Native American Historical Beliefs and Cultural Concepts
This article explores possible cultural links between Native American historic customs, beliefs and practices and stone structures (with features that exhibit potentially similar usage) found in the Northeastern United States. It is divided into a series of subject specific topics.
Introduction: Continuation of Ceremonies into Historic Times
When drawing potential comparisons between historical ceremonial practices and pre-contact period stone structures, the first question which must be asked, “Is this a valid comparison?” There is evidence to suggest that pre-contact period practices continued well into the historic period. It should be noted that most cultural practices change with time and outside influence and this needs to be taken into consideration in making such comparisons. The basic point of this discussion is to demonstrate that Native Americans persisted in their cultural beliefs despite the pressures from white civilization.
Zeisberger’s 1779 Account: “[The Lenape] Worship and sacrifices have obtained among them from the earliest times, being usages handed down from their ancestors. Though in the detail of ceremony there has been change, as the Indians are more divided now  than at that time, worship and sacrifice have continued as practiced in the early days, for the Indians believe that they would draw all manner of disease and misfortune upon themselves if they omitted to observe the ancestral rites.” (Quoted in Harrington 1921, 116)
Harrington in his 1921 monograph on the Lenape Indians documented a wide range of ceremonies and religious practices of this tribe. He concluded his work with the following observation “… the Lenape have retained so much of their ancient beliefs and practices after three centuries of contact with civilization.” (p. 200)
The continuity of practices even within pre-contact period has been demonstrated archaeologically. In Freetown, Massachusetts a cairn within a group of one hundred ten cairns was excavated. In this exceptionally rare cairn two charcoal deposits were found. C14 dates of 790 years ago to 875 years ago were recorded. The time difference shows the cairn and presumably the cairn group was used for 80 or more years (Mavor & Dix 1989, 72). This long term usage equates to the Lenape’s three centuries of continued ceremonial practices in historic times.
The continued use in historic times of stone cairns and “sacrifice rocks” upon which offerings of stones and tree branches were placed is well attested to. Reverent Ezra Stiles states “ Mr. Williams told me that on the Road from Sandwich to Plymouth [MA] there is a large Stone or Rock in a place free of stones; and the Indians immemorially have been used, whenever & as often as they pass this large stone, to cast a Stone or piece of Wood upon it. The Stones not being plenty, pieces of Wood is most commonly used … That the Inds. Continue the custom to this day, tho’ they are a little ashamed the English should see them, & accordingly when walking with an Eng. They have made a path round at a quarter Mile’s Distance to avoid it.” Stiles also noted, “There is such heap of Stones accumulated from such a Custom of passing Indians, between New Haven & Milford about three Miles out of Milford upon the Road. Another Heap at Stockbridge by the Housatunnuck Indians” (Dexter 1916, 160-161)
There are other 17th and early 18th century accounts that recorded Native Americans using stone cairns. (Historic references webpage) A few cairn sites have been found integrated into 19th century farms (Gage & Gage 2008, 240-247).
1. Spirit Holes (i.e. Spirit Portals) – Holes in Stone Structures
Some stone chambers have intentionally built openings from the exterior of the structure to the interior of the structure. Some good examples of these openings can be found in some of the chambers at America’s Stonehenge in North Salem, NH. Similar to these openings in stone chambers are the V and U shaped notches found on the top of some standing stones. The archaeological and anthropological evidence suggests these holes and notches found in the stone structures are spirit holes (i.e. spirit portals.)
Figure 1 - Exterior to interior notch in the East-West Chamber, America’s Stonehenge
Figure 2 - Exterior to interior window in theCollapsed Chamber, America’s Stonehenge
Figure 3 – V notched Standing Stone
Figure 4 – U notched Standing Stone
Figure 5 - Ojibwa Grave Houses
Hole in Grave House: Figure 5 “Heathen Graves at Muncey Town with holes at end to let the spirit in and out.” (Jones 1861, 98)
Holes in Coffin: “I was present at the burial of an old pagan chief by the name of Odahmekoo, of Muncey Town. We had a coffin made for him, which was presented to his relatives; but before they placed the body in it, they bored several holes at the head, in order, as they supposed, to enable the soul [spirit] to go in and out at pleasure.” (Jones 1861, 100)
Hole in Grave House: “In the cemeteries of post-European times they substituted the grave house for wigwams, fitted them with openings like windows [suggests square or rectangular shape], and gave broad ledges [shelf] to receive the offerings of food and tobacco.” (Jenness, 1935, 105)
Narragansett of Connecticut and Iroquois of New York
Holes in Stones Associated with Graves: A thin slate slab with a two inch diameter bore hole was found in disturbed soil slightly above the remains of a Narragansett child. The slab with the hole can not be confirmed to have been belonged to the grave. However, “A similar drilled slab was found in association with Indian graves in Connecticut … so this glamorless specimen my have been significant. The Iroquois to the north often made an ‘opening through solid materials to allow souls to pass’ …” (Simmons 1970, 126-7)
Pueblo of Arizona and New Mexico
Hole in Floor of Kiva: “… there is a sacred spot consisting of a cavity [hole] called a sipapuh, through which comes the beneficent influence of the deities [spirits] ...” (Buckland, 1896. p 364 from Mendeleff on “Kiva Building,” in Smithsonian Annual Report, 1886-7, p. 117, et seq.)
One group of Ojibwa used the round hole which functioned as a spirit portal for the spirit to go in and out. The other group used a window shaped hole that had a broad ledge (i.e. a shelf) to place the food and tobacco offering on for the spirit inside the wigwam-grave house. In the Pueblo kiva the sacred hole was used to make a connection with the spirit. These examples embody three key concepts (1) spirit portal (2) place for offerings to the spirit (2) place for people to connect to the spirit.
How do these concepts apply to the chamber openings at America’s Stonehenge? The openings and window features in some of the chambers create a physical entry from the exterior to the interior of the chamber, or in other words, a spirit portal. The bottoms of these portals are flat surfaces which would have permitted the placement of perishable offerings to the spirits. The chambers at America’s Stonehenge were not burials instead they were used for ceremonies. The shaman inside the chamber therefore could make a connection or interact with the spirit. Putting all these pieces together, these features can be interpreted as combination spirit portal & offering niche used to call a spirit into a ceremony with the shaman inside the chamber.
The V and U shape notched standing stones are similar to the openings in the chambers and in the grave houses. This similarity suggests they are spirit portals. Some standing stones are found embedded in stone walls and have their notches positioned such that the notch creates a “spirit portal” through the stone wall. These stone walls function similar to the wall of the chamber. Other standing stones are found by themselves and the notches align with other man-made or natural features. These suggest a directional spirit portal designed to direct a spirit to a specific place.
With the chambers the historical and archaeological evidence is sufficient to put forth an interpretation. With the standing stones, this evidence provides a starting point for considering the notches as a type of spirit portal. Using the other physical evidence from the site like the location of the standing stone in a stone wall or aligning to another feature, this basic concept can be expanded upon. For example, it developed the concept of a directional spirit portal. Both the chamber and standing stone examples illustrate different ways that this historical archaeological data can be successfully applied to stone structure research.
The Algonkian speaking tribes along with many other tribes throughout North America viewed the universe as divided vertically into three major realms. The Upperworld consisted of the dome of the sky and starry night skies. The earth surface inhabited by people, plants, and animals was considered the Middleworld. Below the earth’s surface was the Underworld. These three worlds go by many names and some tribes further subdivide these realms.
Christianity has associated the realm of the Underworld with hell and is largely responsible for the negative view of this metaphysical world. However, the Native Americans did not have this negative view of the Underworld. Most tribes viewed the Underworld as the home of many powerful spirits. In at least modern times, the Native American has also viewed the earth itself as the “Mother Earth” the source and provider of life. The relationship between the Underworld concept and the Mother Earth concept is not fully understood but they seem to be complimentary cultural beliefs.
At stone structure sites, natural caves, underground chambers, and splits / crevices in the rock are physically within the Underworld. Caves and chambers allow people to go into the Underworld. This physical evidence all suggests that the Underworld concept was a critical component of sites with these types of features. A better understanding of the Underworld is therefore important to the study of stone structure sites.
