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Pipe Dreams

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Seated at a simple workbench, using only hand tools, Travis Erickson carves bowls for
ceremonial pipes just as his ancestors, Native Americans of the Dakota (Sioux) Nation in
Minnesota, have sculpted the sleek, burgundy-colored tobacco bowls for centuries. Erickson
is absolutely focused on his work, using a hacksaw – a minor concession, along with
sandpaper, to modern tools – to rough out a “blank” in the general shape of an eagle from
the rich, red pipestone. Later, he’ll do the finer shaping with a rasping file, then a
knife, before polishing the piece with fine-grit sandpaper. The last step is to give it a
coat of beeswax for a lush finish. Depending on complexity, a pipe can take him up to three
weeks to carve. The finishing touch is to add the pipestem, made from sumac. Erickson, of
the Sisseton-Wapheton tribe, says he is a fourth-generation pipe-maker, having learned the
art from his mother (his oldest son, Seth, currently in the Army, is continuing the
tradition). Erickson began carving the stone pipes, mostly in the shape of bears, eagles or
T-shaped calumets, along with an occasional butterfly or turtle pendant, about 24 years
ago. He also quarries his own stone, extracting a ton or so every year from a quarry at
Pipestone National Monument, which lies 30 miles north of Interstate 90 in southwestern
Minnesota. He began demonstrating the carving at the monument’s visitor center/museum three
years ago. For us, the monument – which attracts some 85,000 visitors annually – was a rare
find. We passed a sign for it while driving Interstate 90 and decided on the spur of the
moment to make the detour. As we discovered, Pipestone is an absolute gem of a place, a
sacred Native American site set among wide-open prairie that spreads for miles. Buffalo
grass, feathery bluestem and sideoats grama grass, shafts of golden rod and lavender
bergamot nod delicate heads in a persistent gentle wind. Just under the rustling grasses at
this 283-acre site lies a thick layer of dense quartzite, one of earth’s hardest materials,
that ranges in color from pink to rose to deep red. In fact, in the nearby town of
Pipestone, dozens of buildings – many of them dating back to the 1800s – are of the
colorful stone. A paved walking trail winds through the monument, among the sweet-smelling
grasses and past fast-flowing Pipestone Creek. The path arcs through a thickly-treed
shut-in where red quartzite boulders, splotched green with lichens, have been stood on end
by nature’s might, while the creek hurtles over Winnewissa Falls before forming a sky-blue
lake. In 1838, the U.S. Government commissioned Joseph Nicollet and five others, including
Lt. John Fremont, to map the large triangle of land between the Missouri and Mississippi
rivers. Of the quartzite shut-in, Nicollet wrote: “…this admirable hill awaits the poet and
the painter, who should visit it when the last rays of the setting sun are falling upon
it.” Placards along the trail explain that the quartzite was formed at the bottom of an
ancient sea as layers of sediment were gradually compressed into stone and uplifted. For
some reason, the process stopped short; between strata of quartzite, each a dozen feet
thick or more, is a slim layer of fine clay – the pipestone that is relatively easy to
carve. (According to the Mohs scale of mineral hardness, few stones are softer, among them
talc and soapstone.) Getting to the pipestone, however, can be an arduous task; Erickson
noted that in order to carry out his ton of pipestone, he must first remove between eight
and 10 tons of quartzite. As related by Erickson, according to Native American lore the
Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, visited the site in ancient times and called all
the tribes around him. Breaking off a piece of the red stone, he shaped it into a pipe,
smoked it, then told his audience that the stone was their flesh and they must all smoke to
him through it, using it for nothing but pipes. Pawnee and Sioux would become expert
carvers. Bob Gardner, a park ranger at Pipestone National Monument, which is operated by
the National Park Service, explained that as America spread west during the 1800s, the
pipes found their way into white society. Pipes became a source of income for their makers,
significant beyond religious use – making the quarry increasingly lucrative. Outsiders
began to extract the sacred stone as American settlement threatened to consume the claim
the Yankton Sioux had secured from the government in an 1858 treaty. In 1929 the Yankton,
who by then had been removed to a reservation 150 miles away, finally sold their claim to
the government. Eight years later, to protect the site, Pipestone National Monument was
signed into existence by President Franklin Roosevelt and was opened to the public. Today,
only Native Americans are allowed to quarry the pipestone, but they first must get a permit
from the monument superintendent; even then, they are limited to hand tools such as
sledge-hammers and wedges. A decade ago, about two dozen Native Americans regularly dug for
pipestone; today, only a dozen or so continue the physically demanding work. During our
visit, we heard the clang of metal on stone and peered 15 feet down into one of the
quarries to see Adam Redhouse, a Navajo from Shiprock, New Mexico, who had just chiseled
down to the pipestone layer. He was tapping a series of steel wedges under the burgundy
stone, hoping to ease it out in large sheets. Talking as he worked, he told us that late
summer and fall were the best times for digging; during other times of the year, water
collects in the quarries and must be pumped out. According to Erickson, the quarrying has
always been done with respect for the earth and what it yields. The Sioux traditionally
leave food and tobacco beside a group of boulders, said to shelter the spirits of Three
Maidens who require offering from those who dig the stone. Native American lore permeates
Pipestone National Monument – and the pipes, considered works of art by some, continue to
play a role in traditional Indian ceremonies. “They were important to my ancestors,”
Erickson said with a smile, “and they are still important today.” Pipestone National
Monument is in southwestern Minnesota, just north of the town of Pipestone; follow signs
from U.S. Highway 75, Minnesota Highway 23 or Minnesota Highway 30. The park is open daily
year-round except on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Hours are 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

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