A Full Circle to Pipestone

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North America » United States
July 24th 2018
Published: July 24th 2018
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Water, Rocks, and Trees - Pipestone Version. Very Tranquil
Pipestone National Monument, Pipestone, Minnesota

We visited the last park on this trip yesterday - Pipestone National Monument - and what a terrific way to end the park tour. So many things came full circle here. Although I had no idea it would work that way when we planned the trip, this was a perfect last stop.

This is a fairly small monument with a rather unique mission. It is run, like many of our national parks, as a cooperative between the U.S. government and other private agencies. In this case, the private agency is a Native American group. All Native Americans, but especially tribes like the Dakota and the Sioux from the Great Plains area have a keen interest in this park because it protects a sacred place. As the award-winning film relates, several Indian tribes believe this place in particular is rich in sacred meaning and may very well be an important resting place for their ancient ancestors.

The park is in place to protect and preserve Pipestone. As the name implies, this is a particular kind of rock and so far at least, the only known place where it is found is here. It is

Pipestone on the floor of this exhibit quarry
a layer of red-colored clay that has been metamorphosed, over a billion years ago, into a rock geologists call calinite, but which Native Americans call by a different name. The stone is hard, but submits to carving by files and harder rocks. And, because the rock is believed to come from the blood and flesh of ancient ones buried in a massive flood - as part of an origin myth, the rock itself is considered sacred and is used to make pipes. Smoking, for these tribes, is not just a simple passive activity, but smoke, especially from one of these pipes, is believed to rise up to mingle with the souls of their ancestors. So these pipes, and smoking from these pipes, is considered to be special.

Although agreements with the U.S. government have always been unreliable to the Indians, and usually entered into without being fully aware of what the English terms meant, the agreement regarding Pipestone is that the place will be protected and managed by the U.S. to be a permanent and perpetual place where any member of any federally recognized Indian group can quarry the stone to find and use pipestone as they see fit. White men are not allowed to mine these spots, only Indians.

And they do that, as the film, exhibits, and the land itself attests, they have dug through the dirt on top and then laboriously chiseled out the overlaying quartzite to expose the thin layers of pipestone underneath. After what might be years of effort in a family-maintained quarry, they extract pieces of the red rock which they then shape into pipes and maybe some other touristy type items. In the exhibit hall, you can find workshops being staffed by active pipemakers who are more than happy to show you how they do it today, and how that was different from the way it was done centuries ago (no power drills back then.). And you can buy pipes ranging from simple ones around $45 up to very elaborate carvings of real artistic quality. I saw one that was priced at $750. They are stunning objects and the polished red pipestone gives them a unique color and texture.

Outside the exhibit hall a visitor should take the 3/4 mile hike through the valley. In addition to seeing a few active quarries while you hike, you also get a grand tour through a very sacred place. The little valley is a stunningly beautiful site and was totally unexpected. There is a stream running through it and a ten or twelve foot waterfall right in the middle of the park. The valley, here in the high prairie, is very rich in vegetation, although the park says that the number of native species has declined considerably in the last century. You can purchase, or borrow, a little guide book that helps you navigate and understand the 16 stops on the tour. It covers both the natural and cultural history of the place and is well worth the hour you might spend carefully considering each stop.

Us white folk might not be able to appreciate the cultural importance of this park. But you can’t help but feel that this is indeed a spiritual place. Packed into a small space is a unique set of experiences where you can’t help feeling in touch with nature. The rocks, the water, and the plants and animals that surround you ground you firmly in nature’s grasp. It is a wonderful, mystical experience.

Perhaps just because I’m exhausted from being on the road more than three months, but I found this last park especially moving. It managed, in just the couple of hours we were here, to tie together much of what this trip was all about. In some sense, that is kind of strange because of its location - out here on the prairie, this is a far different eco-system than the Great Lakes area where we spent much of our time. But the first stop on the trip was at Homestead National Monument in Nebraska, and that too was on the prairie, so we have come to a full circle. The movie also makes reference to the homesteaders and their impact on Indian lands here in southwestern Minnesota.

And there are the pipes made from the stone here. They’ve been doing that for quite some time, and while the pipes may have more meaning for the Great Plains Indians, pipes made here were also found at Hopewell Culture area in southern Ohio. And I don’t know how many times I’ve read about the importance of the calumet in the dealings between the French and the Ojibwe Indians surrounding Lake Superior. The calumet was a peace pipe and an important part of any trade deal. It wouldn’t be surprising if many of those calumet pipes came from here as trading between Indian groups was as important, and maybe more, than trade with the white man.

And then there was the unexpected water. No, there is no big Great Lake here to look out over, but there was a waterfall and we’ve seen several of those ranging from Brandywine in Cuyahoga Valley, to Mosquito Falls at Picture Rocks, to Kettle Falls in Voyageurs. Water was a constant part of this trip and having it play a central part in our last stop reinforced the importance.

And there were trees everywhere. Here they are largely cottonwoods, but we have seen such a rich diversity of forests from spruce and fir, to hardwoods like beech and maple and oak. If there has been a dominant color in our travels on this trip, it would have to be green.

And, well, there is rock. One of the stimulating thoughts for me has been to appreciate the geology on this trip. Seeing some of the oldest rocks on the planet at Voyageurs and the impact of glaciers just about everywhere is echoed here - this area too was scraped by glaciers and while the pipestone rock is much younger than that at Voyageurs, it is still a key component of this park, as rock was everywhere we went on this trip.

A fitting last stop. We’ve completed the bucket list on this trip now. I’ll provide some more thoughts about our experience in the parks in future posts. But the trip isn’t quite finished. Joan has one last rebellion item on deck for today. Tomorrow, though, we start heading home

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