The Underworld section is subdivided into a series of sub-topics. How these various aspects of the topic apply to stone structures and natural features will be discussed further along in this section.
Figure 6 – A natural crevice in a bedrock outcrop. The addition of a standing stone set on top of a triangular stone inside the crevice indicates this was recognized by the Native Americans as a sacred place and a portal to the Underworld.
Figure 7 – Pottie Chamber, Newton, NH. This fully subterranean chamber was built into a knoll. C-14 dating indicates this chamber was built about 800 years ago.
The Native American viewed the Underworld as full of powerful spirits. Historically, the Native Americans have exhibited a certain amount of fear of the Underworld spirits. This may be due to Christian influences. It may also be due in part to some tribes believing that these spirits were responsible for drowning boaters and other natural catastrophes. This view of the Underworld is also colored by the terminology used by some early writers. They had a tendency to describe the Underworld spirits as “monsters” and “evil spirits.” The Native American’s true characterization of the Underworld is most likely a more complex thought process. These four quotations hint at this deeper level of complexity.
“All species of animals are ruled by supernatural chiefs, mostly dwelling underground, and these, with the Powers of the Underworld, show themselves on earth from time to time.” (Skinner 1921, 32)
“Old Menomini tell me that in former years those who had dreamed of various mythical monsters, such as the Underneath Panther, sometimes wove their conventionalized shapes on mats.” (Skinner, 1921, pp 241-2)
Ogauns, an Ojibwa Indian, recounted a vision in which he traveled into and through portions of the Underworld. According to Ogauns, he was joined by “my friend, one of the suns in our sky who had come to join my expedition …” Further along in their journey Ogauns recalled, “I bethought me of our old traditions, that evil manidos dwell within the bowels of the earth; and I hesitated to continue. …. My companion [the sun] attacked it while I tugged desperately at the arrows in its mate; but by the time I had recovered them our enemy, half serpent, was dead. We burned both their corpses, and traveled along the luminous road, looking for some resting place. Then we heard a voice saying ‘It is not safe for you to rest below beside the road. Come up with me.’ We climbed up, and found a very old man, who called us his grandchildren. We rested there with our grandfather, who instructed us on all the dangers that lay ahead of us at certain points …” At the end of his spiritual journey, Ogauns states “The child then led us on to where human beings dwelt in happiness. My companion and the child waited behind while I pressed forward to the place where I should meet the blessed [sacred] manido.” (Jenness, 1935, 57-59)
Anthropology: “The Underwater Panther was associated with whirlpools, rough waters and other disturbances on water. The underworld was also a source of ‘medicines that could heal and prolong life’ and those persons who procured a pieced of copper from the mythical panther’s tail had an item of great healing power (Lenik and Gibbs 1999, 18)
The brief excerpts from Ogauns vision illustrate the complex understanding of the Underworld that some Native Americans had. These excerpts were chosen to illustrate several basic concepts about the Underworld. (1) The Underworld was a place where spirits dwelled. Some were evil and some were good. Some like the Underwater Panther were dangerous but also the source of powerful healing objects like copper. Ogauns vision and the other quotations indicate the Underworld was the home of animal spirits, both real and mythological animals, deceased Native American people’s spirits, and other spirits like the “blessed manido.” (2) People could travel into the Underworld. According to the Menomini the Underworld spirits “show themselves on earth from time to time.” (3) Spirits from other worlds like the Upperworld Sun Spirit could also enter into the Underworld.
How do these concepts relate to stone structures? First and foremost, it demonstrates the important role the Underworld had in the Native American spiritual worldview. It would not be surprising, and if anything, we would expect to find evidence of the Underworld incorporated into some sites. Secondly, people could enter into the Underworld to interact with the spirits. Ogauns entered the Underworld in a vision. Stone structures, natural caves and underground chambers would allow a person to physically enter in the Underworld. Thirdly, Underworld spirits could travel to the surface of the earth. Although the crevices and splits in rock were too small for a person to physically enter the Underworld, they certainly could be used by the Underworld spirits to travel to the earth’s surface. This important function of crevices and splits will be elaborated on further on in this section. Finally, we learn that spirits from the Upperworld can enter the Underworld as well. Stone chambers at America’s Stonehenge, Gungywamp site, and other sites were sometimes designed to have a beam of sunlight enter into the interior of the chamber on certain solar events, like the solstices and equinoxes. When the sun beam entered the chamber, it was also entering the Underworld.
II. Tribal Origin Stories
The Algonkian speaking cultures and other tribes across North America all had tribal origin stories. These stories vary considerably in there explanations of how the earth, animals, birds, plants, and humans came into being. The Menomini Tribe and Pueblo Indians origins stories both have strong connections between the Underworld and origins of humans on earth. These stories are quite different in their details but they share this connection to the Underworld. It should be noted these stories are specific to these tribes and do not represent all tribal origin stories. However, both examples reinforce the importance of the Underworld in cultural beliefs in some Native American cultures.
Algonkian-Menomini of the Great Lakes Region: “According to the tribal origin myth, in the mystical past the Great Underground Bear and its mate came out of the earth near the mouth of the Menominee river, and there assumed human guise, becoming the tribal ancestors.” (Skinner 1921, 46)
Pueblo of Arizona and New Mexico: “In the Kivas, which may be said to represent the temples of the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico, and which are always semi-subterranean, there is a sacred spot consisting of a cavity called a sipapuh, through which comes the beneficent influence of the deities, or powers invoked. This sacred hole represents the place from which the people emerged after being fashioned in the underworld by the Creator. This cavity was, and still is the holy of holies, and around it are placed the fetishes. It was formerly covered with a stone, in which a round hole was cut, and stopped with a plug of the same material. Both the cover and plug are now made of wood, and doubtless the plug is removed when the deity has to be consulted.” (Buckland 1896, p 364 [Buckland cites Mendeleff on “Kiva Building,” in Smithsonian Annual Report, 1886-7, p. 117, et seq.])
Origins of Metal Pots: “In common with a number of other Algonkian tribes visited by the writer, the Menomini believe that the first iron and brass or copper kettles obtained by them were thrown up on the surface of the earth to sacred dreamers by the Underneath Gods. Probably this, too, is a survival of a tradition dating back to the time when kettles were made of earth [ceramic vessels], the property of the Powers Below. Be it as it may, this idea is curiously widespread among kindred tribes.” (Skinner 1921, 285-6)
Figure 8 – Enamel Cooking Pot
Figure 9 – Galvanized Metal Bucket
Figure 10 – Stoneware Jug with its bottom ceremoniously broken off.
The ancestral tribal origin stories of the people being created by an Underworld spirit or emerging from the Underworld were reported from two places in the United States. One was the north central region of the Great Lakes and the second was from the deep southwest. These are two different Native American cultural groups from two different parts of the United States with an Underworld origin story. The Pueblo origin story is incorporated into their ceremonial structure, the semi-subterranean kiva, as a hole in the floor of the kiva known as a sipapuh. The Pueblo physically re-created one aspect of their creation story into their ceremonial structure. It is highly likely that other Native American cultures did likewise. For Menomini, the place of emergence in their story is related to a specific geographical location, “the mouth of the Menominee river.” These are two different ways that aspects of tribal stories manifest themselves in the physical world.
Stone chambers are theorized to be ceremonial structures based upon their construction partially or completely underground. They share the subterranean design concept with the kivas. With the kivas, there is clear cultural evidence that they are associated with the Underworld. This adds one more layer of evidence in support of the idea that chambers are likewise Underworld ceremonial structures.
What do metal pots have to do with Native American stone structure sites? Interesting enough, galvanized buckets, enamel pots, and more rarely stoneware jugs show up at stone structure sites. In most cases, there are only a few of these artifacts. Furthermore, there is no other discarded “trash”, so the idea of a trash dump can be eliminated. These containers seem to be related to historic ceremonies which took place at these sites. The Menomini’s belief that iron and brass pots were the gift of the Underworld spirits may offer some clues to their presences at these sites. The Menomini believed that these were gifts from the Underworld but also they were the property of the Underworld spirits. The containers found at these sites were most likely used in the ceremonies and then left as ceremonial offerings for the Underworld Spirits.
