If you happen to end up in Pipestone, it appears to be a tourist attraction like so many others, and although it is certainly fascinating, the fact that it is easily accessible, and the short time tourists have if they are touring may limit its allure. Thus, it is hard to imagine the emotions that the site evoked in the late seventeenth century when fur traders, explorers and pioneers roaming the western Great Plains in North America heard of it. It was described as an unspecified, mythical place, in terms that were so mysterious and elusive that it was suspected that the Native Indians had invented it. However, their ceremonial pipes were certainly real, featuring a long stem adorned with feathers and dyed horsehair, with a bowl carved out of a red, compact stone, red like their skin. The natives affirmed that the stone came from a sacred place high on the Great Plains. There lay the source of their pipes.
The nineteenth century painter and writer, George Catlin, travelled all over the western regions on geographical or military missions. He observed and noted down the dress, stories and traditions of American Indians, before they were overwhelmed by the waves of settlers. He had already heard of the red stone quarry some years earlier and was determined to find it. Thus, in 1836, together with a young Englishman, Robert Serril Wood and an Indian guide, O-Keep-Kee, he set out in search of the site. The recommended route (certainly not the easiest one) involved travelling over water, so they left from the easternmost point of Lake Erie, sailing across Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and down the Fox, Illinois, Mississippi, and Minnesota rivers. They sailed on small vessels that could be carried when crossing falls, rapids or land. They also travelled by horse or on foot where possible. This is how they travelled down most of the River Minnesota and eventually reached a small trading outpost where a number of hostile Sioux warriors held them up.
“We have been told that you are going to the Pipe Stone Quarry. We come now to ask for what purpose you are going and what business you have to go there”. “We have seen always that the white people, when they see anything in our country they want, send officers to value it, and then if they can to buy it, and if they can’t buy it they will get it some other way”. “We know that the whites are like a great cloud that rises in the East and will cover the whole country. We know that they will have all our lands; but if they ever get our Red Pipe Quarry they will have to pay very dear for it”.
Catlin was used to dealing with the Indians. He calmly but firmly said that he only wanted to see the marvelous site, repeating several times that he did not intend to spoil anything, but that nobody could stop him. However, at least one European had actually already visited the site five years earlier, Philander Prescott, the fur trader. The Indians may not have known this or else Catlin does not mention everything in his memoirs, but it shows how much the Sioux valued the sacred red stone and pipes in their culture.
The Native Indians were intimately and religiously tied to their environment, holding in deep god-fearing reverence the Sun, Moon, waterfalls, fire and rocks. Above all they greatly feared evil spirits. Thus, they considered tobacco smoke the best way to invoke protection from supernatural beings. Indeed, its very ethereal nature led them to believe that even the pipe and the material it was made of was a precious gift from the Great Spirit. No rite, important decision or solemn agreement was complete without a ceremonial pipe, and there was a pipe and precise ceremony for every occasion. Tobacco harvesting was sacred, as was quarrying the red stone to make the pipe. Most sacred of all was the quarry where George Catlin was determined to go.
The following day the three men set off again on foot, and nobody stopped them. Catlin wrote: "We kept our way over a hundred miles of beautiful prairie until we reached the trading-house of an old friend of mine, M. la Framboise, where we rested pleasantly for a couple of days […] La Framboise has some good Indian blood in his veins […] We were now but forty or fifty miles from the base of the Coteau des Prairie, and with our kind companion La Framboise, pushed on. For many miles we had the Coteau before us like a blue cloud settling down on the horizon. When we had arrived at its base we were scarcely sensible of it from the graceful and almost imperceptible terraces gently rising one above the other until we reached the summit”.
Today it does not take long to reach the site. Coming from the East it is just off Interstate 90 north before Sioux Falls. The Coteau des Prairies, a highland composed of glacial deposits, covers 160 kilometres from east to west and 320 kilometres from north to south between Eastern South Dakota, South-West Minnesota and North-West Iowa. It reaches a height of 275 metres, but the slope is so gentle that you are hardly aware of climbing, amidst green, rolling hills. Pipestone lies in the southernmost part, still in Minnesota although flanking the border with South Dakota. Turning into Reservation Avenue, you cannot miss it: at the end of the road there is just the car park for the Pipestone National Monument.
When George Catlin published his memoirs, he was accused of inventing much of what he had written, and the writer himself admitted that in part this was so. Nevertheless, once the more exaggerated parts have been removed, his work is still substantially a precious record of the Native Americans of that time, and in particular of the pipestone quarry. The pipestone quarry had been used by the native Americans for centuries, and though perhaps not corresponding to Eden, was nevertheless not simply a stone quarry. The site was surrounded by an aura of mystery and legend, the six huge granite boulders held symbolic and ceremonial meaning, as did the two-mile long, 9-metre-high red quartzite crest, and rock carvings depicted men and wild animals in the pipestone quarries. All this suggests that the site was a place of worship in which propitiatory rites were celebrated to extract the red stone, as well as a place for social gatherings during solemn events. The site was so sacred that for centuries each tribe of the Great Plains visited it. Before entering, they laid down their arms, as quarrying was a peaceful task, working side by side, even the tribes who were at war with each other.
