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Legendary pipe carver passes away in Pipestone

Posted by: Updated: October 16, 2012 - 4:02 PM

PIPESTONE, MINN. -- After a lifetime of carving scared pipestone, Billy Bryan's handshake was bone-crushingly vice-like. "That's what you get from throwing a sledgehammer for 60 years," he joked in an interview this summer.

 

Bryan, a fixture at the Pipestone National Monument who worried about the future of the Native American pipe-carving tradition, died Monday from a heart attack. He was 70.

In a series of interviews this summer with the Star Tribune, Bryan talked about the lifetime he spent amid the red rock outcrops of southwestern Minnesota:

"I was born on the top of the hill over there at the Pipestone Indian School," he said. "I was raised a half-mile south of the grounds. And I'll be buried in the boneyard a half-mile west. I've got one foot in the grave and the other's slipping."

Despite that foreboding, he was in good health and would walk a few miles to the monument every day. Bryan joked that he was a mixed-blood: "My father was Ojibwe and my mother was Dakota."

He'd point to a crooked slippery elm tree beside a quarrying pit and explain that his mother would hang his cradle board on that tree. As a 12-year-old, Bryan counted the pipes he carved. By the time he reached 14, he quit counting because he'd reached 2,200.

"Ninety-eight percent of the work is getting the rock out of the ground," he said. "And 2 percent goes into carving a pipe, which I can do sitting in the shade taking a nap."

The National Park Service issues 56 quarrying permits a year to Native Americans. Only hand tools such as hacksaws, hammers, wedges and files can be used to extract the soft red rock.

Bryan worked that the Pipestone National Monument from 1962 to 1972, moving from maintenance to archeology, where he supervised digs. Twice married and widowed, he is survived by two grown daughters.

He worried that the art of pipe carving will be lost as his generation disappears.

"This is all I've been brought up to do," Bryan said. "I don't know anythinfg else. It's a dying art. Everyone left quarrying and carving now is 40 or older -- the younger people would rather push buttons on a computer than swing a 20-pound sledgehammer."

(Star Tribune photographer David Joles shot this photo earlier this year)

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