III. Duality: Upperworld & Underworld
In the sub-section on Spirits, we learned that the Underwater Panther Spirit was both good and evil (or more correctly dangerous). It was the source of powerful healing objects like copper, but, this spirit was responsible for natural disasters and drownings that killed people. This spirit has a dual nature. This duality applies equally to the Underworld in general. The Underworld is home to both benevolent spirits and dangerous spirits. Ogauns in his vision had to fight evil spirits in his journey through the Underworld. However, he eventually reaches a grandfather spirit who protects him and a manitou spirit who bestows a blessing on him.
This duality is present at an even larger scale of Upperworld / Underworld. At this point duality becomes more a matter of cosmic balance (i.e. Yin/Yang) between two spiritual realms. The concepts of duality and balance are present in some ceremonies. It is reasonable to consider the idea that it may have played a role at some stone structure sites. The simplest example of its presence at some sites, are sites which have clear Underworld features like split stone cairns, chambers, etc along with obvious evidence of Upperworld ceremonies like solar alignments.
This topic is in need of much more research. The following two quotations illustrate how division or duality between Upperworld and Underworld were incorporated into some ceremonies.
Mita’win: “Incidentally, there occurs in the customs of the lodge one of the few traces of the old tribal dual division previously mentioned, based on the separation of the universe into halves. It is said that formerly members took their positions on one side or the other of the Medicine Dance structure according as to whether the medicine-bags they possessed were made of the skins of animals inhabiting the upper or the lower regions.” (Skinner 1921, 65)
Moieties: “There are traces of an ancient dual division of the phratries into the moieties according to the position of the gens and phratry ancestors in the upper or the nether worlds, but this seems to have been unimportant and purely ceremonial.” (Skinner 1921, 49)
IV. Going into the Underworld
Certain Native Americans were able to journey into the Underworld. This ability to enter the Underworld occurred under a number of different circumstances. It could be special power granted to a boy during a vision quest or initiation rituals, or, the spirits could carry a person off to the Underworld to protect them against a dangerous situation, or the person could travel to the underworld during a vision experience. The following three examples reinforce the complex role of the Underworld in the Native American spiritual beliefs and show the diversity of circumstances during which a person could go into the Underworld.
Lenape: Initiation of Boys: “Occasionally the boys became able to fast in this way for twelve days, at the end of which time, the Lenape say, some had received such power that they were able to rise into the air, or go down into the ground [Underworld], or prophesy events a year or two ahead, with the magic aid of the supernatural being that had taken pity on them.” (Harrington 1921, 63-4)
Ojibwa of Parry Island: “… the animals (i.e., their souls [spirits]) have sometimes carried off a boy or a man to protect him from danger, or to bestow on him some blessing; but they have returned him to his people again after the lapse of several months or years. ‘One winter a moose, in the form of a big old man, carried two boys away to a land where there was no snow. It was bitokomegog, the underground world in which the moose have their village. Some time afterwards he brought the boys back to earth and restored them to their people. (Jonas King)’ “ (Jenness 1935, 24)
Ojibwa of Parry Island: Vision of Ogauns – Ogauns went up to the Upperworld seeking a blessing of everlasting life. The Upperworld spirit told Ogauns to go into Underworld where he would receive this blessing. Ogauns actually feared the Underworld but accompanied by Sun spirit he found the courage to continue on his journey where he encountered both bad and good spirits. (Jenness 1935, 55-59)
V. Man-Made Holes Dug into Ground & Drilled Holes in Stone
Occasionally, stones are found at sites with drilled holes. The holes can be drilled with prehistoric stone drills creating a cone shape hole, or, drilled with historic metal drills creating a cylindrical hole. These drilled holes have characteristics which have no practical purpose. They may have a shallow depth or their placement on the boulder is not what would be expected if the intent was to split the stone. In most cases, the boulders with these unusual drilled holes are found in association with other Native American structures.
Another type of “hole” found in Native American structures are depressions in the top of cairns. These depressions are intentional features not the result of pot hunters. All of the cairns found to date with one or more depressions in them, were built on the ground. This is significant. The depressions can be viewed as depressions in the earth, or in other words, portals or entries into the Underworld.
Example: Prehistoric Drilled Hole done with a Stone Drill
In Gloucester, Massachusetts the Native Americans removed small quartz crystals from a boulder by pecking away the surrounding rock. In this boulder the Native Americans created a tiny ¼ inch cone shaped hole with a stone drill. The hole has no practical purpose related to crystal extraction.
Figure 11 – Hole drilled on boulder with a stone drill tool
Figure 12 – 19th Century Split Boulder with two oddly placed drilled holes.
Example: Historic Drilled Holes done with a Metal Plug Drill:
1) A cairn site in E. Kingston, New Hampshire has a split boulder (fig. 12). The boulder was split using the plug & feather method and left in place with the two halves pulled apart a little ways to create an open split. This appears to be a typical field stone split by some farmer upon initial inspection. Closer examination reveals a drilled hole on each side of one half. These holes are drilled at odd angles and serve no practical purpose in terms of field stone quarrying. Further, it is located within a stone wall enclosed area with a cairn attached to the stone wall a short distance away. There is a second natural split boulder with stone fill inside the enclosed area which indicates this area was used in historic times for a Native American ceremony.
2) A cairn site in Hopkinton, Rhode Island has an intact boulder with two short drill holes next to each other (fig. 13). The drilled holes serve no practical purpose in terms of historic quarrying methods. The boulder is in close proximity to cairns.
Figure 13 – Two closely placed holes drilled with a metal plug drill on a boulder from a cairn site in Hopkinton RI.
Figure 14 – Small on ground cairn at America’s Stonehenge with a well defined depression in the center.
Example: Cairn with Depression
This is a small on ground cairn with a clearly defined intentional depression in the center of it (fig. 14).
Holes Dug into the Ground for Offerings
Mita’win Ceremony: “The gathering of roots and herbs for medicinal use is always attended by placing tobacco in the holes from which they were dug, with a song or a prayer in honor of Earth Grandmother, whose hairs they are.” (Skinner 1921, 66)
The Harvest (Rice Harvest): “He [chief] gives a feast with prayers and a speech, saying, ‘We are going to commence to pick our rice tomorrow;’ then turning to the people, ‘We make this offering to Grandfather, the Master of Rice, who caused it to grow for our use. We give this tobacco (with these words he stops and digs a small hole and puts tobacco in it), as an offering to the Underground Powers and ask them to permit us to make the harvest. We beg for four days of good weather, and then we will leave the rest of the rice to the Thunderers for their use.’ ” (Skinner 1921, 144-145)
Holes Dug in Earth Next to Fire at the Snake Clan Feast
This quote was taken from Paul Radin’s book The Winnebago Tribe who are from Wisconsin.
“The host himself opens the door for the snakes. In front of him, next to the fireplace, he makes four holes in the ground, thus opening the door for them [4 snakes]. There he likewise places tobacco for them [snakes]. First he pours tobacco in the fire for the fire is the mediator between the people and the spirit. The fire tells the spirit the wishes of the people …” (Radin  1990, 277)
These three quotations demonstrate that the Native Americans considered holes in the ground to be doorways or portals to the Underworld. These portals allowed the Native Americans to place offerings for specific Underworld spirits. In the Snake Clan Feast, the holes open the door for the snake spirit to communicate if not actually enter the place where the ceremony takes place. The drilled holes and depressions in the cairns may have served a similar function as doorways or portals. This idea is further supported by the holes drilled in the grave houses to allow the spirit of the deceased to pass to and from the grave.
With the depression in the cairns, the depressions were most likely portals to the Underworld and the stones in the cairn offerings for some Underworld Spirit. With the holes drilled in the boulders, the holes most likely allowed a spirit to leave or enter into the boulder in a similar manner to the grave houses. The drilled hole in the boulder with the quartz crystals may have been for the crystal spirit. The hole indicates that the extraction of quartz crystals (which were considered sacred objects) was attended by special rituals. Special rituals were a part of gathering healing plants.
Both historic period Native American sites have a pair of ceremonial drilled holes. One hole may have been an exit and the other an entry hole. The use of different entry and exit portals is documented at the America’s Stonehenge site during the prehistoric period. These portals were usually some distance apart from each other. The use of closely spaced holes may be a modification that occurred in the historic period.
VI. Chasms, Crevice, Hole in Stone, Cracked Rock & Split Stone Cairns
As previously discussed, the Native Americans considered holes, splits, and other openings into the ground or bedrock to be potential entry ways or portals to the Underworld. These places were many times incorporated into their rituals and tribal stories. Some of the previous quotations mentioned the placing of offerings into or near these portals. The following group of quotations expands upon this examining the rational for making the offerings.
At Native American stone structure sites, the stones placed in the cairns were offerings or prayers to the spirits. One common type of cairns found at many sites is the split stone cairn. These are splits in boulders or bedrock with the split filled with smaller stones. These splits in stones and bedrock whether natural or man-made are similar to the crevices, holes, and chasms mentioned in the quotations below. They are essentially Underworld portals. The stones placed inside the splits are offerings just like the tobacco offerings mentioned below.
Example: Split Stone Cairns: Many naturally split stones have stones placed inside the split (fig. 15). The fill stones range from a single stone wedged in the split to hundreds of small stones placed inside the split.
Figure 15 – A bedrock outcrop with two splits filled with smaller stones (Newbury, MA).
Example Split Stone & Niche: A large boulder naturally split with a niche placed next to one end. Perishable offerings placed in the niche were used to call forth a spirit from the Underworld. This feature is at the America’s Stonehenge site in North Salem, NH. (Gage 2006, 129)
Figure 16 & 17 – A split stone with a man-made niche located behind the right rear section of the split stone.
Figure 18 - Split boulder adjacent to a massive hillside cairn (Sandown, NH).
Figure 19 - Massive hillside cairn with retaining wall at bottom of hill (Sandown, NH).
Inhabited by Spirits
Split Rock Channel & Memegwesi: “At the north end of Parry sound, in what white men call Split Rock channel, there is a crag known to the Indians as Memegwesi’s crag. (“Memegwesi is a friendly manido, or rather a band or family of manidos. They may play pranks on the Indians, but never harm them.”) Some natives once set night lines there, but their trout were always stolen. At last one of the men sat up all night to watch for the thief. At dawn he saw a stone boat approaching manned by two Memegwesi, one a woman, the other bearded like a monkey. The watcher awakened his companions, and they pursued the stone boat, which turned and made for the crag. Just as the thieves reached it the woman turned around and called to the Indians ‘Now you know who stole your trout. Whenever you want calmer weather give us some tobacco, for this is our home.’ The boat and its occupants then entered the crag and disappeared; but the Indians still offer tobacco to these Memegwesi whenever they pass their home” (Manatuwaba). (Jenness 1935, 42)
Crevasse and Invisible Indians: “The ‘Little Wild Indians’ are dwarfs that do no harm, but play innumerable pranks on human beings. Though small, no larger in fact than a little child, they are immensely strong. Sometimes they shake the poles of a wigwam, or throw pebbles on its roof; or they steal a knife from a man’s side and hide it in his lodge, so that later he wonders how it came there. Often an Indian will eat and eat and still feel unsatisfied; he wonders how he can eat so much and still be hungry, for the dwarfs, unseen, are stealing the food from his dish. Occasionally you hear the reports of their guns, but cannot see either the dwarfs or their tracks. Yet Pegahmagabow once saw their tracks, like those of a tiny baby, on a muddy road on Parry Island. Certain dwarfs haunt a crevasse in a rock on French river, where they sometimes make themselves visible; if you throw them some food they disappear.
The ‘Little Wild Indians’ are the Brownies of Parry Island mythology, except that the adults believe in their existence no less than the children.” (Jenness 1935, 43)
Hole in a Rock & Manido (Manitou): “Strange phenomena that the Indians find themselves unable to explain are nearly always attributed to manidos. On French river there is a rock with a round hole about 3 feet deep in the top [a pot-hole?]. Since no man could have dug so deep a hole in the hard rock it must have been made by a manido. Perhaps a manido dwells there still. At all events Indians passing by take the precaution of leaving a little tobacco to ensure its favour and have good luck.” (Jenness 1935, 44)
Snake & Two Holes: “On Christian Island there is a small lake 5 or 6 feet deep where a huge snake haunts two large holes in a rock under the water. If any one lingers on this lake, fishing for trout, the snake causes the water around the holes to circulate and boil. Whenever this happens the Indians flee.” (Jenness 1935, 45)
Cracked Rock & Wabskitjanamshin: “Near French river are two big rocks, round below, square on top, and with a narrow crack between them. Formerly they were one. But once a hunter named Wabskitjanamshin, who was traveling from lake Nispissing to Georian bay with many furs in his canoe, saw the rock sway from side to side and heard a voice calling ‘Wabskitjanamshin is listening to us.’
The hunter was annoyed at the remark and shot his arrow into the middle of the rock, where it caused the crack that remains to this day. He then continued down the river, but the manido that dwelt in the rock made him drift over a fall and lose all his furs. The Georgian Bay Ojibwa now call the two rocks Djiskan, ‘Conjurer’s lodge,’ and sing the words given above as a kind of refrain” (Jonas King). (Jenness, 1935, 45)
Entrance to Underworld
Chasm: (Vision of Ogauns - going into the underworld) “Some moons later I left my parents again, carrying this time a complete travelling equipment, even a small birch-bark canoe. I found the chasm securely blocked, and stared aghast at the huge, irregular granite masses in front of me, charred and discoloured where they had been shattered. ‘All hope is gone then,’ I murmured; ‘Never shall I obtain the everlasting life’; and I covered my face with my hands. But while my face was thus covered the pathway stood revealed to me, and, looking up, I searched for the mouth of the chasm by which I must enter [Underworld].” (Jenness, 1935, p57)
The Ojibwa believed manidos (spirits) in habited splits, cracks and holes in rocks. The spirits mentioned were a snake, Invisible Little Wild Indians, a conjurer named Wabskitjanamshin, Memegwesi a friendly spirit(s) who is a trickster(s), and unknown manidos (spirits). The snake was a bad or evil spirit who churned up the lake water making it unsafe for people in boats fishing on the lake, the Little Wild Indians (dwarf people) and the Memegwesis were pranksters who did not harm people but sometimes stole people’s possessions and mislaid them or stole people’s food. To keep these spirits from causing problems, an offering was made to them. The offering could be food, tobacco, or in one case a song.
Splits and crevices were more than places to place offerings. They were also portals through which one could enter the Underworld during a vision experience. In Ogauns vision he spoke of going into a chasm (a deep cleft or crack in the earth’s surface) to enter the Underworld. His purpose for going into the Underworld was to seek a blessing.
Split stones with stones placed inside the split fit comfortably into this larger tradition of leaving offerings at splits, chasms, and crevices,
VII. Caves & Stone Chambers
At the America’s Stonehenge site, the chambers were modeled after two caves within the bounds of the site. (see “Chambers: Origins & Evolution” for more details) The chambers were recreations of the caves. Both the caves and chambers were used for ritual activities. Caves are physically underground and therefore a part of the Underworld. The following quotation reinforces the importance of caves in Native American spiritual beliefs. It also associates sweat lodge and medicine lodge (both covered with sand and earth) with caves. Stone chambers are the equivalent of these lodges. The only differences being the materials used to construct them and the ceremonies which took place inside of them.
Example - Stone Chambers: A chamber is a dry laid stone room above, below or partially below ground, semi-subterranean. Many of the above ground chambers are covered with an earthen mound creating an affect of being underground. Chambers are cool, damp, and darkened rooms.
