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Musings From Pipestone National Monument

A tumbling waterfall is one of the surprising aspects of Pipestone National Monument. Lee Dalton photo.

They may be separated by a few hundred miles of prairie, but Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota and Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming share parts of a common story.

Both hold sacredness for the Indians who once lived and roamed freely across these wide and beautiful lands. Devils Tower is an important part of their creation story and is a place of pilgrimage where prayer cloths mark many trees. Pipestone is the source of a soft, reddish rock from which pipes needed to smoke sacred tobacco was mined. Tobacco makes the smoke that carries prayers from earth to the spirits.

The artist, George Catlin (for whom the rock was named; "A geologist dubbed the soft clay stone 'Catlinite' after Catlin sent it to him for analysis," notes the Park Service), recorded this story in one of his visits among the Plains Indians: At an ancient time, the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, stood upon the wall of rock and called all the tribes around him, and breaking out a piece of the red rock formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude. He then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it, that they must use it for nothing but pipes; and as it belonged alike to all the tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it.

Among the Plains Indians, ceremonies have always been vital. There are ceremonies to mark the changes of seasons, to bring rain, or call the bison into range for hunting. Ceremonies when a child is born or an old one dies. Ceremonies that mark almost anything of importance with solemnity and respect. Ceremonies that make the people one with the world around them.

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Visitors to Pipestone can tour the quarry site. Lee Dalton photo.

To all that, pipestone was essential.

Pipestone, a red rock with the scientific name catlinite, is a rare stone found only in a few places in the world. Unlike other similar rocks, pipestone’s rock contains no quartz among its microscopic crystals. It is a form of metamorphic rock, formed when great pressure and temperature turned surrounding sandstone to quartzite, one of the hardest of rocks. The mud from which catlinite came was transformed into a softer stone – one with the density of Portland cement but only the hardness of a fingernail. Its red color comes from a high percentage of ferric oxide - a form of rusted iron.

In the quarries at Pipestone National Monument, the red rock is sandwiched under and between layers of quartzite. Enormous amounts of quartzite must be removed to reach the thin layers of catlinite. All the work is done by hand, and obtaining a supply may take weeks of very hard work.

Quarrying here is restricted to Native Americans only. Any member of any federally recognized tribe may dig for pipestone here. Most of the stone obtained is still used for making sacred objects, but some is also used for making artistic objects that may be purchased in the monument’s gift shop where several carvers are usually at work.

How The Monument Came About

It’s a story that was repeated time and time again throughout the American West.

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Native American Travis Erickson continues the tradition of carving. Lee Dalton photo.

Tribes of Indians living on the land were promised possession only to have those promises broken. At Pipestone, that happened in 1858 when a group led by a chief named Struck by the Ree was ordered to sign a treaty that cancelled a previous treaty and moved his people off the land that was theirs. Struck by the Ree knew that signing this treaty would turn the source of sacred pipe rock over to the Europeans, but he was able to insist upon a small clause to be inserted into the treaty, a clause that gave him and his people unlimited access to a small area around the sacred quarries forever, a clause that forbade any European settlers from encroaching upon the land. It was only about one square mile, and the request was granted.

Thus did Struck by the Ree manage to save the red rock for his people and all other Indians. And for us, too.

As a result of the wisdom of Struck by the Ree, this little piece of Minnesota was never plowed and has preserved not only the quarries of sacred stone, but also a small patch of virgin long-grass prairie.

European settlers flocked to this fertile land where Laura Ingalls Wilder would later tell her stories. A thriving town called Pipestone built up around the quarries. A railroad spur was built. In those days, Indian children were taken from their families to boarding schools where they could be turned into proper, Christian, civilized adults. One such school was established in Pipestone. The school’s superintendent was the first administrator of the quarries that were later to become a national monument. But a school administrator didn’t have the power or whatever it took to adequately protect the quarries.

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A traditional Sun Dance is performed on the monument grounds. Lee Dalton photo.

Outsiders were digging new pits and hauling off sacred stone.

