PIPESTONE, MINN. -- Billy Bryan points to a crooked slippery elm tree poking from the ground beside a quarrying pit.

"My mother would hang my cradle board on that tree right there," he says.

Bryan, who turns 70 next month, has been right here ever since -- carving pipes wrenched from a sacred layer of soft, blood-red pipestone.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed a bill 75 years ago this Saturday, designating these 300 acres in Minnesota's southwest corner as a National Monument. A day full of events is slated for Saturday to commemorate the anniversary, which is just a blip in the overall history of the red-rock deposits that make Pipestone such a unique treasure.

For 3,000 years, native people have been extracting this soft stone sandwiched between layers of quartzite. Bryan's Ojibwe father and Dakota mother, now both deceased, were among the countless quarriers.

Although the government still issues 56 quarrying permits every year, Bryan worries about the future of this spiritual tradition.

"It's a dying art," he says. "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."

Only hand tools -- hacksaws, hammers, wedges, files and bars -- are permitted in the quarrying pits. Sometimes, it takes six months of pounding on the quartzite before a seam of pipestone is exposed.

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

As a 12-year-old, Bryan started counting how many pipes he made, some formed in a T-shape, others bent at 90 degrees like an elbow.

"By the time I got to 14, I had counted over 2,200," he says, "so I quit counting right then and there."

'A spiritual, personal journey'

Pipestone's magic is best experienced at sunset, when the plains transform into a fiery display, lighting up the red cliffs amid the roar of Winne-wissa Falls.

"That's a pretty time to walk the circle trail," says Glen Livermont, 56, superintendent at Pipestone National Monument for the past four years.

A career National Park Service employee, Livermont has worked at the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake in Oregon and the Badlands in South Dakota.

He put in for a transfer to Pipestone a dozen years ago, lured by the small park's rich history, natural beauty and its deep connection with those who quarry there.

"I've come to really treasure being around American Indians," he says. "For them, visiting the park is a spiritual, personal journey."

The pipes made from the stone have inspired stories, passed down for generations. Black Elk, a Lakota elder and oral historian, told the tale of White Buffalo Calf Woman, a spiritual woman who presented the people with a pipe before morphing into a baby white buffalo.

"Holding the pipe up with its stem to the heavens, she said: 'With this sacred pipe you will walk upon the earth; for the earth is your grandmother and mother, and she is sacred. The bowl of this pipe is of red stone; it is the earth,'" Black Elk said, quoting White Calf Buffalo Woman. "'All the things of the universe are joined to you who smoke the pipe -- all send their voices to Wakan-Tanka, the Great Spirit. When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything.'"

White people arriving in the area in the 1830s were equally mesmerized.

Artist George Catlin painted the scenes of the red-rock cliffs after his first trip here in 1836. He brought some of the stone back to Boston, where a geologist friend studied it and declared it a new discovery, naming it Catlinite.

Never mind that Indians had been trading pipestone for centuries, and archaeologists have unearthed it in tribal burial sites from Ohio to California.

"Scientists call it Catlinite," Bryan says with a chuckle. "Native people just call it pipestone."

Catlin also recorded a story he heard from a Dakota elder he befriended on his explorations.

"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," Catlin wrote. "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 tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it."

'Windfall of soft stone'

A couple of years later, explorer Joseph Nicollet led a government mapping party out to Pipestone in 1838. They carved their initials into the quartzite stone on the cliffs, their early graffiti still visible and accessible along one of the easy hiking trails. Nicollet's journal keepers jotted this down and translators turned the French to English:

"The discovery of the red earth is due to the passage of animals [buffalo] which hollowed out a deep pathway, as they do in the regions of seasonal migration where they try always to take the same route. The pathway revealed the surface of the red rock. One can imagine, then, in nations for whom the pipe is among the most important of necessary objects, what a windfall it was to be provided with a soft stone of their favorite color, suitable for making pipes, in an immense land where there is no other workable rock. ...

" ... The pathway made formerly by the passage of animals is still clearly visible for nearly a mile, and one can see that the Indians mined the red stone there for many years before being forced to remove rock that covered the red stone where it is now worked."

Nicollet told how the Dakota name for the sacred quarry was "iyansha K'api; that is to say, the place where one digs the red rock."

And that brings us back to Billy Bryan, who has dedicated his life to this special place and its special red stone. Bryan worked at Pipestone National Monument from 1962 to 1972, moving from the maintenance department to archaeology, where he helped supervise digs. Twice married and widowed, he has two grown daughters, one of whom is a doctor at the University of Minnesota. He walks over to the park nearly every day, demonstrating his carving to anyone who asks. His handshake is vise-like, a byproduct he attributes to swinging a sledgehammer for 60 years.

"I was born on the top of the hill over there at the Pipestone Indian School," he says. "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."

He lets loose a chuckle, a wry smile and a shrug.

"This is all I've been brought up with," he says. "I don't know anything else."

Curt Brown • 612-673-4767