The Mountain Chant is a Navajo epic related by Dr. Washington Matthews. A. W. Buckland summarizes this epic tale as follows, “In this the hero, who is to become the great medicine-man of his tribe, is led by the Owl-god (identified by Brinton with Pluto, god of the underworld) through various adventures, in several of which he is taken into caves with very narrow openings, the entrances being enlarged by the breath of his conductor; and in these caves he finds divers gods in the form of animals, who instruct him in the healing ceremonies he is to introduce among his people. In these ceremonies beads, necklaces, rock-crystal, turquoise, and alabone shell play an important part, whilst it is not without significance that both the sweathouse used for purification and the medicine-lodge are covered outside with sand and earth, so as to resemble in appearance a tumulus, …” (Buckland 1896, 364-5)
Figure 20 - South Facing Chamber (America’s Stonehenge)
VIII. Underworld Conclusion
The Underworld was an important part of Native American spiritual beliefs across America. It was incorporated directly and indirectly into their ceremonies and rituals. It also was associated with certain geographical places like caves and chasms. Compelling evidence was presented demonstrating how the Native Americans beliefs and conceptualization of the Underworld were incorporated into ceremonial stone structure sites. Natural caves, subterranean stone chambers, split stone cairns, and certain crevices and splits in the bedrock were associated by the Native Americans with the Underworld. These places were used to hold rituals within the Underworld, communicate with Underworld spirits, make offerings and prayers to these spirits, were sacred places mentioned in tribal origins stories, and places to spiritually travel into the Underworld during the vision experience to seek the blessing of a particular spirit. A working knowledge of Native Americans beliefs related to the Underworld is critical to fully understanding many stone structure sites.
3. Stone Structures & Spirits
At the core of Native American religious beliefs is the concept of spirits. Spirits are supernatural beings that pervade the entire physical universe along with the various spiritual dimensions or worlds. Spirits were a part of every ritual and ceremony whether as the recipient of prayers or actively called to participate in the ceremony.
Native Americans had a complex understanding of these spirits. Different spirits had different skills. Some had skills in healing, others served as messengers, some regulated the season of the years, and so forth. Certain spirits remained in ethereal form, some were embodied in a physical object (natural formations, sun, moon, earth, rocks, ritual artifacts, etc) and others could move between physical and ethereal forms. Some spirits could only leave their physical form on certain days in the year or under special ritual circumstances. Some spirits could travel across the earth surface and their travels could be controlled by the use special ritual stone structures. Various natural forces like fire, wind, earthquakes, and thunderstorms embodied a spirit or were under the direct control of a spirit.
The Native Americans incorporated these beliefs into the construction of their stone structure ceremonial sites. Through careful study of the stone structures, their layout, and relation to each other it is possible to probe into the deeper spiritual context of these sites. The stone structures can reveal in some cases what spirits were present at the ceremonies, how they entered and left the ceremonies, which ones were excluded from the rituals, and similar types of details. This discussion is far from an exhaustive review of the subject but will serve as a good introduction as to type of interpretation possible at some sites. These interpretations are backed by quotations and other references to the anthropological literature.
I. Sun & Moon Spirits – Solar Alignments at Stone Structure
Mavor and Dix (1989) and other researchers have documented alignments to sun, moon, and possibly even the stars at stone structure sites. There is a general misperception that the solar alignments were used for calendars to regulate the planting and harvesting seasons. Anyone who has done any gardening or farming knows, the equinoxes and solstices do not correlate with the typical planting and harvesting especially in northeastern U.S. The spring equinox on or around March 21 is too early for planting due to the risk of frosts. The summer solstice in or around June 21 is too late for planting. The equinoxes and solstices did regulate the date of certain ceremonies. There is a thread of truth to the calendar concept. However, to view alignments as having a strictly calendar like function is to miss the deeper culture meanings. Both the sun and moon were viewed as having a spirit. These spirits played an important role in Native American cultural and beliefs. The following quotation about the Ojibwa illustrates this point well.
Figure 21 - Winter Solstice Sunset (America’s Stonehenge)
“The sun manido travels west across the sky and passes under the earth to the east again. Without him the earth would have no daylight and no warmth; man’s life would be wretched in the extreme. A night manido follows him across the sky, bringing peace and quietness during the hours that are not illumined by the sun. The moon manido, sister of the sun manido over whom she rules, exercises special influence on women; both manidos were honoured together in a yearly ceremony, generally held some time in the autumn, when the Ojibwa sacrificed to them a white dog and offered up thanks for their care of the people during past year.”
“Wabinokkwe and her brother, the moon and the sun, eat white dogs at their meals. In their honour, therefore, the Indians bound a white dog and laid it on a pyre. A wabeno [a medicine man]then struck it on the head and set fire to the wood. As it burned he threw a little tobacco into the flames, and offer up thanks to the sun and moon for their care of the people. If a man were very ill, and all remedies had failed to heal him, the wabeno might place him beside the fire before the ceremony, and the manidos would occasionally restore him to health. But only a wabeno possessed this privilege; if others ventured to place the patient there on their own responsibility the manidos might be offended, rob them of their souls and kill them” (Jim Nanibush). (Jenness 1935, 32)
The Ojibwa held a yearly sun and moon ceremony in the autumn. It was done for several reasons. The sun provided daylight and warmth, the moon provided peace and quietness. Together the two spirits cared for the people and sometimes healed the sick. The sun ceremonies at stone structure sites were held once a year, twice a year or even three times a year. The number of times per year depended upon the individual site. The time of year also depended upon the individual site. So far the spring equinox, summer solstice and winter solstice have been confirmed. (The equinox occurs in both the spring and fall. Many times it is not possible to determine which season it was used.)
The Gungywamp site in Connecticut has a moon ceremony and a separate sun ceremony. At this site the Moon spirit and Sun spirit seem to be the reason for each ceremony.
At the America’s Stonehenge site in New Hampshire the sun ceremony was integrated into pre-existing ceremonies. The rain water and crystal ceremony, and spring water ceremony preceded the sun ceremony. Originally the sun ceremony was only held on the summer solstice sunrise. Later the winter solstice sunset ceremony was added and still later the spring equinox sunrise ceremony was added. Even later, a summer solstice sunset ceremony was added to the summer solstice sunrise ceremony. The purpose of these sun ceremonies was to assist the Sun spirit when it traveled from Upperworld to Underworld and back again from Underworld to Upperworld. Circa 1200 BP (800 A.D.) a change in their belief’s occurred, the Native Americans at this site no longer felt the Sun spirit went into the Underworld. (Gage, 2006) The same change occurred later at the Gungywamp site possibly as late as 1370 A.D.
The sun and its spirit have been an important part of Native American lives for thousands of years. Different groups expressed themselves differently but at the core is the concept of a Sun Spirit.
II. Fire & Spirits
Fire like other natural forces and phenomenon contained a spirit. Many Native American cultures considered fire to be a messenger or mediator between people and the spirit world. The fire spirit could deliver a message or a prayer to specific spirit, and / or, it could deliver a message from the spirits to the people. It should come as no surprise that ceremonial fires have been found at stone structure sites. Evidence from America’s Stonehenge site suggests that fire spirit may have had additional roles as well.
Snake Clan Feast (Winnebago)
“First he [human host of ceremony] pours tobacco in the fire, for the fire is the mediator between the people and the spirit. The fire tells the spirit the wishes of the people …” (Radin  1990, p277)
Ceremonial fireplaces have been confirmed at stone structure sites like America’s Stonehenge. This site had two ceremonial fireplace locations.
1. One was in front of the North Stone, a spirit portal for the North Spirit to enter the site. In the North Stone ceremony there is evidence to suggest the fire and its smoke which rose to the Upperworld were used to send a message to the North Spirit to send rain (Gage, 2006, 204-5).
2. The other fireplaces were located at the lodge which was used in the Spring Equinox sunrise ceremony. The lodge had two hearths. No artifacts were found during an excavation which indicates it was used for ceremonial purposes not as a habitation structure. In the Spring Equinox ceremony the Fire Spirit in the form of fire and smoke was used to assist the Sun Spirit in returning to the sphere of the sun (Gage, 2006, 132).
III. Springs & Spirits
Central and Northern Algonquians
“The bear is the recipient of special reverence and is not killed without a ceremony and apology, a custom widespread among the Central and Northern Algonquians. Bones of the bear are scrupulously collected that they may not become food for dogs, and are deposited in running water. The skull is hung in a tree in a ‘clean place’ in the woods. These animals are supposed to reside in springs during winter, as well as in drier hibernating quarters.” (Skinner 1921, 177-8)
Great Lakes – Lake Superior
The following information comes from Fred Pine an Ojibwa Elder and Shaman living on the Garden River Indian Reserve near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. (Conway 1993, 14)
[Fred Pine, speaking] The medicine man heard a voice. A voice coming out of the rock. Manidoo –the spirit’s voice. The educated people [medicine men and women] were the ones who heard the rocks speak. Not only rocks, sacred springs too. Muh-Dway-Djiwun, “You can Hear the Water Running” was the voice of the spring. He too could advise the educated people.
