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  • Ancestral Mounds: Vitality and Volatility of Native America by Jay Miller
  • Erin C. Dempsey
Ancestral Mounds: Vitality and Volatility of Native America. By Jay Miller. Foreword by Alfred Berryhill. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. ix + 187 pp. Figures, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $55.00 cloth.

Mounds and earthworks are scattered across a significant portion of North America, built by many groups of people for time immemorial. They have been observed in various shapes and sizes and their purpose speculated on for the last several hundred years. Although archeologists have understood the physical characteristics of mounds in terms of stratigraphy, solar alignment(s), and the landscape context of their placement, it has been difficult to understand their full meanings and roles within the ritual realm. In this volume, Jay Miller seeks to explain that mounds are much more than piles of dirt on the earth. In the first paragraph of his analysis, Miller asks the reader to consider mounds as “a steady microcosm of the dynamic world.” He introduces the reader to the idea that mounds are living, practically breathing, and serve to weigh down the world and keep the earth’s skin in place, thereby keeping its inhabitants safe. Mounds are also representative of and contributing to the earth’s vitality.

Perhaps one of the more important things Miller does in this volume is challenge us to think of mounds as continual and ongoing, and be conscious of the fact that mound building as a cultural practice continues today. It is the modern use of mounds that truly informs the past; in the preface, he argues for looking to today’s mound builders, who were forcibly removed from the southeast of North America to Oklahoma some 200 years ago, to truly grasp what mound building was and is. To set the stage for the rest of the analysis, Miller spends chapter 1 describing mounds’ dynamism, which gives them place within the spiritual and ritual realm of Native groups. This treatment truly underscores the lack of understanding mound researchers have been able to achieve by failing to consider modern ethnographic examples of mound building. It was this chapter I found most fascinating; Miller provides a full, colorful, and dynamic picture of how mounds are active participants in the world, even though their physical mass is what has captivated most researchers.

In chapter 2, Miller describes several tribal and historic perspectives that delve into the physical act of mound building, discussing placement, burials, and construction. Chapter 3 provides historical context for the transport of mound-building culture from the southeast to the Great Plains, as the great confederacies well established in the southeast were removed to the west. Chapter 4 is where Miller brings the context established in previous chapters to the present day, wherein he discusses the Creek Green Corn Ceremony, the Seminole Busk, and other historical accounts of the world-renewal ceremonies that revitalize mounds and their internal central fire. Chapter 5, aptly titled “Mounds in Full,” reminds us of the vibrancy and vitality that mounds contain and direct back to the world.

In my early reading of Miller’s volume, I was initially discouraged. He is correct in saying that archeologists and other researchers have misunderstood mounds and failed to consider fully the context that modern ethnographic examples can provide, but it seemed loaded and antagonistic. As I continued on, though, Miller’s rich descriptions, layering of historical and modern perspectives, and holistic viewpoint of mounds made clear that what he really seeks is collaboration and understanding. [End Page 145] That made for an enjoyable and informative read, one that will stay with me.

Erin C. Dempsey
National Park Service,
Midwest Archeological Center
Lincoln, Nebraska


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pp. 145-146
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