non-exclusive in Algonquian. That is to say, grammatically, possession indicates a mutual state, rather that one-way ownership as in English “it’s mine,” nor does possession imply exclusivity, though in English, “it’s mine” usually excludes the idea of “it’s also yours, others’, etc.” In Algonquian, possession is a qualifier attached to the object rather than the subject.

 

5.    All our verbs and nouns are clearly marked for animacy or lack of animacy.  We have special verb cases for those who have passed away, called in linguistics obviative or absentative, and we mark nouns for absent state as well.  Most of our nouns are really verb forms, and so they are not truly nouns at all. A snake in Lenape is xkuk, but a dead snake is xkuka.  A person or any animate being who is not the speaker is “na” = that one, while a sleeping person or being is “naka,”  also for unconscious or departed beings. Animacy is transient, so spirit inhabited stones are nog hassunog, but once the spirits are chased away, they are neg hassunash.

 

6.    Pauwau is a verb phrase, not a noun; it does not mean “medicine man.”  First, we do not genderize medicine people, partly because we don’t use gender pronouns and partly because the medicine path is a traditional role of two-spirit persons. Pauwau means “someone receives spirit power.”  We have many kinds of medicine people who perform sometimes general roles and sometimes specialized roles on the medicine path.


Pauwau is a correlate to the modern Lenapeuw phrase paolao, which is given by the Lenape nation of Oklahoma, among whom are some of the last fluent speakers, as meaning “someone overpowers a spirit” or “is given power by a spirit.” It is an expression of spiritual achievement and accessing non-mundane ability.  Obviously, if one can “overpower” a spirit, it should not be called in English a “god.” An example given by the Lenape nation for this is “Paolao nel hitko,” meaning “he/she/it got spirit power from that tree.” Mpaola  means “I received manitowakan from a manito.” Manitowakan is “making it state of being;” the particle -wakan indicates a state of being.


That said, traditional Indigenous people - even medicine people – regard many spirits as very dangerous, and careless interaction with spirits is seen as extremely dangerous. Danger comes not only to the transgressor, but potentially those they know, their community, or even strangers.  In the old days, most unusual problems were attributed to accidental transgression against spirits.  We recognize that we are all impacted by actions  and events that we do not witness or partake in, but which can affect the whole community.  So, for us, matters of hygiene also contain words that relate to spiritual purity, as do completely non-material matters of hygiene. Mundane and spiritual are not divided into opposites but are unified and engaged that way.  Traditional narratives freely combine what Western culture calls “mundane” with “miraculous” and even comical, all with earnest intent.  There is a great sense of continuity and personal responsibility in Algonquian cultures.


Showing again how medicine ways steer spirit beings, peteskamen means someone is driving a spirit toward here/this place.  Naskapi-Innu-Iyiyu relatives in Quebec speak about mistapuuch (“great presences” from mista-apu-uch= great+be at/sit+animate plural), spirit beings that are quasi-independent of a person, but not fully separate, and which can be summoned and directed to perform tasks. Narratives speak about mitaun, medicine ways, where the kaamitaaut (root mita in the middle, like medeu, meteu, mdaw[lenno]) performs the now-famous shaking tent ceremony in the kaakusaapaachikin, to drive the mistapuuch.  The tent is named for the purpose of the ritual, “to see at a distance,” kaakusaapaachiyaau. To request such a ritual is ukusaapaahchikiniihkuwaakinuuw. This was often done to raise aachaan, giant cannibal spirits directed toward destruction, with which bad medicine people would battle one another – or to defend against one or more of them.  Similar battles are recorded by Maliseet and Passamaquoddy Abenakis in narratives collected during the mid-1700s through 1800s (Gatschet, Leland, Maillard). Mdawlenno, Abenaki medicine persons, sometimes acted through similar giants, other times through a host of animal-like spirit beings, like a tiny worm that can expand to a giant serpent.

Another form of calling a spirit is singing, natasuwala, in Lenapeuw (literally “fetch by singing” nati+ asuwa+ la = fetch+singing+agency marker), as in Natasuwalach na sukelan, “I will bring rain by singing.”

