Pipestone’s sacred story

Pipestone painting
Painter George Catlin created this oil-on-canvas image of the Pipestone quarry in 1836. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

On Aug. 25, 1937, the U.S. established Pipestone National Monument in Southwest Minnesota. The monument covers 301 acres and includes quarry pits and the prairie landscape surrounding them.

Today indigenous people from across North America come to the site to work the pipestone at 56 active pits, offering up the soft red stone so famously used for ceremonial pipes and other items.

A gentle slope marks the eastern edge of a long plateau that begins in the Dakotas and runs southeast to Iowa. In Pipestone County, the slope is broken by stone outcroppings that native peoples have quarried for centuries.

For Native Americans, this land is sacred. For the Oceti Sakowin, the people of the Seven Council Fires — which includes Dakota- and Lakota-speaking tribes — it’s a place of creation. Among the Oceti Sakowin, the Yankton Sioux of South Dakota are known as the protectors of the quarry.

Though pipestone exists at many locations in North America, the quarries at Pipestone National Monument became the preferred source of pipestone among tribes living on the Great Plains because of the quality of the stone.

Oral traditions of the Oceti Sakowin tell how pipestone was created by the red blood of the ancestors, and of how smoke carries prayers to the Great Spirit, making the pipes created from the red rock highly sacred.

Pipestone pipes have been, and are still, used in ceremonies, given as gifts and traded. Native Americans store pipe bowls, stems and tobacco with other sacred objects. They also bury pipes with the dead.

Sacred pipes have inspired stories that have been passed down for generations. In the book The Sacred Pipe, Black Elk, a Lakota elder, shared the tale of White Buffalo Calf Woman, a spiritual (wakan) woman who presents the pipe to the people and then turns into a white buffalo.

American Indians used pipestone, a relatively soft stone well-suited to carving, to create pipes like this one. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

“Holding the pipe up with its stem to the heavens, she said, ‘All these peoples, and all the things of the universe, are joined to you who smoke the pipe — all send their voices to Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit. When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything.’”

In 1836, painter, author and traveler George Catlin arrived at the pipestone quarries to witness the craft firsthand. His paintings and writings drew national attention to the area.

Pipestone is a relatively soft stone that’s well-suited to hand carving. However, it’s typically found sandwiched between extremely hard layers of Sioux quartzite, and extracting the stone can be hard work.

Contemporary indigenous people maintain the tradition of hand-quarrying stone using only sledgehammers, chisels, pry bars and wedges. They’re taught to use all the quarried stone, if possible, or return it to Mother Earth.

Over the years, skilled artisans have created many pipe designs, including long-stemmed pipes, elbow and disk forms and a T-shaped calumet. Carvers also have made elaborate animal and human effigies.

When the Pipestone monument was established in 1937, it included a commitment to preserve the rights of Native Americans to quarry in a traditional manner. Previously, the Treaty of 1858 included a provision stating that the Yankton Sioux held exclusive rights to quarry pipestone. In 1928, after more than 30 years of legal maneuvering, the federal government took over those rights. However, between 1928 and 1937, the Pipestone Indian School managed access to the quarry, opening it up to American Indians from any tribe. When the monument was dedicated in 1937, that practice was codified.

Visitors can learn more about the quarries, sacred pipes and Native American culture in the Pipestone National Monument visitor center, which includes a museum, a small theater, exhibits, displays, demonstration areas and a gift shop. It also offers an access point to a 3/4-mile paved loop trail that affords scenic views of several natural and historic points of interest inside the monument.

A second site to explore

Seventy-two miles east of Pipestone National Monument, on the same plateau, are more than 5,000 petroglyphs, designs chiseled into blocks of quartzite by ancestors of today’s native peoples. The carvings at Jeffers Petroglyphs date from 7,000 to 250 years ago. Like the pipestone quarries, the site is sacred, a place of worship.

On select dates this summer and fall, visitors to the Minnesota Historical Society’s petroglyph site can explore off the regular path to see the rock face in the evening when the lighting is at its best for viewing the carvings.

Jessica Kohen is the media relations manager for the Minnesota Historical Society.