Today, the visitor to Pipestone follows a circular trail for one kilometre, passing a creek with a waterfall flowing down quartzite rocks, and various types of local flora that make up the prairie. A slight detour leads to the "Three Maidens", the huge boulders mentioned above, traditionally considered as harbouring spirits who watch over the quarriers, which receive offerings of food and tobacco. You can walk along this route and merely look around, but for those who try to understand and relive the emotions of those who made a pilgrimage to this site, the site offers a much more intense experience.
Not only did Catlin observe traditions and legends, depicting people in pen and pencil, but he also brought back some samples of the pipestone and showed them to Charles Thomas Jackson, a mineralogist in Boston. When he realized that the mineral was unknown, Jackson decided to name it "catlinite". According to the Indians, the stone was a gift from the Great Spirit, who had been the first to shape a pipe out of the stone. One legend has it that the colour comes from the blood of countless buffalo killed by the Great Spirit for food, whereas another narrates that the origin of the colour lies in the blood of thousands of men killed by a great flood. However, geologists state that a billion years ago an ocean covered the area and on the seabed lay layers of sand, clay and then more sand, and over time all this compressed under high pressure and temperatures which hardened the minerals. Thus, sand and clay turned into quartzite and catlinite. The mineral owes its red colour to oxidized iron present in the mineral. Thus, the quarry is the result of various layers of these minerals buried under the Pipestone plains. At first sight it looks nothing special, just a series of holes dug by the side of a path, with large, flat rocks nearby, surrounded by the green countryside.
The people who come to extract the pipestone first have to labour to remove the soil covering the hard quartzite, move it to the rubble pile at the rear of the quarry and then chisel away at the quartzite, remove it and pile it up again on the rubble pile, until the catlinite is exposed. Although the process seems simple enough, in fact it is extremely laborious work as everything is done with hand tools, not machinery, such as shovels, picks, wedges that are driven in the cracks between the quartzite, prybars and sledgehammers. Quartzite is an extremely hard material, and if hammered too hard can let fly a lot of dangerous splinters. However, the catlinite layer itself is quite fragile, so that great care must be taken to extract it, otherwise any excessive force could damage it. This is one of the reasons why only hand tools are used, not machinery.
Since the quarried area is on one side and the rubble area on another, it is likely that the quarry shifted over time. Indeed, the problem now for quarriers is that they must dig increasingly deeper for the stone. Although quarrying intensified between 700 and 1200 CE, archaeologists date the discovery of the quarry to around 1000 BCE and at that time catlinite was almost on the surface, and as some Indians told the first Europeans who reached the site, the pipestone was easily removed by the hooves of herds of buffalos when they migrated each season.
Around Pipestone archaeologists have found evidence of ancient, bloody battles between Indian tribes, and it is likely that the quarry was the source of contention. Then followed a period of peace, if the stories can be believed, and in the early nineteenth century when Catlin arrived, the site was controlled by the Sioux Alliance and the Yankton tribe. Moreover, in 1803, all the land between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers were given over to the American Government by Napoleon. The few Europeans scattered around at forts and trading outposts or those who travelled, such as fur traders, adventurers, or cartographers, were just the vanguard of the “great cloud that rises in the East” so feared by the Native Americans. It is true that Catlin’s stories had aroused curiosity, but there were many other reasons which drove the waves of settlers West. In the 1850s the Sioux tribes around Pipestone moved to the reservations. However, a treaty of 1858 granted the Yankton tribe free and unlimited quarrying in Pipestone. The area , which extended 648 acres (262 hectares) and included the quarry, was enclosed and off limits to settlers. Nevertheless, the “cloud” was irrepressible and for years furious battles were fought over ownership of the land, until the Government stepped in again. From 1928, the land was handed over to the federal government, and the Yanktons were paid compensation. However, in 1937 a bill was passed in Congress which was signed by Franklin Delano Roosvelt, and the Pipestone National Monument was established. By this time the land was only a fifth of what it had been in 1858: from 648 acres it decreased to 115 acres; from 262 hectares to 54 hectares. However, over time other portions of land were added, so that today the area extends 301 acres, 121 hectares. The southern part was saved, which was also the most important, and it could have been a lot worse.
