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Indian Sacred Landscape

Background

Within the North Acton conservation lands are many stone assemblages thought to have been constructed and used by Native Americans in their ceremonial practices and other cultural activities.  None is monumental, as are some left by indigenous cultures in other parts of the Americas.  But scattered within the woodlands throughout the southern slope along the Nashoba Brook are numerous paired split rocks, clusters of small stone piles, turtle and serpent effigies, and stone walls that do not appear to have a purpose.  Together with the Nashoba Brook, its small tributaries, wetlands, and rock-lined pool, these features form a complex of both natural and man-made topographic, geologic, and cultural landscape that have meaning within the Native American tradition.

Early sacred landscape

Before colonial settlers claimed these lands, there existed in this region a swath of sacred landscape that extended along an elevated ridge through eight modern towns from Lincoln in the southeast to Westford and Littleton in the northwest.  Owing to the lack of development at any time in the past in these extensive North Acton conservation lands, many of these ceremonial features are still present there.  Some observers believe that this sacred landscape still continues to be quietly used in the present.  Other areas in this region where similar structures occur plentifully include the Boxborough esker, and wooded and marshy areas of contiguous Carlisle. Further afield, Connecticut, Vermont, and upstate New York are regions richly graced by these ancient structures built by early tribal peoples.

Colonial or Native American?

Some of the stone features, clearly, are man-made, such as the stone walls and the stone piles.  Many professionals within the fields of archaeology and colonial history maintain that the stone piles are the result of field-clearing activities undertaken by European farmers to provide pasturage or agricultural fields.  These same specialists declare that the stone walls—or ‘stone rows’ as they are termed by dedicated, modern researchers— were constructed as boundary or field markers.  However, a growing number of knowledgeable observers and scholars now believe that the type of stone piles seen in the North Acton conservation lands and many of the stone walls were constructed by Native Americans who used them for ceremonial purposes.

Other ceremonial features

But are those walls and piles all there is to be seen?  When you visit the area, the practiced eye may also see subtle evidence of an enhanced landscape, fashioned by Native Americans and perhaps millennia old.  The modern descendants of these tribal people tell us that some naturally occurring stone, water, or vegetation features have been slightly enhanced to symbolically represent aspects of Indian belief systems.  Examples are ‘portals’ to the underworld, formed from paired split rocks; stone lips around a pool; slightly shaped Manitou stones—which embody the spirit, or ‘manitou,’central to Indian belief—set into the walls; or turtle and serpent effigies created by careful positioning of small stones on low boulders.

A holistic ritual area

The small area represented on the blown-up map is especially rich in a complex of stone and water features that appears to have been an integrated ceremonial whole with possible astronomical functions.  The density and variety of unusual features in this localized area may signal that it is a place where Indians chose to express their cultural identity in the land itself.  When you visit the site, look around you.  You may see land features, subtly enhanced natural features, or manmade structures that create a feeling of mystery or power.

Funding for the informational panels on which this material appears in the field was supplied by a vote of Town Meeting authorizing use of Community Preservation Act funds.

Last Updated: 05/09/2014 12:41