 

7.    Proper terms for medicine persons start with the general term medeu or medeinu, the plural of which is medeinowak. Forms including meteu (Nashaue, Nipmuk) miteu, mitewin (Eastern Cree dialects), midewiwin (Ojibwe), mdawlenno (Wobanaki) and moyilaw (Mohegan) describe medicine ways and medicine persons.  Medeu means “someone uses spiritual forces.” After Christian missionaries applied their attacks on Indigenous ceremonies, the notion of dark medicine was attached to these terms.  Other terms for medicine path operators are a nitskehuaien, (nentpikesak in Lenapeuw) an herbal healer, mamontam “someone moves by mind,” referring to what outsiders call “enchantments,” who is a person that can influence the actions of others and/or physically move things and people from a distance, and/or move through different worlds, or change their form or that of others. A mamontamuonk is a charm, a spell, a spiritual device, while mamontamkoonk is “enchantment.”  Monetu, meaning “someone divines” derived from moneau8, “someone non-physically sees something.” Kosukquom is a person who engages with departed and dangerous spirits, for good or bad purpose. Finally, p’niiyesii, also spelled pniese, is a guardian priest, usually attached to a sancheman (sont’im, or sachem). Pikangikum Anishabe, for example, also call what are known as Thunderbirds “peniiyesii eshkotay” or guardian-priests of fire. People who are making pilgrimage to sacred places is/are sep’hausuaen(ag). Peer groups passing through lifestage ceremonies are called sephausuaenag, as well as those making visit to a sacred place for offering and to remember for various reasons.

 

8.    Terms and phrases applied to medicine ways give insight on concepts and expressions of spiritual and medicinal phenomena. Appendix A [Redacted] contains a sampling of language surrounding spiritual and medicine ways.

 

Naming stone prayers:


Maunumuet(ash) – “where someone gathers it”  Stone prayer place, in the singular, in the plural, ceremonial stone landscape.


Kodtonquag(kash), kodtuhquag, kahtoquwuk -

Means ‘heaped up by placing on top’ or more properly “it is raised construction” and is arranged in courses around a semi-open center by those who invest them with prayer and then raise them up together.  These are placed directly on the ground.  Made of the roundest available large cobbles or tabular stones.


Nipau kodtonquag – a kodtongquag that is set upon an immovable boulder or boulder-like outcrop of bedrock.  Nipau(wu) means “it stands.”


Wawanaquassick(ansh), Waunonaquassick(quanash) – means ‘honoring stones’ and is usually neatly piled mound almost always placed atop a boulder or bedrock outcrop that is boulder-like.  These can reach immense proportions – more than 200 feet long, but more often smaller, around 18-30 feet, while some are smaller yet, about six feet long.  The stones are laid as one passes with a prayer to acknowledge the spirit of someone who died tragically nearby.  Not necessarily at the exact place of bloodshed, but at the nearest convenient place along traditional paths nearby.


Anogkueu kodtongquag – means “it is like a star constructed” and consists of 4-6 concentric rings of cobbles laid directly on the ground, sometimes slightly heaped up, often with a contrasting center stone, sometimes the center stone is pyramidal in form.  These are laid by family members to remember a departed elder.  Seldom seen as they are easily subsumed under forest duff and moss.


Nishwonki, Swihwakuwi – Means “it bends in three” and is a u-shaped row of stones like an odd stone wall or a set of boulders close together that form three bends.

Tuppanusuonk kodtonquag – turtle effigy


Skoguonk kodtongquag – potential name for a snake effigy; not transmitted as such.


Hassun Nipau (hassunash nipaumuk) Sun nipamu,  sunsh nipamuog – Standing stone, is a marker of sacred space and a directional indicator.


Qussuqaniyutok – a row of stones indicating direction of spirit movement. Means “stones run along wall.” Parallel term: Nukôni-pumiyotôk wustow wuci sunsh. The old wall was made of stones. Mohegan pumiyotok is a fence or wall.

