For thousands of years, the native peoples of North America have visited a scenic region in southwestern Minnesota to quarry a type of red stone used to make ceremonial pipes. Today Pipestone National Monument preserves this sacred land, protects quarries that are still in use, and tells a fascinating story about Native American history and resilience.
I’ve visited Pipestone several times through the years, drawn to its beauty and sense of peace. On my most recent visit I was fortunate to have a tour with Gabrielle Drapeau, a park ranger who is a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Her family has deep roots in the Pipestone area and she appreciates the chance to share her heritage with visitors.
“We believe that the red in the pipestone is the blood of our people,” said Drapeau. “Our elders tell the story that many years ago there was a terrible flood, and the blood from those who died seeped down into the rock.”
As we walked the paved trail that winds through the 301-acre site, Drapeau showed me some of the nearly sixty areas where pipestone is quarried. Permits are given only to members of federally recognized tribes and all the work is done by hand. Some people travel long distances to work in the quarries and also to participate in the sun dances, sweat lodges and vision quests that are held on parts of the monument off-limits to the general public.
“When you’re in the quarries, you have to work really hard to get down to the pipestone layer,” said Drapeau, who is learning the process from those who’ve worked in the quarries for years. “It can take many weeks to reach the thin layer of pipestone, which is under four to ten feet of Sioux quartzite. You’re using pry bars, wedges, and sledge hammers on stone that is harder than granite.”
Pipestone was formed when mud deposits laid down millions of years ago were compressed by the surrounding layers of quartzite. The result is a durable but relatively easy-to-carve stone. While there are other pipestone deposits around the country, the Minnesota stone—which is also known as catlinite—is particularly prized for its beauty and quality.
Oral tribal histories say that for many centuries the land here was considered neutral ground where people were able to quarry for pipestone without fear. Pipestone was traded widely throughout North America and has been found in burial sites in Ohio that are two thousand years old.
In the nineteenth century the ceremonial pipes made here were often inaccurately called “peace pipes” by American settlers and soldiers, who saw them being smoked to mark treaty signings. But the pipes have traditionally been used in a wide variety of settings, from preparing for battle and rites of passage to daily prayer.
While contemporary artisans shape the red stone into a variety of forms, ceremonial pipes continue to be its most significant use. Pipestone is typically used for the bowl of a pipe, while the stem is made from wood.
Pipestone National Monument is officially affiliated with 23 tribal nations, who each have their individual traditions relating to ceremonial pipes, the quarries, and pipestone itself. Lakota ceremonies, for example, often include prayers to the four directions, to the earth, and to the sky, with bits of kinnick-kinnick (an herbal mixture made from local plants) added to the bowl with each prayer. When the pipe is smoked, it’s believed that all of creation comes together in the prayers that waft upwards to the Great Spirit.
“When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything,” said the Oglala Lakota healer and visionary Black Elk, whose story is recorded in the classic book Black Elk Speaks.
Pipestone National Monument was established in 1937 to preserve the Indian quarries, but it also protects another treasure: a tallgrass prairie ecosystem that has changed little since prehistoric times. Only a fraction remains of these grasslands that once covered vast stretches of North America. Pipestone’s prairie has more than five hundred species of plants, including the rare Western prairie-fringed orchid. Other plants of note are the broadleaf arrowhead, whose tuberous roots were used for food by native peoples, and wild bergamot and purple coneflowers, both of which have a variety of medicinal uses.
The monument also has dramatic formations of Sioux quartzite, which like pipestone is a beautiful red color. Quartzite is a popular building material in the region (pipestone is not used for buildings because of its softness). More than 1.6 billion years old, Sioux quartzite is one of the world’s oldest rocks.
Pipestone Creek flows through the property and forms lovely Winnewissa Falls, which waters an oasis of green vegetation in the middle of the drier prairie. Near the falls is a rock face known as The Oracle, which may have been a place for traditional offerings and prayer. The story might be apocryphal, but the stony visage is still a popular landmark.
The visitor center at Pipestone National Monument features exhibits, a film, carvers demonstrating their craft, and a gift shop that sells items made from pipestone quarried here (though ceremonial pipes are not for sale).
In touring this site, I was especially struck by the incredibly hard work of quarrying pipestone. Maybe one of the lessons we can learn from this place is that the sacred is often hidden deep in our lives, and it takes patience and fortitude to find it.
And I’m delighted to have learned at Pipestone that even quarries can be sacred. In the words of Gabrielle Drapeau: “I love working here, in part because I feel connected to my ancestors through this landscape. But I think everyone who comes here can feel the sacredness of this place if their hearts are open.”
IF YOU GO
Pipestone National Monument is located near the town of Pipestone in southwestern Minnesota. Call (507) 825-5464 x214 for information.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.