Peace in Pipestone
Article and Images by Margaret Springett and Cheryl HannA Sioux legend tells of a woman who brought them the red stone pipe and taught them to smoke the pipe in the name of peace. The pipe was sacred and still is the center of Sioux spirituality. Pipestone National Monument, a “living monument,” was created to protect the quarries where the indigenous people still mine the red stone to make their sacred pipes. We needed some peace in our lives at this time, so we decided to explore geologic and prairie habitat of Pipestone National Monument.
In the southwestern corner of Minnesota, the tall-grass prairie once stretched endlessly toward the setting sun. Big Blue Stem, a native grass, can be 6–7 feet tall and may tower over a man’s head. Today much of that prairie has been plowed and planted, but small remnants of the original prairie have been preserved and two of these remnants remain near the Blue Mounds State Park and the Pipestone National Monument.
As we drove north through the flat farmland, the prairie is suddenly interrupted by bright pink outcroppings of Sioux Quartzite, pink striped boulders sticking out of the greening grasse of early summer. These mark the beginning of a rougher area where the glaciers have carved their paths leaving behind the prairie potholes, erratic blocks of granite and pink quartzite cliffs protruding from the flatland.
After a three-hour ride, we stopped to photograph the rock outcroppings and found a strange bird scolding us from an overhead wire. The bird we estimated was about 10–12 inches in height and mottled with brown and white feathers that were darker on his back than his breast. Every feature of his natomy spoke of elongation; his long neck, legs, and bill were combined with brown eyes that bulged from his small head. As we attempted to approach with cameras, he flew from post to post luring us farther away from his probable nesting area. Whether by good planning,or just good luck, we had packed a birding field guide. Over a cup of coffee, we had a research session in the middle of our field trip. We identified this bird as an Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda). This shore bird arrives on the northern grasslands in early May where they nest in the tallgrass or the mixed grass prairies of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. They eat worms, grasshoppers, and beetles and after the nesting season they migrate early in August to winter in South America. We added this bird to our life list and were disappointed to find that it is endangered in some areas of its range.
We took a short detour into Blue Mounds State Park and searched for the blue grosbeaks that nest in this area. No grosbeaks today, so we moved on to the Pipestone National Monument.
Along the road to the parking lot, three gigantic boulders look out of place on the flats. These boulders are granite erratics, carried far from their origin by a glacier and left behind when the glacier melted. The boulders, The Three Maidens, were considered to be guardian spirits of the pipestone quarries by the Native Americans. The quartzite beneath the maidens once contained petroglyphs of bird tracks, turtles, deer, and several human figures. The figures at the maiden site have been removed but have been preserved in drawings made by early explorers. One figure looked like a warrior holding a snakelike spear while another resembled a skunk complete with a stripe down his back. Two small sites of petroglyphs still remain intact within the Monument and were only recently discovered. To the east of Pipestone, over 2,000 petroglyphs dating as early as 3,000 B.C.E. were carved in quartzite at Jeffers Petroglyph Site. Are there more petroglyphs in this area yet to be discovered?
The indigenous peoples came to Pipestone to mine the red rock with their primitive tools. The pipestone is very soft and early natives carved the stone into pipe bowls with hand tools. In the visitor’s center, a woman was carving turtle amulets from red pipestone and on a given day, a pipe maker might also be carving a pipe from the red stone. We got our first look at raw pipestone and feel the softness and polished luster of the finished carvings. The scientific name for the pipestone is catlinite after George Catlin, a man famous for his paintings of early Indian villages. He visited the quarries in 1836 and had the chemistry of the pipestone analyzed. The pipestone is 28% aluminum, which might explain the softness of the rock and the luster that is obtained after polishing.
Geologists have determined that this pipestone was derived from mud layers deposited by slow moving water. When the glaciers melted, a main river channel broke into many smaller channels forming a braided river. Some of the channels were abandoned during times of low water flow. In these channels the water flow stagnated allowing fine particles of mud to settle out of the debris dissolved in the glacial water. These mud layers were buried by tons of quartz grains. Pressure and heat transformed the mud into pipestone and the quartz grains into quartzite. Iron oxide mixed with the aluminum and silica to produce the red color of the pipestone.
The visitor’s center is filled with geological, cultural, and environmental information. As research-oriented nature photographers, we studied up on the birds and plants that can be expected here. WE have come early in the summer, to early to see the western prairie fringed orchid blooming. However, we did find a great number of blooming Solomon’s seal plants on the path along Pipestone Creek. Solomon’s seal stems form graceful arches over the pink stone and the shiny leaves with longitudinal veins hid small green flowers hanging from the stem. I snap on my macro lens and examine the miniature study of green on green. Some plants grow from the upper cracks in the quartzite wall. Here I can shoot from a standing position and still be under the leaves. The single stem can grow two to three feet long and when it breaks off in the winter, a scar forms over the exposed root end. The plant is called Solomon’s seal because a Star of David design forms at the junction between the root and the broken stem. Being microscopists by trade, we wonder what the scar would look like under a microscope and why that pattern appears on the root scar.
The quartzite along the creek is covered with a quilt of orange, yellow, and green lichens. The painted rocks were a stark contrast to the silky whiteness of the water flowing over the small drops. When we returned home, we turned to the ponderous book Lichens of North America to identify these varieties. One of the lichens, an orange crustose, was found on quartzite rock (siliceous) and in a wet environment along a stream (aquatic). From these clues we guessed that it might be Rusty Brook lichen or another of the Watercolor lichens (lonaspis). We are not experts, and this is only an educated guess but was a good subject for a research session over some steaming hazelnut coffee.
Upstream we reach Winnewissa Falls, a drop of 15 feet carving the quartzite and tumbling the rock to its base. A stone staircase leads to the top of the falls where the signatures of the early white explorers are carved into the rocks. Joseph Nicollet came here in 1838 and his expedition resulted in a map of the Upper Missouri River Basin. This map was a vast improvement to the primitive map drafted by an early explorer, Pierre Charles Le Sueur. Thus began many conflicts between the Natives and Whites over the rights to the pipestone quarries. Treaties and trespassing have been used to shift the mining rights many times in recent history. At the present time some of the conflicts have been resolved. Pipestone National Monument has been created to protect the quarries from exploitation and now only native peoples can mine the pipestone quarries. As we walk past the open pits with the piles of rejected quartzite, we are reminded of the stubborn struggle for the embattled continuation of an ancient culture. Someone has left prayer bundles on a tree in thanks for the inya sa (pipestone) that was taken from the earth. We pass quietly, also giving our own thanks for such a peaceful afternoon.
On our way out of the monument, we stopped again at the Three Maidens. Off in the distance of time, I heard the skin drums beating a rhythm that echoed the perpetual rhythms of nature; the drumming of the woodpecker, the footfalls of a bison herd, and the tattoo of wild horses moving across the grassland. I heard the high-pitched wailing of the native singers and soft thump-th of moccasin-clad feet stirring up the dust in a sacred circle. As the dust cleared I saw a circle of seated figures smoking the red pipe and passing it around the circle in the name of peace.