 

Cosmographic Context


Unlike some Indigenous cultures, the sun is not a central focus of Northeastern Algonquian ceremony.  In contrast to European and Afroasiatic cultures, the sun is not a dominant deity in Northeast Algonquoia.  The Creator in their many names is not represented by the sun, and none of the major ceremonial rites are centered on the sun or sun events. Algonquian time is kept according to the moon. (1) Succession of moons are counted, and the year kept accordingly.  People find some solar alignments at maunumuetash, but their sampling is biased – they are looking specifically for those solstices and equinoxes. That focus comes from outside cultures.  People have not looked for the alignments that mark our calendar. That said, we also did not need land observatories, we had the sky every night for that. Stone prayers are about acknowledgment and keeping a physical narrative that reiterates our story of the land and sky. Interpreting stone prayers are observation devices is almost certainly a mistake. Even though their expression is mnemonic, stone prayers are understood as grandparents, as embodiments of prayer.


As Roger Williams and many others noted, Indigenous people were well-versed in star knowledge.  According to Williams, our women, “knew all the stars, and the risings and settings thereof.” All one had to do was step out of the wichiwan at night to observe the living calendar in motion.


Important ceremonial times are found in the sky using Anisquttauaog (Pleiades), Mishanogkus (Venus), Nitamuma (Saturn), Kechipenes (Jupiter), Opitemakaning (Milky Way), the Moon (piskeweni kishux, or nipaham), and other stars. The sun does not figure in our time keeping or our ritual cycles.


Sikwanaxung, a ceremony and a what one might call true spring or early summer, recalls the name of the wind that brings warm, drying weather at the end of rainy April, at the fifth lunation, when Anishquttauaog (Pleiades) and Mishalongkis (Venus) reach their position opposite to October 31.  This is the spring rite, welcoming the season of growth, return of fish, and fruits of the earth. Sikwannaxung is the time when tehim, heart-berry a.k.a strawberry first ripens, called by Kaien’keha “the Big Medicine.” It celebrated the end of the Hunger Time. In later times, this signalled the preparation of planting lands for planting at the end of the month, when spring floods were expected to recede, having renewed neg kuttinakish.


Nunnaomonemehquanhomom (when seeing [them] we remember), remembrance of the year’s Departed during the peak of Perseid meteors in mid-August, was again timed according to the position of Anisquttauaog and the apparent touching of ne Mahtitinehkotek Temakan (seldom-seen route), or Opitemakaning (pure path), also called the Milky Way, to the southwest horizon, the home of Kishelemukeng, or the Creator (one who formed it by thought).  Green corn ceremony comes during the following moon. The Milky Way touching the southwest horizon, its forked path, Pleiades, and meteors all come together with departed dogs and people in the narrative of passage from this world.


Gamuing, or Xinkwikaon, sometimes called the Annual Ceremony, marks the end of the living year, at the end of October, when Anisquttauaog and Misalongkis reach their position opposite to the end of April. This closes out the living year and begins the passage through Pebon, Moshoma Nunnumiyeu, Grandfather Winter.  Pebon is a special time outside the living year, outside normal reality, when ancient Athiluhakan can be told, the deep narratives of the past.  It is a time for hunting, family ritual, and a time of passage. The first moon of the year and Anisquttauaog reaching zenith at the onset of piskek, or true night (about 9 pm universal time) are marked at Nikumu, which means “comes before.”  Some people mistakenly place this at winter solstice, but it comes after, in early January and is determined by the moon and Pleiades.


Other major spiritual focus centers on the Four Grandparents, or Four Winds, who each guard a sector of the medicine wheel that covers the four directions (actually 8 directions).


The Concept of Xkwithakamika and layers of worlds is important to grasp.  Ojibwe have a more explicitly articulated representation of tiers of existence, but it’s enough to say here that the world is understood as layers from the underworld to the Creator’s home, where people and our relatives live in a liminal space between the layers of earth and the layers of sky. Xkwithakamika is this world, the layer between the earth and sky, the land of the living. Movements between layers are seen as medicine events, including rain and springs. The box turtle moves on both land and water, winters underground in the mud and emerges fresh in the spring, which movements indicate mandowangan of t8nupis (manitowakan, tulpe/toonupas).

