Saturday, March 01, 2008

Donation Pile concept facillitates over-simplification

Recently I saw a bit of a new Ted Timreck film where he spent a few minutes quoting Elliot (from Yale) about donation piles. Also, in the recent comment exchange following Meli's questions, James Gage quoted some of the known text passages about the practice of adding stones to memorial rock piles. Taken together these two back-to-back reminders of the topic of Donation piles makes we want to reiterate an opinion: over-emphasis on that topic plays into the hands of the people who want to ignore rock piles because it diminishes the importance of site's location, layout, and of its individual pile characteristics. It is pretty much of a clean (and negative) sweep, that puts under the rug almost all interesting topics in the subject area. To put it mildly it is a bad over-simplification. So before these text accounts of dontation pile get too much currency, let me just point out that it is a not the best strategy for generating interest in the subject and rescuing rock piles.

I wrote about this in "The donation pile myth" [Click here] .

As specialists, it is good we have the information from James Gage and others. I just think we should be careful before relying too heavily on this when discussing with non-specialist and, in particular, with members of the public who can help protect rock piles.


Anonymous said...

Yes I would have to agree with Peter, this is an over-simplification and can be miss leading. Let's not give the nay say errs any more ammunition.
Fred meli

Norman said...

This is not specifically related to the subject at hand, but this afternoon, while going through some papers, I came across an e-mail from an archaeologist in Tennessee. In it, he wrote: "It occurs to me that maybe there needs to be some sort of standard terminology developed for discussion of the stone features. I've seen the term 'stone mounds' used to describe stacked and/or piled linear formations, stacked and/or piled cairns (less than 1m high or wide), stacked pillars and rectangles, and large unstacked forms. I think this (and a lack of illustrations in older reports) leads to some confusion about exactly what sort of feature is being documented." We discussed this previously, perhaps in reference to Dr. Meli's request for information on stone piles, and I just add it to the discussion. It is certainly relevant.

JimP said...

I don't believe the, "donation pile," is really a myth at all, nor do I believe it's oversimplified. There are enough primary source accounts from different places all over the Eastern Woodlands that describe identical customs. I do firmly believe that contact-period Indians did indeed memorialize places or events in such a fashion.

But I also believe the donation pile is generally over-emphasized. The fact is, there were many different reasons stone piles were erected. It's just that the donation pile was the least conspicuous. It was something everyone did, as opposed to some ceremonial stonework which may have been erected by only a select few within a tribe for a multitude of purposes.

I think it's okay to acknowledge donation piles as long as it's realized that they're only a very small part of a much larger picture.

JimP said...

of course, I meant "most conspicuous" not least.

pwax said...

Donatation piles are not a "myth" but the suggestion that they are the only kind of rock pile *is* a myth, and it is perpetuated by quoting old texts without taking care to add loud disclaimers.

JimP said...

Okay, I can agree with that. Whether we like it or not, donation piles are the most widely covered of Native American rock piles in the ethnographic literature, and most widely mentioned in historic texts. They should be a piece to the puzzle, not the solution.

James Gage said...

In the literature the following uses of rock piles / stone mounds / cairns have been documented:

(1) Physical burials
(2) Memorials to deceased person(s)
(3) A marker indicating a place where an historic or mythological event took place
(4) Vision quest related rituals (There is currently no evidence for the use of cairns with vision quest activities in New England. This use is only applicable to non New England regions)
(5) Peace - Visible indication of a state of peace between different Native American Nations or Native Americans and the whites
(6) Prayers - Ritual offerings of stones as part of prayer petitions.
(7) Trailside Shrines - Offerings made to insure safe journey

Each of these spiritual activities involves the "donation" or more correctly the placing of an "offering" of one or more stones on the cairn. The term "donation" refers technically the physical act of placing stones in the cairns. It does not generally indicate the underlying reasons for that action. The Native Americans were quite reluctant for obvious reasons to explain their actions to the whites traveling in their company.

I maintain an exhaustive list of archaeological, anthropological, and historical references to cairns at

James Gage