Pipemaking Tradition Endures at a National Monument

October 30, 2017NPF Blog
— National Park Service

Nestled in a quiet corner of rural southwestern Minnesota, the lands that make up Pipestone National Monument have been important cultural and spiritual grounds to Native Americans for countless generations. The quarries of Pipestone National Monument are North America's most important source of the stone used in traditional pipemaking – a practice that continues to this day.

The Pipestone Quarries

The red rocks of the pit of the pipestone quarry surroudned by green grass at Pipestone National Monument
National Park Service

The unique type of pipestone found at the monument, also known as catlinite, is a type of red clay stone that has long been prized for its durability and relative softness—both of which make it perfect for carving.

Catlinite is quite rare, and while the quarries at Pipestone National Monument are not the only source of pipestone, the site has long been the preferred source for Plains tribes. No other place in North America matches the area in terms of either abundance or quality of the stone, which varies from mottled pink to brick red in color and lends itself perfectly to the sacred art of traditional pipemaking. 

A Storied History

Petroglyphs

National Park Service

While it's impossible to say exactly how long the quarries at Pipestone National Monument have been in use, stone pipes have been used in North America since about 1500 B.C. Native Americans of all tribes travelled great distances to extract the stone, and according to oral accounts passed down through generations, procuring the stone was so important that even warring tribes would put their conflicts on hold to work side by side at the quarries. 

By the 1700s, the Dakota Sioux were the dominant tribe in the Pipestone National Monument area. The Sioux had a simple name for this important place – iyansha K'api, or "the place where one digs the red rock."

The Joseph Nicollet expedition of 1838 yielded the initial maps of the area surrounding the pipestone quarries, though the artist George Catlin had visited the area two years before and created the first paintings of the quarries. Settlers began arriving by the late 1800s, and efforts to protect the land began in earnest during the following decades.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation that officially created Pipestone National Monument in 1937. This not only opened the land to visitors, but permitted quarrying to continue for members of any federally-recognized Native American tribe.

Pipemaking Then and Now

Colorful cloth prayer ties on a tree surrounded by yellow prairie and red quary stones at Pipestone National Monument
National Park Service

Ceremonial smoking has long been a part of many activities for the Plains peoples, from trading goods to rallying forces for battle. The most important use of traditional clay pipes is in prayer, with many believing that the pipe smoke carried a prayer to the Great Spirit. Although the process of pipemaking has evolved and developed over many centuries, it continues among Plains tribes to this day. 

Unlike the pipemaking process, quarrying itself has changed little over the years. It is time and labor-intensive, and still relies on handheld tools, such as sledgehammers and chisels, to extract the soft pipestone from the surrounding strata of hard quartzite. Given this difficult work, pipemaking requires those performing the task to be in good physical condition.  

Visiting Pipestone National Monument

The shores of Lake Hiawatha with green plants and trees at Pipestone National Monument

Lake Hiawatha

National Park Service

Pipestone National Monument protects an important landscape with a rich history and heritage. Visiting the national monument today offers an opportunity to experience a rarely seen aspect of traditional Native American culture. The tradition further unfolds as the park offers daily pipestone carving demonstrations.

Be sure to begin your trip at the visitor center, where you can talk with a park ranger, check out a variety of fascinating museum exhibits, and watch the film entitled "Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy" for an illuminating glimpse into the park's history.

The park also includes a beautiful walking trail that provides a chance to see the quarries themselves, along with historical markers, Old Stone Face, Winnewissa Falls, and sweeping views of Minnesota's native tallgrass prairie. A sacred area and rich local culture are brought to life when you #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque at Pipestone National Monument.


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