 

(1)  Haudenosaunee/Rotinons’honni people mark winter solstice with ceremony. For Northeastern Algonquians, Kwenikizos, or the Long Month, takes in the moon of what others call December, and includes an extra week that brings us to Papasupqaho (“Split Point”), around January 6th.  This is marked by Anisquttauaog Pleaides) at zenith at piskek (about 9 EST, 1 AM UTI), true night. Lowantanasik, mid-winter, a short month, comes next before the early thaw.  No ceremonies take place on equinoxes or solstices in precolonial tradition. As shown below:



Agawam sourced by Gordon Day (1967) "An Agawam Fragment" International Jounral of American Linguistics. Vol. 33 No. 3, pp 244-247.


Ceremonial Context


We need to remember that Indigenous ancestors did not dig wells or make reservoirs, and that beaver were much more common then than they are now. You can’t drink from beaver streams, those that are interrupted by beaver dams and their ponds. As summer comes on, many convenient streamlets dry up and the places to drink get fewer by the month. So, it has always been important to the People to know where clean water springs up from the earth or gathers in its first streamlets.  They places are marked in memory with the spiritual understanding that they give life to all living beings, including us, and that they connect physically the sky, clouds from whence came rain, and its unseen movement through the ever-protean underworld of stone and water, emerging as springs and moving across the land. Gathered, they form our highways and paths of the life-giving fishes.


Relic species like Polycelis remota, a flatworm refugee of glacial days that is known from only one spring at Nepesuneag in Mattampash, meaning medicine hill in Sunderland, Massachusetts, remind us that the earliest Ancestors of deglaciated land also drank from this spring, by the same upland fen, where rare species of orchid are also recorded. People drank from this sweetwater spring since glacial times, which happens also to be a medicinal spring because the water is alkaline. Alkaline water is uncommon in the region and has healing powers. That water is especially good for pregnant women, elders, people with stomach problems, bone problems, and more. This is remembered in the name of the place.


Places of importance tend to gather importance in Indigenous legacy and tend to be remembered as sacred persistently.  So it happens that stone prayers mark the edge of the fen at Nepesuneag. Stone prayers give simple expression to deep layers of both personal and community experience. Standing in a place that holds so many layers of history, some of it only vaguely visible in the distance of time, an Indigenous person comes with the thoughts of today, whether it is to remember ancestors, to acknowledge and give thanks for the gifts of new seasons, or to wait for words of wisdom about a pressing personal issue, or even to meditate.  But they come with all those layers, all that context and energy to a place where this energy and its passage is marked. They may come alone, with family, peer group, community.


The central spaces of most maunumuetash are commonly more organized and more carefully articulated than the outer stone prayers. I believe that this is the result of maunumuetash being established before communities were disrupted by colonists. I suspect that the great number of added stone prayers and the changes in their form reflect the trauma of Indigenous holocaust.


Pilgrimage to ne maunumuet can be preparatory for other ceremonies or the visit can be the whole act, for personal reasons or for community.  The mental and spiritual connection of the underworld, the land and the heavens through the ever-transforming vehicle of water energy is embodied at maunumuetash.  Maunumuetash recognize, acknowledge, and give thanks.  Visiting is also a matter of personal journey, searching, and receiving direction.


Ethnogeography of Maunumuetash


Witapanoxwe gave the narrative of sacred stones, red cedar, and Pleiades in 1931 with Frank Speck. Kanien’keha hronon have a traditional narrative about the Stone That Is the Source of All Stories. Passamaquoddy and Maliseet Abenaki elders like Newell Francis gave narratives in the 1800s that describe stone houses for Little People. In their 2015 for Northeast Anthropology report by Doug Harris and Paul Robinson, stone prayers are described as being on sides of hills and knolls above a wetland and suggests that kuttinakish were not far away. In their 2016 Journal of Ohio Archaeology report from the eastern Ohio Valley, Moore and Weiss report stone prayers high in the ridges above creeks. In my 2017 report for Massachusetts Archaeological Society, with more detail in 2018 in Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut and in Northeast Anthropology, studies of maunumuetash in Southeastern New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts all found that these are highly concentrated at around 75% of elevation near springs and headwaters.