Look at that rock near Curve Lake [Peterborough Petroglyphs]. The water is always running under the pictures. There is a voice in that water. But you had to prepare yourself to listen. That’s why those carvings were there. To help you prepare. (Fred Pine quoted in Conway, 1993; 151)
Springs at Stone Structure Sites:
Springs have been found at cairn sites, chamber sites and at pedestal boulder sites. At the America’s Stonehenge site there are two springs. The Spring Water spirit had three ceremonies devoted to it. One ceremony was held on the summer solstice, a second ceremony was held on the winter solstice and a third ceremony was held on the spring equinox. (Gage, 2006)
The bear residing in springs during winter shows the Native Americans considered some springs sacred places. Fred Pine speaks of running water in springs which has the voice of a spirit who speaks to the people. The running water at the Peterborough Petroglyph site is underneath the rock art. At the America’s Stonehenge site the spring water was considered the opposite of the rain water. Spring water came from the Underworld and rain water came from the Upperworld. (See America’s Stonehenge Deciphered for complete details.)
IV. Symbolic Blocking Out & Protection
The Native American spiritual world was inhabited by both benevolent (good) and disruptive / dangerous spirits. The Native Americans developed various ritual objects, symbols, and other means to exclude dangerous, disruptive or simply uninvited spirits from entering a ceremonial area. Related to these means of blocking out spirits from ceremonial areas were objects and symbols which provided protection to the individual in battle and other circumstances.
Colors: “While little or no symbolism is to be found in Menomini embroidery, in their silk appliqué work the contrary is true. According to tribal mythology there is a set of four celestial sisters who dwell in the southern heavens, who, with another group of four sisters living in the east, control the destinies of women. To the southern sky sisters certain colors are appropriate, and each has power to travel and befriend females in one of the four directions. The colors are: red for the east, black for the north, white, yellow, or blue, for the south and west. In the latter instance there seems to be confusion in the minds of the Indians as to which is which. The most that can be said, then, is that the colored ribbon work has a primary use which is purely ornamental, and a secondary use which is ceremonial, the color being looked upon as protective emblems of the Sky Women.” (Skinner 1921, 268-9)
War Bundles: “The Menomini believe they did not need shields, since they used the war-bundles for protection.” (Skinner 1921, 319)
Boulder: Vision of Ogauns – “A huge, flat rock seemed now to bar our passage. Beside it we rested a while, but could find no passage save under the water again.” (Jenness 1935, 57)
Guards: Initiation into the Grand Medicine Society –
Triangles: In the Lower Eastside chamber (a/k/a Watch House Chamber) at America’s Stonehenge, North Salem, New Hampshire a white triangular stone was embedded into the back wall facing the entrance. The white triangular stone blocked uninvited spirits from entering the chamber. For more examples see A Handbook of Stone Structures in Northeastern United States.
Figure 22 – Triangular shaped piece of white quartz protecting the entrance
Quartz Stones: One to a few quartz stones are often found on top of cairns. It is a common trait throughout the northeast. Like the triangle shape, quartz too was used for protection by blocking out. At the America’s Stonehenge site a niche was constructed at the quartz quarry. The niche indicates an offering was made. In turn, it shows the importance of quartz in regards to stone sites. (See America’s Stonehenge Deciphered for a detailed study on the use of quartz as protective symbolism.)
At Gungywamp a large, flat stone slab of quartz was quarried and dragged a quarter mile to the entrance of a small chamber. The slab was set up in the entrance to permanently close the chamber. (Barron & Mason 1994, 11)
Colors associated with stone structures:
A cairn with a white stone was built on the outer edge of a cairn field in Newbury, Massachusetts. The white stone was used to block out uninvited spirits from entering the area.
White is the most prominent color used. Rust, red and purplish red appear to be interchangeable. These colors are uncommon but do show up. Black has only been found at America’s Stonehenge. All of these colors were used for protection, mainly in the form of blocking out. (Personal observations while collecting data on stone structures in the field)
Traces of the use of color for representation and protection can be seen as late as the early 1900’s among the Menomini. Color in the form of red ochre had its roots in the Archaic period burials. Using colors like white and rust for protection at stone structure sites fits in with the general Native American practices of using color symbolically for over 5,000 years.
War bundles blocked the enemy’s weapons from hitting the Menomini warriors. It was another form of blocking out. In Ogauns vision a boulder blocked his way. At a stone structure site a slab of stone was used to block a chamber entrance permanently. The Grand Medicine lodge had guards posted at the entrances. The guards were there to make sure only invited guests, other mede’s with invitation sticks (thin sticks painted red), were allowed inside the lodge. The same concept was used at chambers and other stone structures where only invited spirits were allowed in and uninvited spirits were excluded by being blocked out. The stone structures utilized color, shape and quartz to block out instead of a person.
V. Spirit Representation
Various natural or carved stone and wooden objects were believed to be symbolic of, possess the power of, or even contain a specific spirit. At stone structure sites, stone slabs with the outline of the neck and torso are thought to be in this class of special sacred objects that represented a spirit in some capacity.
Thunderers: “The contents of these sacred articles vary considerably, doubtless according to the dreams of the owners, emphasis being laid on the charms relating to the donor of the package [small oval packet inside the War-Bundle]. Thus the leading or principal power in one may be a little warclub or a tiny, carved lacrosse stick or a ball, or all three, or even a round stone, all of which articles are emblematic of the Thunderers.” (Skinner 1921, 310-311)
Lightning: “The elders speak of a type of warclub, a specimen of which I once saw, owned by Kine’sa. This was a slungshot, made by covering a small, heavy, round stone with rawhide, and attaching it loosely by a thong to a short leather-covered handle of wood about six inches long. The weapon was carried by a thong which was slipped over the wrist. As the Menomini regard pebbles and similar small concretions as thunderbolts, or eggs, such weapons as the slungshot are no doubt supposed to have additional value, in that they struck the enemy with the power of the lightning.” (Skinner 1921, 317-8)
Stone Head: “… a large ladle used in serving feasts of the Mitä’win, on the handle of which is carved a human head, intended to represent Mä’näbus …” (Skinner 1921, 289)
Life Size Wooden Sculpture: “A statue of the god Wa’bano, the Morning Star ... This figure, once the property of the late father of Kime’wûn Oke’mas, who was a noted shaman of the Wa’bano cult, is crudely hewn from a log in nearly life-size, and presents the head and armless trunk of the deity.” (Skinner 1921, 330-332)
Figure 23 – Ceremonial Ladle with carved human head which represents a spirit (Skinner 1921, 290)
God Stones: “In 1741, Indians of Connecticut, who had previously concealed their godstones from the white settlers, gave up to the English a number of stone and wooden ‘idols.’ (Mavor & Dix 1989, 338)
Figure 24 – Manitou Stone in Newbury, MA
Manitou Stone: Neck and torso (without arms or legs) represents unknown spirit(s). (Mavor & Dix 1989, 332-342) (Gage 2008, 145)
Natural stones such as pebbles in either war bundles or used in slungshots represented thunderers and lightning spirits. Each spirit was capable of harming an enemy in battle.
Sculptured heads and carved heads represented spirits according to the Menomini. In southern New England the Native Americans gave up their stone and wood godstones. The account does not specify if the godstones had carved faces only that they were representative of spirits by their name. At stone structure sites in New England Manitou stones have been found. The Manitou stones are somewhat similar to the Menomini’s Wa’bano god sculpture with a head and armless torso.
Specific stones whether natural or carved were considered to embody the spirit they represented and carry with it the spirit’s power.
VI. Offerings – Types
Offerings of food, tobacco, smoke, and ritual objects to the spirits were a fundamental and integral part of many Native American ceremonies and rituals. There is evidence of these offering practices at stone structures sites which are discussed in the next sub-section.
