Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Stop calling them "cairns"

Cairn - Gaelic for heap of stones.

Is a more contemptuous designation even possible? It kind of suggests heap of stone built by a Scott or Irishman.

Are Native Americans supposed to use that term?

Update: I realize that a lot of people use "cairn" to mean a well built stack of rocks; and the term is not being used out of contempt. Nevertheless I think we should move away from it. The Gaelic connotation is just a bad fit for something built by non-Gaels. Especially when we are trying to refute their Gaelic origin.

9 comments :

Curtiss Hoffman said...

Nohham (Rolf Cachat-Schilling) differentiates between types of piles, well built ones(wawanaquassick) and more informal ones (kahtoquwuk). I have been calling the former "cairns" and the latter "stone piles". But there admittedly is no agreement among those of us who research these on a typology of stone structures.

Tim MacSweeney said...

Káhtôquwuk (Narragansett), allegorically, a 'stone prayer.'
káhtôquwuk NI a pile, a heap, that which is heaped high, by placing one above another
https://www.moheganlanguage.org/2017/05/01/hvo20856/

Tim MacSweeney said...

Wâunonaqussuk "long, low boulder with many small, round stones on top"
wâunon- ‘honor’ + qussuk ‘stone’ = wâunonaqussuk – ‘honoring stone’
Memorial to person (poss. Event – “Donation: added stick or stone, burn tobacco?)
http://www.oso-ah.org/custom.html
{wawanaquassik - honoring stones place (Mahhekanneok)}: “…boulders with many small, round stones on top. Those are prayers to the spirit of someone who died violently. There are also standing cairns on rocks. These are invested with prayers for the balance of the universe.”
https://www.academia.edu/40876479/Assessing_Stone_Relics_in_Western_Massachusetts_Part_II_Patterns_of_Site_Distribution
“Individual deaths and memorial services for those persons are marked with waûnonaqussuk (Natick Nipmuc wâunonukhauónat – ‘to flatter,’ Trumbull 1903:202, verb stem wâunon- ‘honor’ + qussuk ‘stone’ = wâunonaqussuk – ‘honoring stone’ + quanash pl., also Narragansett wunnaumwâuonck – ‘faithfulness, truthfulness,’ wunna, ‘good,’ wáunen, ‘honor,’ + onk, abstract suffix, O’Brien 2005:37, Wawanaquas- sik, ‘place of many honoring stones,’- Nochpeem Mahikkaneuw/Wappinger, Ruttenber 1992b:373).”

pwax said...

Why not comment on my post? Perhaps we should use the Indian terms.

Let's have a discussion; because using foreign languages, either way, feels wrong to me.

Anonymous said...

Oh for goodness sakes. Has wokeness come to the rock pile site?
Is it not enough we care to locate, identify, research and protect indian artifacts? Am I now a racist because I use the word cairn?
Getting a bit much.
Sure it's interesting to know the indian names for these, but I can't pronounce it.

Curtiss Hoffman said...

All of the terms we use for these monuments in English - including "rock pile" - are neither more nor less offensive than "cairn" - they are all attempts to render in a very different language and cultural tradition what indigenous people have created. Anthropology distinguishes two approaches to the traditions of other cultures: an "etic" one in which we apply our own, culturally based (and biased) perceptions, and an "emic" one in which we attempt to understand the traditions from the perspective of the people to whom they belong. And this very definitely involves an attempt at some indigenous language immersion.

Anonymous said...


It seems that just 10 years ago (and less), the SouthEastern New England tribes were translating John Eliot's Natick Bible so that they could get their language back. With all due respect, Nonham's classifications seem suspect (at least in part.) The language is beautiful, but do we really know that ancient Native people specifically referred to these stone structures as 'kahtoquwuk', 'wawanaquassick', etc.? Or is this 'the best' that we have to go on? Please respond. Many thanks.

pwax said...

Dear Anonymous, you need to sign your posts.

Curtiss Hoffman said...

Nohham was trained as a youth by his great-aunt, who was Lenape, in that language. He is fluent in it, as well as in Nipmuk. He is a highly gifted linguist, and I would place a great deal of confidence in his assignations of indigenous names to most structure types. However, we do not need to rely solely upon his expertise, as there are several other sources for at least some of these names - for example, "Wawanaquassick" shows up on 17th century deeds in New York state, and "Shwiwahkuwi" for U-shaped structures is confirmed in an article co-authored by Doug Harris, then Narragansett Assistant Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, and the Paul Robinson, the former RI state archaeologist, on these structures there.

Of course, we cannot know for sure what languages were spoken on these lands further back than the Contact period, but my understanding is that the Algonkian languages are rather conservative. If we accept that the inhabitants of southern New England were Algonkian speakers at least as far back as the Early Archaic period, it's not unreasonable to assume that their terms for such sacred structures have remained more or less the same. Remember that the radiocarbon-dated evidence for these structures, so far, does not antedate the Late Archaic period (ca. 4200 BP).