The story, of this stone and the pipes made from it spans four centuries of Plains Indian life. Inseparable from the traditions that structured daily routine and honored the spirit world, pipes figured prominently in the ways of the village and in dealings between tribes. The story parallels that of a culture in transition: the evolution of the pipes influenced— and was influenced by—their makers' association with white explorers, traders, soldiers, and settlers.
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, 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 the tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it.—Sioux account of the origin of the pipestone, as recorded by George Catlin, 1836.
Across the Great Plains, the stories of the pipestone differ from Sioux to Crow, from Blackfoot to Pawnee. Variation is one indication of the geographical extent to which the red stone and pipes were used and traded. The reverence with which the stories are passed down through generations is testimony to their importance.
Stone pipes were long known among the prehistoric peoples of North America; specimens from 2,000 years ago have been found at Mound City in present-day Ohio. Digging at this Minnesota quarry likely began in the 17th century, a time which coincided with the acquisition of metal tools from European traders. Carvers prized this durable yet relatively soft stone, which ranged in color from mottled pink to brick red. By all accounts this location came to be the preferred source of pipestone among the Plains tribes. By about 1700, though, the Dakota Sioux controlled the quarries and distributed the stone only through trade.
Ceremonial smoking marked the activities of the Plains people:
- rallying forces for warfare,
- trading goods and hostages,
- ritual dancing, and
- medicine ceremonies.
As America grew westward in the 19th century, pipes found their way into white society through trade. Increasing contact between whites and Indians inspired new subject matter for carvers. Sometimes these effigies honored white politicians and explorers; sometimes the images were caricatures far from flattering. Pipes became a source of income for their makers, thus significant beyond religious use. To protect their source, the Yankton Sioux secured free and unrestricted access by an 1858 treaty. Even as the quarry became increasingly lucrative, American settlement threatened to consume the square-mile Indian claim. Outsiders were digging new pits and extracting the sacred stone. In 1928 the Yanktons, now resettled on a reservation 150 miles away sold their claim to the federal government. Pipestone National Monument was signed into existence in 1937 and opened to the public with quarrying limited to Indians.
Plains Indian culture has undergone radical change since the era of the free-ranging buffalo herds, yet pipecarving is by no means a lost art. Carvings today are appreciated as artworks as well as for ceremonial use. Once again, as commanded by the spirit bird in the Sioux story of its creation, the pipestone here is quarried by anyone of Indian ancestry. An age-old tradition continues in the modern world, ever changing yet firmly rooted in the past.
Carving Pipes from Stone
The work of native American pipecarvers takes many forms. Since the mid-l9th century, the inverted T-shaped calumet has been perhaps the shape most recognizable as Plains Indian work. Metal tools acquired from white traders in historic times facilitated more detailed carving, but even in many highly ornate effigy pipes the basic calumet shape is distinct.
Today craftsmen use power saws and drills for speed and precision. Though tools are more sophisticated, the process is similar to that of the age when carving implements were made of stone and wood.
Carving the bowl
Using a sharpened rock, the carver outlines the bowl on a rectangle of pipestone about six inches long. Excess stone is cut away. The relatively soft pipestone yields to a flint "saw" as the carver forms the rough bowl. At this stage the carver rounds the edges by scraping the bowl against stone—perhaps a chunk of quartzite removed during quarrying.
The shape is further refined by filing. Carvers sometime postpone filing until after drilling, since the boring process can split the stone. The bowl is secured to prevent movement as the stem hole is drilled through the longer leg of the inverted T; a connecting shaft to hold tobacco is bored perpendicular to the stem hole. The hand drill shown is wooden with a flint bit and leather thong. George Catlin in 1841 described a drilling process whereby the carver rolled a sharpened stick between his hands; sand and water poured in the hole intensified the abrasive action of the wooden point.
After drilling, the bowl might be left plain, or decorated by carving it into a human or animal effigy or by inlaying bands of metal. Finally, the pipe is polished with a sand rubbing, then buffed to a gloss.
Digging the pipestone
Late summer and fall are the most desirable time to dig: at other times of the year water collects in the pits. After the soil is shoveled away, the top layer of quartzite is broken up carefully with a sledge hammer and wedge to minimize damage to the relatively soft pipestone underneath.
Since the pipestone bed slopes downward to the east, quarriers must dig through an increasingly thick layer of quartzite as they quarry new pipestone. Under the quartzite are 1- to 3-inch sheets of catlinite. Quarriers lift the broken sheets from the pits, then cut them into smaller blocks from which the pipes are carved.
Quarrying here has always been accomplished with respect for the earth and for what it yields. The Sioux traditionally leave an offering of food and tobacco beside the group of boulders known as the Three Maidens in return for this land's gift of stone.
Making the Stem
Stems are hewn from branches of ash or other hardwood. After rough shaping, the branch is split lengthwise. The pith is scraped from both halves to create a narrow shaft. The halves are rejoined and secured with a sap glue and cord. Alternatively, a heated wire is run through the core of a sumac branch to burn out the pith, eliminating the need to split the stem.
Traditionally, Plains women "dressed" the stem by wrapping porcupine quills around part of its length. Paint, carvings, feathers, beads, and even animal heads adorned the stem and signified the pipe's ceremonial role.
The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.
A geology photo album for this park can be found here.For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.
Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.
Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout
The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!
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NPS Geology and Soils PartnersAssociation of American State Geologists
Geological Society of America
Natural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
U.S. Geological Survey
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