Hiking The Pipestone

"When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything." – Black Elk

I can promise you one thing: when my brother and I, as children, careened around the Pipestone National Monument's Circle Trail (through prairie, over rocks, up cliffs, down ledges, through prairie), we were not thinking about prayer. And we certainly didn’t whisper. The sacredness of the place never crossed our minds. Our parents were from Pipestone, the small southwestern Minnesota town where the monument resides, and the park seemed as much our backyard playground as it had once been theirs. Besides, we were eight and five, and it was just cool to climb stuff.

But when I was older—twelve, maybe—I was given my first pair of dangling, red pipestone earrings, carved into the shape of leaves, and later—at fifteen?—I received a small ceremonial pipe. There were conversations surrounding these gifts, explanations of how the pipestone was quarried from the earth, how it had been a part of Native American religious traditions for centuries, and how these were not earrings to be handled carelessly or a pipe to be used in jest.

"No matter what the tribes were warring over," my mother said, "they could come here and quarry and be promised peace. Many people believe that the smoke from these pipes carries prayers to the Great Spirit, to God."

Last June I revisited the 260 acres of active quarries and native tallgrass prairie. It was a beautiful day—bright blue skies, large shifting clouds, a landscape alive with the movement of spring into summer. I walked past the ledges where my brother and I used to run. I stepped over small streams that we used to leap. I screamed over the wiggly tent caterpillars oh-so-temporarily trapped in their nests exactly as I would have done twenty years before.

The stream, so often a measly trickle in my memories, was pulsing with the presence of the recent long winter, and I walked carefully over pipestone-made bridges, tread slowly along the muddy banks, and had to turn around when one part of the path had been overrun by surging water.

Winnewissa Falls was as wild as I had ever seen it. I inched close enough so its cool spray coated my face, so there was nothing possibly to hear but the pounding the pounding the pounding the pounding.

There was a kind of sacredness in that: letting everything else be drowned out.

When I passed the Face in the Rock, a Dakota or Sioux brave watching Winnewissa, I recalled another story about how young Native American men would leap from one stone ledge to another. They did this to prove themselves, or because they were told to in a dream, or just for fun—I can't quite remember—but what’s important is something inside of them trusted that the air would carry their bodies, that when they set down their feet, they would meet with something solid, something as red and a part of them as any beating heart.

Although I’ve grown up since my earlier visits, am more respectful of the quarries and field totems and their living history, there remains much about the monument I don't know or understand. It could never be any other way: this land is not mine. But its wind still moves the pipestone dangling from my ears in the same way it moves the grasses. Its trails and cliffs and rock still speak to the eight year old, the twelve year old, the thirty year old inside of me. I promise: it still opens my spirit and floods in.

Emily Brisse is a Minnesota writer, photographer, traveler, and trailwalker. (And a high school English teacher, too) Find more of her curious musings at Landing on Cloudy Water.