Dr. Ella Sekatau who was once the tribal historian for the Nihagganeok/Narragansett said these sacred places lay where water flows two ways, meaning perhaps watershed divides, which again lie along headwaters.


The Lenape traditional narrative of  Moxomsena Pephokwus, Our Grandfather Red Cedar, tells how youths on pilgrimage in the rocky ridges first encountered spirit inhabited stones when one spoke to a youth. These stones were inhabited by seven great sages who had eloped into the forest. The tradition also says that people then came continually to that place, then goes on to tell how these spirit inhabited stones are connected to the medicine persons called pine and red cedar, and how they are connected to Ansisktayesak (Pleiades) which are regarded as these great sages and spoken of with honor to this day, according to the narrative, and that people still seek their advice.


Physically, maunumuetash lie within tauohkomuk, “where the owl lives,” those lands that are not partitioned to clans, and according to land documents, sometimes shared between Indigenous nations.  Everything in tauohkomuk is circumscribed by tradition, by expectations and limitations. Ritual prescription attaches to hunting, gathering, visiting cemeteries, and stone prayers, as well as kemeyayeuetash – places of spiritual retreat. Those activities are engaged after first purifying and seeking spiritual support, while they are also guided by traditions describing how one should conduct themselves in that space specific to each activity. Details of all this are given in Decolonizing Land Stewardship: Pyroepistemology of New England and Cultural Mapping: An Ethnoeconomic Geohistory of Squakheag and Koloheagun (Northfield and parts of Gill, Montague, Massachusetts) (Oso:oah Foundation 2024).

I ask here that anyone visiting a stone prayer place should purify their mind and body before entering, and while in that space, refrain from loud or coarse talk and move mindfully with respect, treating everything there as respected grandparents.


Recognizing Stone Prayer Places


Tribal preservation officers have recognized many ceremonial stone landscapes across the Northeast, with some engagements resulting in preservation of those sacred spaces on differing levels, usually in alliance with non-Indigenous residents and through engaging municipal committees. Those that are preserved concentrate around the few tribes with federal recognition. Tribes with clear recorded histories that endure lack of recognition are many, and in their homelands, sacred places are less likely to receive advocacy for power holding entities. Strategies have emerged to address historical injustice and the shadow of genocide under the heading of vernacular sovereignty (Picq 2018).


Chappaqua Forest Maunumuet (a.k.a. Buttonhook Forest) was recognized by me for Oso:ah Foundation, and subsequently by the Narragansett Principal Field Investigator, Cora Pierce, Ramapough Munsee Lenape Nation Clan Mother Michaeline Piccaro, Schaghticoke Nation of New York Sachem Hawk Storm Bergin, and Brothertown Indian Nation’s Vice-Chair Jessica Ryan.  BIN is also partnering with Indian Land Trust and Friends of Buttonhook Forest to purchase the land for preservation and ceremonial visitation by Indigenous communities. Here, vernacular sovereignty is being applied by joining under-recognized Indigenous nations with resident activists. At the outset, destruction of the space was seen as “a done deal,” but efforts have led to legal intercession and an offer to purchase the site for shared Indigenous ceremonial use and permanent preservation. 


The Town of Hopkinton preserved stone prayers with the help of the Narragansett Nation and grassroots activists, most of whom are non-Indigenous.  The maunumuet is now preserved as a town conservation space.


Vernacular sovereignty made a pathway to preserve maunumuetash in Sanakkomuk (Shutesbury, Massachusetts) from a logging project that was already underway.  In this case, M.E.A.S. and Oso:ah Foundation interceded directly with the former Commissioner of Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, who are in charge of logging on public forest lands. We applied the same non-privileged pathway to help Chappaqua folks organize and preserve the Buttonhook Forest maunumuet. This strategy is now being applied in several places with good prospect.

 


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