Blood and Stone: The Many Stories of the Pipestone Quarries

George Catlin's painting of the pipestone quarries
George Catlin's painting of the Pipestone Quarries

Public Domain/Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Catlin was a lawyer and self-taught artist who, after seeing a delegation of American Indians in Philadelphia, set out for the frontier to paint as many as he could before Euro-American civilization and diseases destroyed them entirely. He painted 300 portraits and nearly 175 landscapes, including the pipestone quarries. Catlin observed the manner in which the Indigenous people used the quarries and the pipe while recording both what he saw and what they told him.

It must be remembered that the stories Catlin recorded are relayed through his voice and personal understanding of what was said. He can be a controversial figure today since it is questionable whether he actually helped or simply exploited Native Americans. He understood himself as sympathetic in his intentions, but was informed by attitudes of his time. Additionally, the people Catlin interviewed could not have spoken for the feelings of all their fellow tribal members then or now. The value of these stories is not diminished by this, but care must be taken when reading them.

Traditions about the pipestone quarries recorded by more recent and trained researchers as well as tribal members are also provided. The quarries were utilized for over 2,000 years, so we can never know all of the stories and people associated with them. What is presented here are just a few examples.

Dakota Tribe (The Sioux) as recorded by George Catlin
"At an ancient time the Great Spirit, in the form of a large bird, stood upon the wall of rock and called all the tribes around him, and breaking out a piece of the red stone formed it into a pipe and smoked it, the smoke rolling over the whole multitude. He then 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: and as it belonged alike to all tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it."

Omaha Tribe as told by tribal members Joseph LaFlesche and Two Crows
"The two sacred pipes still in existence are kept by the Inke-sabe gens. These pipes are called "Niniba waqube," Sacred Pipes, or "Niniba jide," Red Pipes. They are made of the red pipestone which is found in the famous red pipestone quarry. The stems are nearly flat and are worked near the mouth-piece with porcupine quills."

Ponca Tribe as recorded by George Catlin
"My friend, this pipe, which I wish you to accept, was dug from the ground and cut and polished as you now see it, by my hands. I wish you to keep it, and when you smoke through it, recollect that this red stone is a part of our flesh. This is one of the last things we can ever give away. Our enemies the Sioux, have raised the red flag of blood over the Pipe Stone Quarry, and our medicines there are trodden under foot by them. The Sioux are many, and we cannot go to the mountain of the red pipe. We have seen all nations smoking together at the place - but, my brother, it is not so now."

Mandan Tribe as recorded by George Catlin
"I am a young man, but my heart is strong. I have jumped on the medicine-rock - I have placed my arrow on it and no Mandan can take it away. The red stone is slippery, but my foot was true - it did not slip. My brother, the pipe which I give to you, I brought from a high mountain, it is the rising sun - many were the pipes that we brought from there - and we brought them away in peace. We left our totems or marks on the rocks - we cut them deep in the stones, and they are there now. The Great Spirit told all nations to meet there in peace, and all nations hid the war-club and the tomahawk. The Da-co-tahs, who are our enemies, are very strong - they have taken up the tomahawk, and the blood of our warriors has run on the rocks. My friend, we want to visit our medicines - our pipes are old and worn out. My friend, I wish you to speak to our Great Father about this."

Ihanktonwan Dakota (Yankton Sioux) as recorded by George Catlin
"Before the creation of man, the Great Spirit used to slay the buffaloes and eat them on the ledge of the Red Rocks on top of the Coteau des Prairies, and their blood running on to the rocks turned them red. One day a snake had crawled into the nest of the bird to eat his eggs, one of the eggs hatched out in a clap of thunder, and the Great Spirit catching hold of a piece of the pipestone to throw at the snake, moulded it into a man. The man's feet grew fast in the ground where he stood for many ages, like a great tree, and therefore he grew very old; he was older than a hundred men at the present day; and at last another tree grew up by the side of him, when a large snake ate them both off at the roots, and they wandered off together; from these have sprung all the people that now inhabit the earth."

Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada as told by Joe Holley
"Back when our people first traded with the Spanish for horses, we were hunters and gatherers; we traveled with the game. When we got the horse we traveled further quickly, our people traded with the Sioux people and other tribes, but learned of the pipestone quarry from the Sioux people. We traveled there and got the stone; the old ones called it "the blood of the sacred earth" that all (Newe) Indian people could use for pipes for prayer. The stone is sacred to all Natives and whatever is made out of it is also."

Sac and Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa as recorded by George Catlin
"My friend, when I was young, I used to go with out young men to the mountain of the Red Pipe, and dig out pieces for our pipes. We do not go now; and our red pipes as you see, are few. The Dah-co-tah's have spilled the blood of red men on that place, and the Great Spirit is offended. The white traders have told them to draw their bows upon us when we go there; and they have offered us many of the pipes for sale, but we do not want to smoke them, for we know the Great Spirit is offended. My mark is on the rocks in many places, but I shall never see them again. They lie where the Great Spirit sees them, for his eye is over that place, and he sees everything that is here."

Otoe-Missouria Tribe as recorded by researchers Zedeno and Basaldu
"Among the Otoe, the Hoot Owl origin story contains a reference to the creation of the pipe out of redstone. In Whitman's (1938:196) version, Hoot Owl and three brothers came across from the great water and, following the eldest brother, they began the search for good land. Each brother in turn flew and touched the ground and become a person. The brothers built a grass hut and began to plan. Each brother would go out to find something good and then would come back to show its siblings.

They made bows and arrows. Third brother found four grains of blue corn and came back and planted it on a big earth mound. It sprouted. Then, eldest brother went out for a time and in his searches came across a red stone. He made a pipe with a hole, but it was not complete. Upon his return, the second brother realized the pipe needed a stem; he found a walnut branch and hollowed it by removing the marrow. Third brother then said that he had found a good thing for the pipe - tobacco. They hunted an otter and made a tobacco pouch from its hide. But it was still not complete, as they could not smoke it.

So the youngest brother went out, believing he could find something good to complete the pipe. He found a stone and tried to carve it into a pipe, but it was flint, so he could not. but upon striking it three times it sparked and the dry grass caught a fire. He brought back the flint to his brothers and showed them how it could be used to light the tobacco in the pipe. He lit it at the first strike and all smoked."

Last updated: June 4, 2020