Discover hidden gems in Minnesota’s valley of the famous red stone, Pipestone National Monument, including sacred quarries and Winnewissa Falls.
A spiritual resource to many American Indians, catlinite or “pipestone” has been harvested by Plains Indians in Pipestone, Minnesota, for centuries to make ceremonial pipes. Today, only people of Native ancestry are permitted to quarry the pipestone at the National Monument, established in August 1937.
Explore the national park on self-guided trails through forest and towering native tallgrass prairie to view the deep and staggering pipestone quarries and the roaring Winnewissa Falls. Whether you choose to meander through the trails by foot, or ride a mountain bike through more rigorous terrain, pencil in time for reflection of the region’s cultural history. Sit and admire the quartzite rock faces along Pipestone Creek, and watch the waterfall crash against giant boulders. Nature has a miraculous way of renewing our strength and purpose.
While Winnewissa Falls is a major summer attraction, don’t discount a winter visit, when spectacular ice formations shift across fast-moving waters, and animals leave clear tracks in pristine, white snow.
In summer months (April to mid-October), pipemakers lead cultural demonstrations at the Upper Midwest Indian Cultural Center, located inside the monument’s visitor center. Exhibits detail the natural and cultural history of the site and feature a petroglyph display. An award-winning, 22-minute film, “Pipestone: An Unbroken Legacy,” provides perspective on the significance of Pipestone and the ongoing quarrying tradition.
After exploring Pipestone National Monument, peruse meaningful, handmade gifts at the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers gift shop, which sells a wide variety of pipes, mallets, rattles and handmade jewelry. Beyond the national monument, Pipestone County, home to less than 4,400 people, offers an historic district. Its Main Street buildings showcase original 1890s architecture.
The Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers founding president Bud Johnston emphasizes the importance of showing respect for pipestone and pipes, used for prayer. “Quite a few of us will smudge before we start making pipes and put some tobacco down in the earth before we start quarrying. A lot of times we’ll do sweats before we get going,” Johnston said.
It is believed that the pipe’s smoke carries one’s prayer to the Great Spirit. “When you pray with this pipe, you pray for and with everything,” Black Elk famously said.
Natives like Johnston learned stone carving techniques from elders, a tradition passed down over generations. Johnston says each stone carries a unique energy, and the stone or pipe chooses its owner. While red pipestone is highly valued, the Ojibwe people believe black stone is more powerful, said Johnston, who carries a black pipe. “I really do feel that the stone talks to people,” Johnston says. “Lots of people will pick up a certain piece of stone and find one that really feels like it’s alive to them, and it wants to be a certain pipe.”
The non-profit organization, The Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers, based in Pipestone, Minnesota, was formed in 1996 by local Natives and tribal leaders to protect and educate the public about the nearby pipestone quarries.
Read part 2 of the Indian Country Media Network article about how Natives have used peace pipes as tools to connect with the Creator for centuries: Quarrying and Carving Sacred Red Pipestone for Peace Pipes.
This story was originally published April 5, 2017.