Food: “When my sister died my parents hung a pail outside the wigwam, and for four successive evenings in it the remnants of the food we had eaten during the day. The pail had a tight lid that prevented raids by birds and animals; but my sister’s shadow moved the lid aside and fed on the soul of the food, leaving its outward substance unchanged” (James Walker) (Jenness 1935, 105)
Ojibwa “Only certain sorcerers could see it [Nzagima, the chief of the water-serpents], sorcerers who during their childhood fasts had been visited by Nzagima in the guise of a man, and instructed to offer tobacco and to summon it when they needed its aid.” (Jenness 1935, 39)
Ojibwa “Wherever there is a dangerous rapid or fall on a river there must be an evil manido; so the Indian traveling in his canoe throws a little tobacco into the water to pay for a safe passage.” (Jenness 1935, 45)
Menomini “We give this tobacco (with these words he stops and digs a small hole and puts tobacco in it), as an offering to the Underground Powers and ask them to permit us to make the [rice] harvest.” (Skinner, 1921, pp 144)
“… the Indians generally speak of thunder as if it were a single manido, regarding it as a brotherhood of supernatural powers that work in unison. It is the most powerful of all manidos except the Great Spirit; yet it rarely harms human beings, and then only those who insult it. The Indians for their part throw an offering of tobacco into the fire when a thunderstorm is impending; or, if traveling in a canoe, they blow smoke to the thunder from their pipes. Normally thunder lives in the south whence most thunderstorms come, but even in winter, when far away, it is still able to protect its human protégés.” (Jenness 1935, 35)
“Given a clear sky, however, the leaders joined the candidate in the sweat-house and offered up smoke from their pipes to the manidos of the four cardinal points, to the Great Spirit above, and to Grandmother Earth beneath.” (Jenness 1935, 72)
Tobacco and food are perishable offerings. The example of the food left out for the sister who died is an excellent example of how the Native Americans viewed the spirit interaction with this perishable offering. They felt the girl’s spirit partook of the food’s spirit, leaving the food intact. The same concept holds for tobacco offerings.
Tobacco in addition to being an offering was used in conjunction with calling a spirit to a person as in the chief water serpent story. Niches are generally found at stone structure sites where spirits were called forth to participate in ceremonies. Placing a perishable offering in a niche to call a spirit into a ceremony with people fits the scenario of the calling the water serpent to the sorcerer.
Smoke was used as an offering to Upperworld spirits of Thunder, the Four Cardinal Points each with its own spirit, the Great Spirit and Grandmother Earth. Smoke rises upward naturally so offering it to Upperworld spirits seems natural. Smoke is a cloud which can penetrate the earth and therefore was offered to an Underworld spirit. In the sweat lodge ceremony the offering is made during a preparation ceremony prior to the main ceremony. The purpose of these offerings is not stated but in each case, the spirits involved had benevolent intentions towards the people.
What is interesting is in each case the offering was made to thank, call forth, ask for aide, and acknowledge spirits who acted in a benevolent manner towards people. Only one spirit was looked upon as being totally evil and even in that case, the Indian did not make an offering to directly appease the spirit. The offering was made to pay for a safe passage. Mary Sugedub a fifty year old Parry Islander woman gave this statement, “The present-day  Parry Islanders describe their early religion before the coming of the whites as menidokewin, ‘manido rule or rule by super-natural spirits’ ‘Just as Christians approach God for favours through his ministers or churches, so the Indian approached the servants of the Great Spirit, the manidos, and sought their aid’ (Mary Sugedub)” (Jenness 1935, 47)
VII. Offering Features
The Native Americans made offerings of food, tobacco, and other perishable items to the spirits. These offerings were placed in specially made dishes, bags, and baskets. Did the Native American also use more permanent ritual features for placing these offerings in? The evidence suggests they did have such permanent features. Rockshelters, natural niches and cavities in the bedrock served this purpose. At stone structures, various types of niches and stone plates were used.
Sacrificial Food Dishes, Small Baskets
Figure 25 – Symbolic representations of sacrificial food dishes (Skinner 1921, 260)
Birch Bark Dishes: “Fig. 19 [figure 25], a, b, show two oblong figures called birch-bark food dishes, the spots inside being food. These often accompany representations of the manitous to signify sacrificial offerings made to keep them contented. A grave-house or covering is shown in fig. 20 [note: tiny opening for person’s spirit to go in and out]. Food dishes with contents are sometimes woven near these to appease hungry souls.” (Skinner, 1921, pp 260-1)
Small Baskets, Small Bag or Plate: During a visit to Cape Cod “in search of information on folk medicine and legends,” Gladys Tantaquidgeon learned how to make offering baskets [small baskets] for Little People from a Mashpee elder, Eben Queppish. Little people are spirit people. In the 1930’s Gladys wrote about Granny Squannit, the leader of the Little People. Persons seeking Granny Squannit’s help must make an offering. “An offering of food is prepared – some cornbread or other dainty morsels – either in a small bag or arranged on a plate.” (Fawcett 2000, 85-6)
Natural Shallow Depressions in Stones: “On that cut rock [vertical outcrop], there are rocks like cups all through the channel. Indians put tobacco and gunpowder in the hollows. You could see a little bit of water in those basins, too.” (Fred Pine, Ojibwa Elder / Shaman quoted in Conway 1993, 151) It is unclear if the water was a man-made offering or natural occurrence. Since Fred Pine included the water in relation to other offerings it likely that the water was an offering by the Indians.
Figure 26 – Stone Plate
Stone Plates: A cairn site in Sandown, New Hampshire has stone plates. One is attached to a cairn and a second one was placed at the front of a niche.
Stone Basins & Small Grooves:
2.In Connecticut at the Gungywamp site:
Skinner worked from 1909 to 1920 and recorded designs from the Menomini of the Great Lakes region representing birch bark dishes with food used as offerings to spirits. Gladys learned from a Cape Cod (Massachusetts) Mashpee elder how to make small baskets designed for food offerings to spirits. She recorded a legend about Granny Squannit, a spirit, who had food offerings placed in small bags or plates. Gladys, a Mohegan from Connecticut recorded her legend circa 1920’s to 1930’s. Each vessel was used to hold a perishable food offering. The vessel brought formality to the act of making a perishable offering.
Conway’s work dates from 1980’s. He recorded stories, myths, and legends regarding rock art from Native Americans living in the Great Lakes Region of Canada. These were the last surviving members of the tribes who had direct connections to deceased family members who had created some of the rock art. In Fred Pine’s statement he tells of shallow depressions in the rocks used to place offerings. Of those offerings he included water. Water is the most likely offering used at the America’s Stonehenge site which incorporated large drains as well as small drains and basins in their ceremonies.
At the Gungywamp site a small narrow groove was observed on the left side of the entrance of two different chambers in close proximity to each other. The grooves were too small and narrow to be of utilitarian use. It has been suggested that one of the grooves was used to hold in place a large stone slab used to close the smaller chamber. The problem is there is only a short groove on one side of the entrance. Second there is no evidence the stone slab was worked to create a narrow protruding wedge to fit into the groove. Third there is no explanation for the single short groove on one side of the entrance to the large chamber which was not formerly closed with a large stone slab. The theory the small grooves at the entrance were used to place a small perishable offering fits with the small holes and baskets used in historic times for offerings. Making an offering brought formality to entering a scared place.
A stone plate attached to a cairn or niche creates a formal place to make a perishable offering. The stone plate is comparable to the small basket, dish and bag spoken about by A. Skinner and Gladys.
Cairns with Depression – Offering Feature
There are many cairns ranging from those that contain only one or two stones up to those with thousands of stones. A few of the larger cairns have a depression in the top. In the section on “Man-Made Holes Dug into the Ground & Holes Drilled in Stone,” evidences was presented indicating that holes (depressions) in the ground are associated with making offerings to Underworld spirits. The depression served as a spirit portal and the stones in the cairn were the offerings.
