The 1st National Monument, established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, was Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower. The Antiquities Act also passed that year to protect prehistoric Native American ruins and artifacts. There are now 109 National Monuments. Pipestone, the only one in Minnesota, came along in 1937.
In the southwestern corner of this state, Pipestone has been a place where native people have come for more than 2,000 years to mine the hard-to-get-to stone that they craft into ceremonial pipes. According to Pipestone’s National Park Service brochure, the Great Spirit “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”. The rising smoke, they believe, contains prayers. When tobacco was unavailable, Kinnikinnick, a blend of dogwood, willow bark, sumac leaves, etc., was smoked instead.
Today about 50 tribal groups have permission to dig for pipestone. From April until October some of what they quarry is crafted into pipes by Native American artisans in 3 work stations in the Visitor Center. Pipes and other items can be purchased on the premises. The museum is also worthwhile. I especially liked a diorama that simulated quarrying natives about the year 1650 when they had no iron tools to get to the pipestone. Unlike other pipestone deposits, the local variety contains very little if any quartz, making it both highly prized and unique. A 22 minute highly recommended, introductory film, “Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy” tells the story well with much native input.
This 300 acre Monument includes an easy 3/4 mile circle trail that gives access to Winnewissa Falls and several quarries. Pipestone underlies 10 to 15 feet of Sioux Quartzite that ranks 7.5 on the MOH Scale of Hardness. A diamond is 10. Fragile Pipestone is 2.5 and described in Monument handouts as about the hardness of a human fingernail. Pipestone’s red color, seen by natives as similar to their blood, is caused by ferric oxide.
The noted frontier artist George Catlin saw pipes being used by natives during his travels among diverse tribes, and he finally asked about the source of the red stone. In 1836 he went to Pipestone despite Sioux objections to an outsider visiting their sacred ground. He sent a sample to Boston for analysis and this previously unrecorded stone was subsequently named Catlinite. Catlin’s paintings introduced these digs, their preferred place on the plains to quarry pipestone, to the world.
PNM is both unusual and fascinating.