Pipestone: Tradition, beauty in rare rock

  • Article by: KERRI WESTENBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 11, 2012 - 4:18 PM
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Pipestone National Monument is considered a sacred site by many native people.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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On the outskirts of the humble county seat of Pipestone, in the southwest corner of Minnesota, lies an unusual plot of land called the Pipestone National Monument. With prairie grasses and a bubbling waterfall set amid plots of cornfields, it is a quiet place, where the rustle of bluestem in the wind acts as a back beat to a chorus of bird song.

For centuries, Plains Indians have gathered here -- not only for the natural beauty of the landscape, but for the rare rock that lies beneath the surface. Tribes, from Crow to Sioux, have quarried the soft red stone known as pipestone because it is used to carve pipes (and figurines). They still quarry today; only American Indians enrolled in a tribe recognized by the U.S. government are allowed to do so. Some believe the red stone represents their flesh or that it contains the blood of their ancestors, and that the land is a sacred place to all tribes.

As you walk the pathways, feel the power of a waterfall (rare in these flatlands) and see the auburn-hued rock outcroppings, it's an idea that can't be dismissed.

WHY GO NOW

On Aug. 25, Pipestone National Monument will host a 75th anniversary celebration. Activities will include a carving demonstration, guided walking tours and a ceremony with traditional prayers and drum song. Historic photographs will be on display at the visitor center.

THE EXPERIENCE

During my several visits to the national monument, I have seen the painstaking work of quarrying in person only once. That is not a problem, though, because at the visitor center, I can always see "Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy," a 22-minute film that thoughtfully and movingly lays out the history and importance of the quarries through interviews with the people who know it best, the Indians who extract the stone there. On the screen, you see a family hammering away at hard quartz to get to the pipestone beneath and, better yet, you hear what drives them to do the backbreaking work.

The visitor center also has a museum detailing the area's history, displays of some exquisite pipestone carvings from the past and a gift shop where you can pick up a wide array of goods, from books to small pipestone carved turtles to intricate beadwork necklaces. Only Indians can sell handcrafted goods at the store, and many items come with a little sheet of paper describing the person and his or her tribal connections.

The heart of the monument, though, is a -mile paved trail that winds through native tallgrass prairie, past ancient pipestone quarries and along a stream that crashes over cliffs to create Winnewissa Falls. A trail guide available at the visitor center points out areas of interest, including a rock outcropping called Old Stone Face because it looks like an Indian in profile.

DON'T MISS

Explorer Joseph Nicollet left his mark on the land, literally. When he and his expedition came to map the area in 1838, expedition member Joseph Laframboise carved his initials, plus "J.N. Nicollet" on rock. The carving is still evident today, and is among highlights noted in the trail guide.

ROCK TALK

Pipestone is called Catlinite, after the famous painter of American Indians because he first reported on it to the scientific community of the time. He recorded this Sioux account of the origin of pipestone in 1836: "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 ... it belonged alike to all the tribes, the ground was sacred."

Pipestone is found in only a few places worldwide. Most of the red rock jutting out of the ground at Pipestone National Monument -- including at the cliffs on which Nicollet's initials are carved -- is not pipestone but Sioux Quartzite. In order to reach pipestone, quarriers must first dig through grass and soil, then hammer away at 10 or more feet of the remarkable hard quartzite. They do the work without the benefit of explosives, relying instead on sledgehammers, crowbars, wheelbarrows and their own strength.

IF YOU GO

Pipestone National Monument is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. The cost is $3; free for ages 15 and under and for American Indians (1-507-825-5464; www.nps.gov/pipe).

The monument lies just north of Pipestone, a town of about 4,000. Much of Pipestone's historic downtown was built with pink Sioux Quartzite. For a close-up look, visit the Pipestone County Museum, housed in the Old City Hall building (1-507-825-2563; www.pipestoneminnesota. com/museum), or stay at the Calumet Inn, in the heart of the downtown and on the National Register of Historic Places (1-507-825-5871; www.calumetinn.com).Stop by Lange's Cafe for roast beef and pie (1-507-825- 4488).

Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282

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