Once the visitors have parked their car, entered the Visitor Centre, paid for their tickets, gone past the information desk and the auditorium where a short film is shown, they arrive at the Museum. The Museum features exhibits concerning the history of the site and the pipes, and red stones are displayed that have also been extracted from other quarries in the US (Pipestone was not the only quarry, but it was the most famous; there were also other types of stone used to fashion pipes). There are also Native American artefacts, texts and pictures on the first European explorers to these parts. From the Museum the visitors go to the Interpretive Centre, which the Pipestone Indian Shrine Association, a non-profit organisation that was created to preserve Indian traditions, runs in partnership with the Monument’s administration. Here there are displays on the special relationship between the Native Americans and the Pipestone quarry, and a better idea can be gained as to what to expect outside. Visitors may touch catlinite slabs, a material that really was made for pipes, as it is both durable, but also pliable, so that it is easy to carve and also fire-proof. One can also get an idea of the geological history of the site through the variety of tall grasses of the prairie. Some were used by the Indians to prepare “kinnikinnick" (a mixture of wild tobacco that was smoked in pipes) and others for medication. On display are thirteen large rocks that once surrounded the "Three Maidens", which feature ancient rock carvings. There are more displays featuring objects and even small catlinite pearls, and nearby there are also dioramas, one of which shows the American Indians mining the stone in the quarry. Visitors also have the chance to watch Native American pipe makers demonstrate their pipe making craft in various stages. In addition to all this, visitors can also buy souvenirs from the gift shop, which is also run by the Shrine Association.
Along with other exhibits, records and souvenirs, there is a remarkable assortment of red catlinite pipes. The quarry is now part of the Native Indians’ cultural heritage. While the treaty signed in 1858 included only the Yankton tribe, today the privilege of mining the stone has been extended to 23 tribes. Permission is granted annually, and may be renewed. Each person has their own personal workplace where they are the only ones entitled to mine the stone. However, the period lasts for less than a year, more like a few months, in later summer and early autumn, as winters are so cold and the quarry often gets flooded. As mentioned above, the only tools allowed are simple hand ones, as the stone is fragile. The tradition and spiritual values of quarrying should be respected, and intensive quarrying is prohibited, so as to make the quarry last as long as possible. Ancient practice also dictates that it should be the solely the Native Americans who shape the pipes, as is evident at Pipestone.
For the die-hard traditionalists, however, the Pipestone National Monument is more of a sad compromise, as they dislike the fact that the pipes are sold to anyone, when originally they were freely given or bartered among the Indian tribes and often used by the craftsmen who made them. They dislike the fact that their sacred place has become a tourist attraction, that the ceremonial pipes are exhibited, when in the past they were only assembled at the last minute before being smoked. However, these compromises are the least of their problems, and at Pipestone the situation is acceptable as it means that it will preserve an area that otherwise could be in danger, as long as the visitors are aware of its value and respect the site.
The pipes in the gift shop, in addition to the more ancient ones that can be seen around, enable us to gain a better picture of the traditions and wide variety of individual styles. The most common type is the inverted “T” shaped pipe, much used at the time of the first Europeans; the “Four Winds” design is interesting as it features rings cut in the bowl that represent the direction of the winds, so it is used in ceremonies facing the four directions. A curious pipe is the "Mic-Mac", the "Crest" adorned with a crest, and a pipe bowl in the shape of an eagle’s claw. Then there is the "Buffalo" shaped pipe, as well as one in the shape of a horse and a bear. The "Elbow" is the most common shape that is for personal rather than ceremonial use. The "Hatchet" was produced by the Europeans for the natives in exchange for other goods. Other bowls are inlaid with lead, which originally came from bullets. Special one-off pipes may be made to order. The long stems are usually made of wood, but there are some made of reed cane and catlinite. The hole to let the smoke pass through is made by splitting the stem into two, carving out the length of the two halves and then reassembling them together. The alternative is to bore the stem with a hot wire.
The people at the gift shop say that from the 1950s to the 1970s pipes were sold more as souvenirs than as real smoking pipes, exotic objects to adorn the house. More recently, pipes are increasingly being bought by the Native Americans to smoke in ceremonies, as ancient traditions are revived and attracting followers. Thus, the pipe makers are crafting the pipes so that they can be smoked, making the bowls larger, for instance. The prairie flora, surrounding the Centre and along the trail, is an essential feature of Pipestone. Indeed, the Native Americans gathered various plants to be cured and smoked. The “kinnikinnick", a special precursor of modern day blends, combined wild tobacco( rarely smoked alone) with other plant types: bearberry, spearmint or peppermint and other prairie plants such as prairie rose hips, smooth sumac, white sage and red osier dogwood, among others. Each person blended the tobacco according to personal taste, as people still do today. Great care has been taken (and still is today) in identifying the original plants, and since the condition of the once vast prairie was linked to the occasional blaze caused by lightning, here the fires are started artificially and contained.
The Pipestone National Monument is part of the system of American National Parks, although it is not the most well known. The location has more American than European visitors, who probably consider it a minor destination. However, for the pipe smoker who is curious about the glorious origins of the pipe, it has altogether another meaning.
Pipestone National Monument
36 Reservation Avenue
Pipestone, MN. 56164
Phone +1 507-825-5464
Fax +1 507- 825- 5466