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Sacred Stones as Billboards

Ramapough Lunaape Turtle Clan Mother Michaeline Picaro walks us through time with ceremonial stone landscapes across New Jersey and the region.


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Ceremonial stone landscapes mapped by Michaeline Picaro across New Jersey

Photograph of Michaeline Picaro's digitally mapped ceremonial stone landscapes across north Jersey for Issue 1.


We're constantly carving out our movements across the land. Whether we're cutting across an urban park or following footpaths through the forest, the routes we forge have the power to mark deep connections with a place into lifeways, forming literal webs of knowledge between places.


Indigenous lifeways have held that power over time to this day, evolving into streets, roads, and even highways. For Issue 1, Ramapough Lunaape Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann spoke with cofounder Lune Ames about how Indigenous trails criss-cross New Jersey and the region, and have long provided medicine, nourishment, and shelter for migratory humans.


What follows are excerpts from a follow-up conversation with Clan Mother Michaeline Picaro, where she illuminates how, for thousands of years, ceremonial stone landscapes, or asunals in the Munsee language, have been the guides along these trails. In this way, the Ramapough honor stones as grandfathers, for they are teachers of the land that point to shelter, nourishment, and spiritual access.


 

Tripod Rock on Pyramid Mountain in Kinnelon, New Jersey as Lenape ceremonial stone landscape
Tripod Rock on Pyramid Mountain in Kinnelon, New Jersey. Photo by Michaeline Picaro.

Mapping stones, or asunals

The tell tale sign is always the tiny wedge, which shows that the small stone was placed there before the big stone was placed on top of it. There’s only a few tiny points, like resting points, of these ginormous things. And you can’t move them. When you’re traveling and you don’t know your way, these are like billboard signs that show you where to go. There are so many of these from Connecticut to Pennsylvania. Millions. I have mapped over a thousand just in a small section of north Jersey.

You can drive down Route 206 when the leaves are off, and I can show you in plain sight how many stones there are along the ridges. You don’t realize they’re connected from site to site, town to town. They’re all a continuation. Everything is connected. The trails are connected to the spiritual centers. The spiritual centers are part of the trails. These trails are part of hunting and water trails. They all are incorporated together. You can kind of decipher each, but an integral part of the land is that the land is part of us. There is no dissociation or disconnection. It’s an appendage of us. There’s always that incredible connection. You can’t always explain that. These stones were all prayers and have continually been prayers to the creator for allowing us to live on this beautiful land and to be blessed with an abundance of everything we need, from medicine to food.


People ask, “Why go through all that trouble to place a huge stone there? How long could that have possibly taken?” There was meaning in it, meaning in the creation. It’s always about giving thanks and a celebration of the spirit world, earth, and creator. Just think about it. We had the ability to construct any beautiful thing, and instead we constructed prayer and offering sites.


People ask, “Why go through all that trouble to place a huge stone there? How long could that have possibly taken?” There was meaning in it, meaning in the creation.

A Native American direction tree, also known as a trail tree
A direction tree, also known as a trail tree. Courtesy of Atlas Obscura.

Wayfinding with direction trees

On the ridge near our house, there is this large boulder with a direction tree that points to several other groups of stones. A direction tree is tied when it’s young, and it will always right itself in the direction you point it. I saw the direction tree and I followed it. What it brought me to were all these stone indicators to keep going in that direction. It pointed to a ginormous wedge that pointed to a huge stone that pointed to an underground spring just enough to form a waterfall above the confluence of two rivers below that’s now a lake. The convergence of two rivers is important to us as a spiritual connection because we believe in the three worlds: the underworld, the middle world, and the universal world.

If you’re traveling on a ridge for a day, two, or three – even when we walked it for several hours – you’re tired and hot and need a drink. You can make a little detour to get water and make it back to the trail. The ridge being traveled is from one village to another as a continuous chain of villages and sacred ceremonial sites. The trails will take you to different areas where you can fish, hunt, and get your medicines. We didn’t have stores, but this was a way to show where to get your plums, until we had a place to bring the seeds and grow the plums, which we did too, but we were migratory for many reasons.

A cairn, or pile of stones, as a ceremonial stone landscape
A cairn, or mound of stones, as a ceremonial stone landscape.

Evolving rituals

Prayer stones are added for good travels and good intentions. All the sites have been added to and built on. A few times I’ve left prayer stones. We leave tobacco at sites now, and I don’t know if that was always the case then. We had our relatives that came from Canada and Wisconsin, and many were moved to be home in this area. This area was a village, and there’s all kinds of trails to prove that. There’s something about celebrating the past and where our ancestors once lived and died and carried on with life. Just that connectedness to it all. That’s what it is for our people. The thing is it’s all over in New Jersey. All these areas are sacred because we were migratory and held ceremonies everywhere we went.

 

Michaeline Picaro is Turtle Clan Mother of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation and has recently organized a new community garden space in Northern New Jersey with her community. She is a mother, artist, nurse, and healer. Her concern for the effects of industry and the depletion of farming fields on the environment has forwarded her interest in plants in terms of whole systems approaches to community farming as well as holistic health, wellness, and spiritual connectivity. Picaro’s nursing, holistic/energy healing, and art backgrounds have allowed her to experience different modes of thinking in terms of healing and education and encouraged her continuing journey with natural medicine for healing and food foraging. Her work stems from early native medicinal teachings from her father combined with spiritual teachings from being and sitting with nature at an early age. These teachings became a way of life, including the daily connection of listening, watching and practice of all that Mother Earth teaches. Picaro and Mann are also cofounders of Munsee Three Sisters Medicinal Farm in Newton, New Jersey to address food insecurity and environmental justice for the Ramapough community.



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Issue One