Pipestone Dustings

Though it was a warm afternoon, Travis Erickson preferred to straddle his dusty work bench “saddle” and use his sharpened rasp on the reddish pipestone he was perhaps “releasing” one of his eagle effigy pipes for which he is known, some of which are on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. “It was too muggy inside,” he said of the demonstration pods located inside the Cultural Visitor’s Center at the Pipestone National Monument. 

Indeed, it was a fine autumn afternoon outside with a comfortable breeze sweeping across the prairie from the southwest, tickling leaves of  burr oak and the few remaining reddish sumac surrounding the trail alongside Pipestone Creek. When a visitor mentioned she couldn’t remember when a small branch off the main creek along the “circle tour” toward the visitor’s center was totally dry, he looked up from his work for a moment and nodded. 

For seemingly thousands of years the reddish pipestone has brought various and crossed Indigenous cultures together here, and now as a National Monument, it still does so.

“None of the quarries have water in them,” said Erickson, a fourth generation pipemaker of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Nation and whose great grandfather, Moses Crow, settled here around 1927 to continue a tradition that began among various tribes for thousands of years before him. “That is rare. Global warming, we suspect.”

That is perhaps as much a threat to this Native art as the fact that Erickson is among four remaining pipemakers on site, and that apparently his is the last generation with expressed interest. “Most of us are getting up in age, and going down into those quarries and chiseling off slabs, then trying to lift them out in this heat …” He left the rest of his thought trickle off in the breeze. 

The quarries are basically oblong, 20-feet deep holes in the ground, hand dug into the prairie to extract the heavy slabs of pipestone that are then cut, shaped intricately by rasp, and eventually bored into effigy pipes or shaped into other traditional items. All works of unique and traditional Native arts, some of which are sold in nearby Native non-profit shops. The “soft” layers of pipestone tilt to the east, and go deep underground, a metamorphic mudstone sandwiched between Sioux quartzite layers. To reach the delicate pipestone, the quartzite must be removed, and all the quarrying is done by hand. Also known as catlinite, the metamorphosed mudstone is typically brownish-red in color ­— the color of dust covering Erickson’s bench, jeans and hands.

Carver Travis Erickson straddles his workbench “saddle” as he uses a sharpened file to release perhaps one of his eagle heads that will eventually be drilled to form a effigy pipe.

Age and the effects of global warming on this ancient art was an unexpected turn of an otherwise near perfect afternoon. My tour guide and dear friend, Erica Volkir, executive director of Pipestone Area Chamber of Commerce and who served with me on the board of the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council (SMAC), had a free afternoon, and was a generous and well versed hostess. We opted for the “circle tour” over the quarry route, for she said we would pass a couple of quarries on the loop. Living near Ortonville, my eye was geared toward those broad and deep granite quarries we have rather than the relatively small, oblong “holes in the ground.” Indeed, at the one point she pointed out Erickson’s quarry, and I tried to imagine both the lifting out of the heavy slabs of pipestone from the deep holes as well as lugging it over the natural hurdles of granite boulders, tree roots and branches. 

Global Warming or not!

The Pipestone National Monument has been on my radar for many years, a target hastened a few years ago while visiting both the Jeffers Petroglyphs and Blue Mounds State Park ­ — all part of the same geological formation scoured free by the last glacier and located “below” the huge glacial moraine known as Buffalo Ridge. The monument has numerous erratics, some of which perhaps were deposited by the glacier from the Ortonville area, stones Volkir said were not indigenous to this geology. 

One of Erickson’s eagle heads he released from the Pipestone is ready for drilling. His work is also on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institute.

Among the various interesting noteworthy items to grasp on the loop was a notation by cartographer and explorer Joseph Nicollet signed on June 29, 1838, and embedded on a stone face that read: “Toward 1:30 we finally arrive in the valley of the famous red stone which is sought after by all the tribes of the north and northwest for making pipes. When not prevented by war, they came to this place on a yearly pilgrimage to quarry it.” 

The same Joseph Nicollet who originally mapped the Minnesota River basin. 

Indeed, this is considered a sacred site, as noted on a display plaque written by an elder inside the center that read, “It is sacred because it is the only place you can find the stone. When the creator puts something like that in a specific place, you know there is something sacred about that place and all the animals and plants on it.”

Pipestone Creek waterfall is as much a part of the site as are the pipestone carvings.

And, yes, the monument feels sacred, magical, and the path meandering through the outcrops and along the creek through an untouched primitive prairie gives you the same sense. Besides the Nicollet inscription chiseled into a slab stone, there is a beautiful waterfall that is as iconic to the site as are the effigy pipes Erickson and others release from the stones. In the midst of our walking tour we scared up three whitetail deer that bounded through the sumac, and watched as a Blue Heron waded in the placid part of Pipestone creek. Sacred fauna? 

This was a path of quartzite stairs that wound through the site, up to the prairie and back down to the meandering creek where waters, having once crescendoed over the falls now burbled through a rocky maze with a near hypnotic rhythm. There are oddities along the route, such as a viewing of a natural “oracle” through a wooden peephole and a “leaping” rock, where legend has it that young men hopeful of marriage were expected to leap to a flat-topped pinnacle without disappearing down a deep and steep divide! Volkir knew the route, the legends and the history; all of which made the nearly mile-long saunter quite special.

Erickson’s bench, jeans and hands are covered with the reddish dust from the pipestone, a metamorphic “mudstone” he and other carvers quarry onsite.

Back near the “epicenter” of the sacred site, Erickson sat alone beneath a shade tree releasing something perhaps unseen even by him, who a few years back was the first Native awarded SMAC’s prestigious Prairie Star Award. We had first met at that presentation. Yet seeing him here, under the tree, scraping a rasp over the red pipestone releasing something sacred from hard yet pliable stone, was indeed a beautiful moment. Not far from here, and perhaps also a sacred site, is one of the last existing sites for the rare White Fringed Prairie Orchid … at Blue Mounds State Park. The plant currently is on an “endangered species” list, and reportedly exists in only two purely virgin prairie sites in the entire state of Minnesota, and is perhaps a potential victim of global warming.

As I watch Erickson, and remember his personal quarry up on the loop, and hear his trepidation about trying to extract and hoist a new slab of this unique metamorphic reddish rock in the continued and deepening heat and humidity, I wonder if I’m watching a wholly different extinction ­— that of an ancient and traditional art dating thousands of years and now held in aging hands dusted in layers of reddish dust.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

1 thought on “Pipestone Dustings

  1. Thank you for this insightful story. We visited the petroglyphs a few weeks ago and pondered the lives of the native people who visited and carved symbols at that site.

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