Figure 29 - Rev. Erza Stiles 1762 sketch of Barrington-Stockbridge cairn
Trailside Cairn with Depression
The Great Barrington – Stockbridge Cairn was documented in 1734 by Rev. John Sargeant and later in 1762 by Ezra Stiles. Sargeant stated, “There is a large heap of stones, I suppose ten cart loads, in the way to whan-tu-kook, which the Indians have thrown together, as they passed by the place; for it us’d to be their custom, every time one passed by, to throw a stone to it.” Rev. Ezra Stiles described it as a mound about eighteen feet long by six feet high and somewhat hollow in the middle. His illustration of the Great Barrington cairn depicts a hollow depression in the top. Rev. Ezra Stiles later went on to become president of Yale. (Butler 1946, 3)
Cairns with a Depression at Cairn Sites (Examples)
1. A large cairn with a depression on a hillside at Whipple Hill, Lexington, MA
The Great Barrington – Stockbridge cairn was documented in the mid 1700’s by two reputable men. Both college educated reverends. The depression in the top shown in the Stiles’ illustration matches depressions found in cairns in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The depressions in the tops of cairns form a repeated pattern.
Depressions in the tops of cairns are similar to holes dug into the ground (see Man-made holes dug into the ground or drilled in stone). The holes dug into the ground for the Mita-win Ceremony (medicine plants), Rice Harvest, and Snake ceremony were used to place offerings to spirits underground (i.e. Underworld). A depression in the top of a cairn can therefore be equated to the hole-in-the-ground a feature used to make an offering to a spirit below it. Cairns on the ground with depressions were offerings to the Underworld Spirit. Cairns in streams or abutting streams were offerings to the Water Spirit.
VIII. Places Where Spirits are Present
Local Genii [spirits]:
“Certain localities, it is said, were thought to be the dwellings of local genii, to whom offerings were occasionally made, especially such places as displayed curious or unusual natural features, while even certain stones were said to have an animate principle or indwelling spirit.” (Harrington 1921, 51)
“Rocks, ponds, and hills have their fancied denizens.” (Skinner 1921, 32)
“[Parry Island Ojibwa] At the north end of Parry sound, in what white men call Split Rock channel, there is a crag known to the Indians as Memegwesi’s crag. (“Memegwesi is a friendly manido, or rather a band or family of manidos. They may play pranks on the Indians, but never harm them.”) Some natives once set night lines there, but their trout were always stolen. At last one of the men sat up all night to watch for the thief. At dawn he saw a stone boat approaching manned by two Memegwesi, one a woman, the other bearded like a monkey. The watcher awakened his companions, and they pursued the stone boat, which turned and made for the crag. Just as the thieves reached it the woman turned around and called to the Indians ‘Now you know who stole your trout. Whenever you want calmer weather give us some tobacco, for this is our home.’ The boat and its occupants then entered the crag and disappeared; but the Indians still offer tobacco to these Memegwesi whenever they pass their home” (Manatuwaba). (Jenness 1935, 42)
Stone Structure Sites:
Eaton Forest, E. Kingston, New Hampshire – A boulder with a natural v-shaped split next to a seasonal streambed was the catalyst to make this place into a sacred site. The Native Americans enhanced the split boulder with a triangular stone on top to block out spirits from entering the spirit portal to the Underworld. In turn, the spirit portal was used to call forth the Underworld Spirit to be present at a ceremony. In the seasonal streambed they built a cairn where they made stone offerings to a Water Spirit. Since water only flows in the seasonal stream during the spring months it can be determined the Native Americans held a springtime ceremony involving a Water Spirit who entered the Underworld after its journey down the streambed which ended in wetlands where water seeps into the ground. Here the Underworld Spirit was called to be present as Water Spirit entered its world. The Underworld Spirit they called forth was probably the chief spirit of the Underworld. (Personal observation)
Fig. 30 - Boulder with V-shaped split and triangular stone on top
America’s Stonehenge – “Over 3000 years ago, the Native Americans discovered a crystal geode at the base of a vertical ledge just below the exposed bedrock summit of Mystery Hill. The geode held terminated quartz crystals formed into clusters and coated with a rust colored powder. This was an important discovery for them because crystals were sacred objects in their culture. Either at the initial moment of discovery, or at some later time, the Native Americans observed rain water cascading over the ledge’s drop off. The cascading rain water created a waterfall which pooled below in the geode. It was from this seemingly simple natural event that the site evolved into the ceremonial complex seen today.
Why was this event so significant to them? It embodied spiritual meaning within the religious traditions of their culture. It was a physical manifestation of the convergence of several spiritual forces and sacred materials at the same place and moment. In this moment of convergence, the universe reached a point of balance in the spiritual, physical, and metaphysical sense. For the Native Americans, the concept of being in balance was at the heart of their religious beliefs and their philosophy of life.
The rain water came from the spiritual realm of the Upperworld and the quartz crystals came from the Underworld. Both of these substances were thought to contain powerful manitous or spirits. The sacredness of the crystals was further enhanced by the rust colored powder that coated them. The powder bore a resemblance to the red ochre they used in some of their sacred rituals. The pooling of rain water in the crystal geode represented the co-mingling of a spirit from Upperworld and a spirit from Underworld. This was a peaceful meeting characterized by a sense of equality, cooperation, and balance between these spiritual realms.
This event in which Rain Water Spirit and Crystal Spirit came together was the catalyst for creating this site. Yet it was not the whole reason. The Native Americans also discovered a spring just below the summit. The spring water was from the Underworld realm, and became a sacred aspect of some of their ceremonies at this place. The Native Americans believed that, like the rain water and crystals, the waters from the spring were imbued with a spirit.
Mystery Hill became a central ceremonial site for these people. They began by holding two ceremonies, one with Rain Water Spirit and Crystal Spirit, and the second with Spring Water Spirit. Later they added the summer solstice. Still later they added winter solstice rituals and developed other ceremonies that reflect the unique aspects of this place. All of these rituals and ceremonies were part of a larger yearly ceremonial cycle created to keep their world in harmony and balance.” (Gage 2006, 1-2)
In each of the examples, historic quotations and stone structures, stone features combined with an event led to the place being identified as special or sacred and containing spirits. This may not hold up in every case especially since many sacred cairn sites do not have natural features that can be singled out as special nor do they appear to have had any event attached to them. Cairn sites without special features may have been places where a medicine person felt or saw a spirit which designated it a sacred place to hold a ceremony.
From the 1600’s through the early 1900’s, missionaries, historians, and anthropologists have documented many aspects of Native American culture. Throughout this time period, the Native American cultures have changed. Their ceremonies have evolved, changed, and some have even disappeared. Not withstanding four hundred years of changes, the core concepts have remained largely unchanged. These core concepts include a belief in a universe inhabited by many spirits, the existence of sacred places, the practice of making offerings to these spirits, the concept of spirits, just to name a few of the more prominent cultural values. The archaeological evidence indicates that cultural change has occurred in the prehistoric past as well. The evidence from ceremonial stone structure sites demonstrates these core concepts extend well back into prehistory. This continuity is supported by hard evidence. The few C-14 dates obtained for stone structures to-date determined that some of these structures date to the Early Woodland period. Historical accounts from the 1700’s have made it clear that Native Americans continued their ceremonial activities at some stone structure sites well into the historic period.
The Native Americans have been reluctant to discuss these sacred sites with outsiders to their culture. They have opted for the most part to maintain secrecy about these places. Therefore alternative approaches to understanding these sites have become necessary. This study is one of those alternative approaches.
Why have the Native Americans adopted this policy of secrecy? “Belief’s such as these frequently excite the derision of unsympathetic Europeans, and the Parry Island Ojibwa are too proud to expose themselves unnecessarily to ridicule. So they tell the inquisitive stranger that thunder comes from a big wagon full of stones that passes along the sky, and that lightning is due to the clashing of the stones. They know that this is a mere fairy tale (perhaps even of European origin), but it provides them with a convenient answer to undesired inquiries.” (Jenness 1935, 38) The same holds true today. Ask any everyday American if a drum has a spirit? Ask any Native American if a drum has a spirit? You will get two very different answers. The Keepers of the Secrets who maintain secret vigilances at the old stone structure sites do so, to acknowledge the spirits and events that took place. They keep their secrets secret because of the sacredness of the ceremonies and because the ceremonies were only known to certain privileged individuals within the culture to start with. They do not share their knowledge with everyday Native Americans let alone everyday Americans who continue to ridicule their beliefs.
This has caused many people to question whether or not stone structures are really sacred to the Native Americans. Through research, traits and characteristics can be traced back through time and found to overlap with older ceremonies at stone structure sites. These stone structures can then be validated as being real and sacred to Native Americans.
Barron, David P. and Mason, Sharon