Pipestone National Monument, located in the southwestern corner of Minnesota, is a sacred site for many Great Plains Indian tribes. For many centuries a beautiful red-colored stone has been quarried here for the making of ceremonial pipes. Ranging in color from light pink to deep red, pipestone is easily carved yet durable, with a texture somewhat similar to soapstone.
A French explorer in 1684 wrote that while North American Indians used pipes made from a variety of materials, the ones made from red stone were the most valuable. The pipes were used to smoke tobacco, an herb used in many rituals. When tobacco wasn’t available, kinnikinnick was made, a blend of willow leaves, stems, and bark as well as plants that included dogwood, sumac leaves, and rose bushes. Indians believed that when a prayer is offered in combination with the smoking of the pipe, the prayers are carried on the smoke to the Great Spirit. Whites came to know these pipes as “peace pipes” because they were often used in treaty ceremonies.
The stone’s scientific name is catlinite, named after George Catlin, the famous frontier artist who visited the quarry in 1836. His paintings brought pipestone to the attention of the larger world, including scientists.
By about 1700, the Dakota Sioux had taken over the quarries and the stone was widely distributed throughout North America through trade. Gradually the pipes became more intricately carved and elaborate and were often decorated with paint, carvings, feathers, beads, and other adornments. As valuable possessions, they were often buried with the dead.
In 1881, a Dakota Indian named Strikes the Ree said this about the process of making the pipes: “Before we approached the sacred ground, all of us followed a three-day purification of fasting, prayers and sacrifices, imploring the Great Spirit to expose the holy minerals, buried beneath the rocks. On the fourth day, we painted ourselves and began working.”
The quarries were gradually encroached upon by white settlers, with outsiders digging new pits and extracting the sacred stone. In 1937 the federal government established Pipestone as a national monument, with quarrying rights remaining in the hands of Indians. The stone can be quarried by any American Indian enrolled in a federally recognized tribe (today nearly 40 tribes have quarrying rights).
Quarrying usually takes place in the late summer and fall and is a laborious process, as pipestone is found in a layer of very hard Sioux quartzite stone and is done only with hand tools such as chisels, pry bars, and picks because of the stone’s fragility. As a sign of gratitude for the gift of the stone, Indians traditionally leave offerings of food and tobacco beside a boulder formation known as the Three Maidens. The area is also the site of frequent religious ceremonies, including sweat lodges.
The site has a small museum with an interpretive film and displays on the history of the site and the significance of the stone found here. It also hosts demonstrations of pipemaking by artisans from the Upper Midwest Indian Cultural Center. You can buy items made of pipestone in the giftshop. After touring the museum, take the 3/4 mile Circle Trail that begins at the visitor center and leads past beautiful red outcroppings of stone and Winnewissa Falls.
Here’s a brief interview with one of the artisans working in the museum: