PART TWO – Pipestone National Monument
Pipestone National Monument was created by an act of Congress in 1937 on 300 acres just outside the city of Pipestone, in southwestern Minnesota. Its main purpose is to preserve the pipestone quarries unique to the area. It is a sacred area to Native Americans and is home to spiritual and cultural activities throughout the year. Our first stop was at the site of the Three Maidens, considered to be the guardian spirits of the pipestone quarries. They are very different from other rock in the area. They are granite and came from far away, deposited by the glacier when it melted thousands of years ago.
We arrived at the visitor center soon after it opened and were in time to see the beginning of a 20 minute film about the site. The color red is sacred to the Native Americans and the red stone found at Pipestone has been quarried for over 2,000 years. This was the preferred location for the Plains tribes to quarry the stone since it is of a high quality. All tribes, even enemies, would work here in peace. The pipes made from this stone were used to mark rituals, ceremonies, prepare for war and trade agreements. The smoke from the pipes is thought to carry prayers up to the spirits.
Native Americans in this area did not originally have tobacco so they would smoke something called Kinnikinnick which means “that which is mixed”. It is still in use and available today. It is a mixture of herbs often unique to the pipe owner. It can contain red willow bark, bearberry leaves, dogwood, sumac and tobacco among others.
You could tell this was a spiritual place from all the colored cloth prayers tied to trees along the path. A three-quarter mile Circle Path takes you through the area around active quarries, a quartzite cliff, native grassland and Winnewissa Falls. If you follow the creek from the waterfall you will see Lake Hiawatha, home to many turtles. Unfortunately we didn’t see any.
Today only Native Americans of federally-recognized tribes can get a permit to quarry at Pipestone and there are currently only about 30 to 40 permits issued. The majority of the people who quarry here come from the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and other central areas of the US.
All the work is done by hand. The particular pipestone found at this location is known as catlinite. It is found in veins inside the Sioux Quartzite rock predominant in the area. The rock is one of the hardest on earth. In order to get to the pipestone it is necessary to work your way through the Sioux Quartzite with hammer and chisel until you reach a pipestone vein. This can take weeks. The pipestone is sandwiched in-between the quartzite and can be10-15 feet down into the rock.
Another interesting thing about the 300 acre monument is the tall grass prairie covering it. It is native prairie that has never been plowed. Less than 1% of the prairie that once covered 200 million acres of North America exists today and some of it is here. It contains over 70 types of grasses and hundreds of plants and wildflowers. The Minnesota DNR Scientific and Natural Areas Program and The Nature Conservancy have established programs to protect and expand the native prairie.
There is a small museum with artifacts, carvings and tools on display at the Visitor Center. The Pipestone Indian Shrine Association has a small shop within the Visitor Center. They are a non-profit cooperating association established in 1955 to preserve the art of pipemaking and help with the programs at Pipestone National Monument. There are a couple of stations where you can watch artisans at work. If you are interested in history, art, nature – this is a great place to spend an afternoon.
As we were leaving we saw a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of tools and a large cooler accompanied by his two children make his way down the path to his quarry. We agreed it was a good thing he had a large cooler since it was going to be a very hot day.
From there we headed to Jeffers Petroglyphs, about an hour and a half away. Stay tuned for part three!