Pipestone National Monument

A pipemaker demonstrating his craft making a pipestone pipe
Making a pipe

Pipestone National Monument is a 281-acre property just north of Pipestone, Minnesota. Contained within the bounds of the property are several pipestone quarries that have been used by Native Americans for maybe 3,000 years. Pipes are sacred objects among most of the Plains tribes and while the Yankton Sioux came into possession of the area around 1700, the quarries have always been a neutral territory where people from any tribe could go to obtain the sacred materials for some of their most sacred customs. Depending on where someone chose to dig and how much pipestone was needed for their purposes, a typical stay at the quarries lasted from 2 to 6 weeks.

Geologically speaking, the layer of catlinite that is excavated as pipestone is sandwiched between two layers of extremely hard Sioux Quartzite. To get to the pipestone, between 1 and 6 feet of earthen overburden has to be removed to get to the top of the Sioux Quartzite. The upper layer of quartzite can be from 4 to 10 feet thick and has to be removed one broken piece at a time. An integral part of each quarry is the rubble pile which offers testament to the amount of work already done and gives an amount of safety to future quarriers.

Minnesota pipestone has been found in burial mounds spread across the central United States and dated a couple thousand (and more) years old. The pipes were of such trade value that they even began making their way into frontier society. The 1858 Treaty with the Yankton Sioux gave the Sioux free and unfettered access to the property in perpetuity. Then the tribe was relocated to a reservation 150 miles to the west after the Sioux War of 1862 (the result of a bad winter and failure of the US government to live up to its written promises). The land around the quarries was claimed by the federal government in 1893 but the tribe didn't give up their claim to it until 1928. The National Monument was established in 1937 and with its establishment, the rights of the Plains tribes to quarry at the site were restored.

Today, only Native Americans are allowed to dig at the site and they need to apply for a permit in advance. Spring and early summer generally see the quarries under water as they are located in a basin that holds snowmelt. Most quarriers only dig in the late summer and fall to avoid the water problem.

The Pipestone National Monument Visitor Center is open daily 8 am to 5 pm year round, except closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Days. Entry fee is $7 per person age 16 and up, except for registered members of any Native American tribe recognized by the US Government (who get in free). The grounds of the park are open from sunrise to sunset but the visitor center and the Circle Trail are fee areas (the Circle Trail is a 3/4-mile hiking loop around the property that also passes near Winnewissa Falls, a popular sight in the area). The property is day-use only, no camping or campfires allowed.

Cultural and pipemaking demonstrations are regular events at the visitor center. Many of the demonstrators are fourth and fifth generation pipemakers. About 260 acres of the national monument have been restored to being native tallgrass prairie.

Winnewissa Falls at Pipestone National Monument
Winnewissa Falls

Photos are courtesy of the National Park Service