"When tied to local/regional ethno-historic accounts, such as those collected by Mooney and others before him in the southeastern mountains, then interpretation of the production and use of stone piles and stone walls by the Native American Indians cannot be dismissed as speculation – in this part of the world these features were made to honor and communicate with the dead. Piles mark locations where the dead have fallen in battle. These battles were real and/or in certain cases were very likely terrifying vision quest-like encounters with spirit beings from the world of the dead. Subsequent visitors honored these locations by adding rocks and leaving trinkets. Walled rock enclosures and walls were used as vision quest blinds. Hard physical labor and physical effort was part of the spiel.
"Out farther west, on the Columbia plateau for instance, rock cairns had a slightly different production and use sequence – either piled by successful vision questers to demonstrate the “burial” of their old status or piled by grieving family members to cover the remains of a dead relative. Abandoned pit houses, disused camas (a wild tuber-like plant) storage pits, and newly dug depressions served as vision quest blinds. Overall these were isolated locations, even if some occurred on previously occupied settlements. Again, physical effort to reach these places was part of the “self-sacrificial” spiel. So all-in-all there is no real mystery involved with these features; they merely reflect practices that sound and look weird to people who deny the validity of Native American Indian experiences, beliefs, and practices.
"Yet we also know of instances where Euro-American rock piles occur among Indian ones, a phenomenon that emphasizes that reality is messy and that each case should be evaluated on its own merit. In certain cases you do get agricultural field-clearing piles and construction stock piles, sometimes with live-stock pens and pasture walls, among earlier Indian rock features.
"In order for rock feature studies to become respectable I guess it becomes necessary not only to look very hard at the archaeological record but also at the archival ethno-historic record. Rigorous assessments are needed.
The association of cairns with rock art is also an interesting one (see attached jpg from an article by R. Edging and S. Ahler 2004. Rock-Art and Late Woodland Settlement in the Northern Ozarks. In C. Diaz-Granados and J. R. Duncan (eds.) pp.90-109. The Rock-Art of Eastern North America. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa). Out west both rock art and stone piles are associated with vision questing. Evidence in the SE mountains seem to point at the likelihood that stone piles and nearby rock art are doorway posts to the spirit world access points on high-lying locales several miles upslope."