Secrets of Pipestone National Monument

Pipestone doesn’t feel like a part of Minnesota. It should be its own district.

On the surface, it seems like a place for people who take too much medication to live in South Dakota but not enough to live any closer to Edina. And I think Iowa just confuses them. They don’t know what our deal is. Someone asked me to explain deep fried butter, and I couldn’t.

Maybe it’s because this place was once a major crossroads – the O’Hare International Airport of its day – right in the middle of the largest contiguous ecosystem in North America: The Prairie.

There’s very little of this ecosystem left. It only survives in low-population areas. The contemporary population of Pipestone has dwindled to fewer than 5,000. It took a hit first when the Europeans moved in and again when the railroads moved out. What was once an unofficial capital city is now relatively quiet, and its historic downtown gets by with a single stop light.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find any numbers related to tourism. The Pipestone National Monument draws visitors daily. I’ve met international geologists and families in camper vans, most of whom seem underwhelmed with the monument until actually setting foot on the trail.

… Are you sure this is the right place?

That’s because, when you first drive up to it, it just looks like a visitor’s center sat in an empty field. I had a photograph of a friend with me where she was standing in a rocky place next to a waterfall. The photograph had allegedly been taken at the monument, but I didn’t see a waterfall or any stone of significant size aside from the Three Maidens (a set of giant boulders washed in by glaciers a hundred thousand years ago) I’d passed on the way down in.

The first thing I did after I arrived was check out the observational quarry. That is, someone cut a neat little chunk out of the earth like they were building a basement for their bungalow. The stone is soft and smooth, so I took my shoes off.

‘Twas a treat for the tootsies.

I could see how the pipestone was a comparatively thin layer underneath the much harder and more plentiful Sioux Quartzite. Millions of years ago, the pipestone was clay, similar to what you might find in a creek bed or a hole at the beach. In fact, the quartzite developed from the sand of beaches bordering an ancient ocean.

At some point, a glacier of tremendous weight – like, a million tons – drifted over the land. Whether it wouldn’t have been the same glacier that brought the Three Maidens (I don’t think). I’m not totally clear on the specifics of the process that formed the clay into pipestone because the geologists talk way too fast for me, but from what I understand, it has to do with the pressure as well as water being forced underground by the glaciers.

What I know for sure is that after entering the visitor’s center and walking the first several hundred feet of the trail*, I thought the example quarry offered the best look at the stone I was going to get.

I continued on, though, because in addition to the beautiful landscape, I got a close-up of the prairie. It turns out it’s not just grass. There were over 300 native plants here when Europeans began surveying the area. Though many of them are extinct and non-native species have moved in, many different types of flowers, bushes, grasses, and vegetables still grow on the prairie.

Some were specimens I’d seen before – like Blazing Star, which is popular in flower beds, and Crown Vetch, a non-native plant that grew all over the hillside next to my house when I was a child – and others I’d never heard of – like Silverleaf Scurfpea, the root of which can be used to make bread, and Sideoats Grama, which I will henceforth call Sideways Grandma because that’s how I remember its name. Seeing this dense collection of varied flora gave me a deeper respect for the first people who discovered these plants and made use of them.

The trees are definitely non-native. I saw a wood full of elms, cedars, and walnut trees as I kept going over Pipestone Creek and past Lake Hiawatha.

I’d walked by a bit more stone at this point as well as a working quarry. I couldn’t go look at the quarry because access is restricted to employees and certain tribal. From the trail, I could vaguely hear human voices and metal striking rock.

In modern times, the stone is quarried using sledgehammers and chisels. It’s hard work, but it’s much easier than the flint tools used up until a couple hundred years ago. This is one of the reasons why tourists complain about the price of Pipestone samples: workers must break through the significantly stronger Sioux Quartzite to get to the workable Catlinite.


Anyway, once I entered the wood, I began to see some of what I’d come for: red rock faces towered above, and I eagerly followed a stone staircase that took me to the top of the cliff.

Because I took this route, one of the first historical markers I saw was from Joseph Nicollet’s journey in 1838. The place where he and his team carved their initials into the rock is cordoned off, but you can get a closer look at other, later 19th and 20th Century engravings.

Oh, look: ‘J. P. òGÏ”$’ was here.

I figured the cordoning of this spot was due to Nicollet and his crew being European, but locals began making strides to preserve the monument and educate visitors about its significance as early as 1930 – two years after the federal government bought the Yankton Sioux’s claim to the land.

(The Sioux are generally accepted as being this area’s first people, but they were actually just the latest tribe to claim the land when Europeans came. As such, the tribe and its name are all over literature and histories about the area.)

But this place is too special to serve just one tribe. You know it when you go there and see it in person: this is a place meant for all humankind to explore and appreciate. That’s why the locals fought to maintain the land and the rock at a time when no one else gave a shit about Indians.

This is just one of many reasons why it’s so important to preserve native culture an identity. It’s the only culture that is a direct response to this environment. Modern culture has a heavy European influence. It is not “organic,” so to speak.

In order for us to understand the land around us, its purpose and its gifts as well as how we can best plan for its (and, consequently, our) future, we need the knowledge gathered by tribal people over thousands of years. The more we lose – and we’re losing more every single day – the more we’ll have to rediscover later on.

Compare it to the burning of the Library of Alexandria. They library was supposed to be the place where all of the world’s knowledge was gathered in a central location. Every book, papyrus, scroll, etc. that was the only one of its kind was taken to Alexandria. Thus, many historians believe that some of the information lost in that fire still has yet to be rediscovered.

Unfortunately, most tribal people from what is now North America maintained an oral tradition, passing down stories through generations. When those stories were silenced through forced integration, some histories died.

It’s difficult to understand the significance of that loss, but Pipestone National Monument gives us a clearer picture – a physical representation – of what we’re missing. It’s a must-visit on par with the U.S. Capitol and the Grand Canyon. It may not be as large as those examples, but it’s just as important to our historical record.

Stay tuned for a how-to on carving pipestone.

*While the sign in the visitor’s center points out the trail’s beginning as being toward the right, I started out by going left. Bud told me that I should always walk a loop clockwise and never counter-clockwise.

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