In 1928, the Yankton band of Sioux who had been forced to a reservation 150 miles away, successfully sued the United States government for payment for the lost quarries. The land was returned to the government but was not sold to settlers. In 1937 Congress, established Pipestone National Monument, allowing traditional quarrying to continue.

Visiting Pipestone

It’s not hard to visit Pipestone and it’s a wonderful experience. An excellent campground is located right across the street from the monument entrance. The surrounding town is a quiet peaceful place – except at night when train horns echo and jar unwary visitors suddenly wide awake. Paved trails lead you throughout the monument, and a visitor center with displays left over from the 1960s still does an adequate job of telling its story.

The staff here is very small, and instead of a cooperating association selling books and helping fund park projects, Pipestone works with the Pipestone Indian Shrine Association. The association has a small studio attached to the visitor center where visitors may watch some native artists transforming bits of stone into pipe bowls and other articles – some of which are for sale.

Outside, trails lead through long-grass prairie and provide a glimpse of what was lost to settlers’ plows. A small stream courses through the place and a waterfall is a surprise along the way.

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Prayer flags in the trees. Lee Dalton photo.

And, like Devils Tower, prayer cloths hang from trees along the trail for this, too, is a sacred place to which our native neighbors come to worship.

As I was walking the trail, I could hear drumming and chanting coming from off to the west. A Sun Dance ceremony was in progress.

NPS And The Monument

Pipestone National Monument has always had a tiny staff. It’s one of those places that has always been bare bones. Because of that, sequestration has hit Pipestone where it hurts. Only two seasonal interpreters are on staff and several permanent positions have been unfilled because of past budget cuts. In winter, there are no seasonals. Only a superintendent and a law enforcement ranger and some maintenance crew staff the park in colder times.

The visitor center is a Mission 66 relic with exhibits dating from that era. Plans to upgrade them all have been shelved because funding has been frozen. The asphalt trails are rough and do need quite a bit of work. It has been four or five years since there have been any real interpretive activities for visitors. The monument is busy enough that it’s unusual for either of the two interpreters to be able to leave the desk and get outside. They do manage to handle a busy school field trip season in April and May, but that’s a struggle.

While Pipestone is a tiny gem, it’s apparent that it’s not one of our crown jewels. Right now, no one can predict what will happen next year. There’s a good chance there will be no interpreters at all. There’s even a chance that the place may have to go to a part-time operation. And there’s no way of telling how that may affect access for ceremonies like the Sun Dance.

What will happen next?

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Lee, I'd like to compliment you on your recent stories. Devils Tower, Minuteman Missle and Pipestone. You're a good writer and in each of these tales you've enlightened us and inspired visits to sites less 'star-studded' than some of the larger parks. I especially appreciate that you have not included a judgement on the politics of each site, but have merely reported the situation in a largely un-biased way. While we all have our individual opinions on politics we are all bound by an appreciation for these special places.

Lee - Thanks for a very nice piece about another "off the radar" site that's worth a trip. I've had the pleasure of visiting Pipestone twice, and it's been worth a bit of a detour to do so. And you're correct - the lack of funding for trail maintenance, upgrades to the aging visitor center and exhibits, and interpretive staff is taking a toll on the visitor experience.

Thanks, Lee, for another good story about an interesting place. As it turns out, I'm just about done writing the Pipestone section of my book manuscript right now, so it's especially nice to see a fresh perspective.

The staff completed the monument's first (!) General Management Plan in 2008. It proposes a bunch of good changes, if Congress will fund them. It has an interesting history in that the favored alternative in the draft GMP ("Alternative 3," which was essentially more of the status quo), was changed in the final GMP (to "Alternative 1") in response to comments from affiliated tribes. That doesn't happen very often.

Pipestone was a fascinating place when I visited it fourteen years ago. I'm so sorry to hear that things have gone so badly for it.

Sounds like a perfect candidate for decomissioning as a NPS unit. Give it back to the rightful owners.

Lee it is too bad that the government is not maintaining these places, they should. Another great story and another place on my bucket list, thanks.

ecbuck, that's been suggested. There are quite a few tribes with stakes in the site, and they don't necessarily agree on key points. There would be some difficult questions involved.

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