In the western slope of the Coteau des Prairie in southwestern Minnesota are quarries of a unique soft stone, ranging in color from mottled pink to brick red, that is considered sacred to the Plains Indians. This is the site of Pipestone National Monument.
©National Park Service
At Pipestone National Monument, Plains Indians once quarried stone for carving.
According to Indian legend, the people of the Plains were made from the stone. Sioux, Crow, Blackfoot, and Pawnee people carved ceremonial pipes from the substance to communicate with the spiritual world. But they also used the pipes to connect with other tribes -- and whites -- through trade.
Plains Indians probably began digging at this quarry in the seventeenth century, when they acquired metal tools from European traders. The durable yet soft stone was perfect for carving, and this location was apparently the best source for pipestone. The quarries were used by tribes across the prairie, though by about 1700 the Dakota Sioux controlled the quarries, and other tribes had to trade for the pipestone. Archaeologists have discovered pipestone pipes thousands of miles from this area.
Plains Indians smoked tobacco in these red clay pipes to mark important activities, such as preparing for war, trading goods and hostages, and ritual dancing. The pipes and tobacco were stored in animal-skin pouches with other sacred objects, and even the ashes were disposed of in special places. Pipes were valued possessions and were often buried with the dead.
Pipestone pipes were carved in a variety of shapes, and their evolution parallels the Plains Indian culture in transition. The simple tube shape of earlier carvers developed into elbow and disk forms and more elaborate animal and human effigies. The T-shaped calumets, a popular form, were widely known as "peace pipes" because they were the pipes white Americans usually saw at peace ceremonies. Effigies in the shape of white politicians and explorers, some far from flattering, attest to the Plains Indians' increasing contact with whites.
The Sioux lost control of the pipestone quarries in 1928. Pipestone National Monument was created in 1937 and opened to the public, though only Indians are allowed to mine the sacred stone. Fall is the best time to see this ancient tradition taking place.
The Upper Midwest Indian Cultural Center in the visitor center sponsors demonstrations of pipemaking using stone from this quarry. It also sells pipes, beadwork and quillwork, and pottery. A three-quarter-mile self-guiding trail loops past the exposed red rock of the quarries and through the tall grasses of the virgin prairie, still used by Indians for cultural and religious activities.
"At an ancient time, the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, stood upon the wall of rock and called all the tribes around him, and breaking out a piece of the red stone formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude. He then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it, that they must use it for nothing but pipes: and as it belonged alike to all the tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it."
-- Sioux account of the origin of the pipestone, as recorded by George Catlin, 1836
Pipestone National Monument Information
Address: 36 Reservation Ave., Pipestone, MN
Hours of Operation:
- 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
- Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day
- Extended hours in the summer
- $3 for individuals
- $5 for families
- free for children 15 and under
Learn about these other national monuments:
Find out more about travel destinations in North America:
- National Monuments: Learn more about America's national monuments.
- National Memorials: Discover national memorials in the U.S.
- National Historic Sites: Read about American national historic sites.
- Minnesota State Guide: Learn about Mobil Travel Guide-rated hotels and restaurants in Minnesota as well as other recreational activities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.