Minnesota: Pipestone National Monument

Pipestone Quarry pit
One of the pipestone (Catlinite) quarry pits visible at the park. Pipestone is also called Catlinite after George Catlin, one of several explorers who arrived in the area beginning in the 1830s.

Courtesy of National Park Service

A hard, reddish stone laboriously quarried by hand, pipestone is a reminder of both a shared history and a common future for many of the Plains Indians. Sacred to the northern prairie cultures and the peoples of the Plains, the lands included within Pipestone National Monument have long been important culturally and socially. From this shared place, generations quarried stone to use for both ceremonial and practical objects. Such was the natural abundance of workable stone at Pipestone that the Indians saw the stone as a gift not to any one tribe but to many. Some sources suggest that the quarries at Pipestone were neutral ground where warring groups would suspend conflict. Ceremonial pipes, home goods, tools, trade objects, and folklore came from Pipestone, where American Indians and Europeans shaped its objects and history. Today, visitors to the park can learn about how Indian groups quarried and formed pipestone into objects and explore one of the few remaining tallgrass prairies in the country.

Pipestone was and is a spiritual center for the nearby Sioux who came to dominate the region in the 1700s, though the area is important to other tribes, too. As a shared sacred place, it provided a common ground for ritual and ceremony for the peoples of the Plains, and it is the source, both historical and contemporary, for sacred objects. Though trade in Pipestone began before 700 AD prior to the arrival of the Sioux, the limited population of the Great Plains restricted circulation of the pipestone. As the population in the area grew after 700 AD, use and trade of the stone increased as many different tribes shared the quarry. Aided by horses and firearms European colonizers introduced in the 1500s and 1600s, the Sioux expanded into the Pipestone area driving out the Oto, Omaha, and Iowa peoples who lived there. One band, the Yankton Sioux, built a trade empire not on quarried pipestone, but on buffalo and beaver. Not primarily concerned with pipestone as a commodity, the Yankton Sioux nevertheless restricted access to the quarries within their lands to protect trade goods of interest to them.

European and Euro-American interference and influence shaped who controlled the pipestone quarries. As much as the lands of Pipestone tell the story of American Indians in southwestern Minnesota, they also speak to larger themes of westward expansion and settlement from the eastern seaboard. An alternate name for pipestone is Catlinite, a hint at the impact explorations of the 1830s had on native culture and lifeways. The great painter of American Indians, George Catlin, one of the more prominent visitors to the quarries and the source of the name Catlinite, arrived in 1836. Joseph Nicholas Nicollet followed Catlin in 1838 and 1839. Nicollet produced the first map of the quarry area. He is commemorated by Nicollet Rock, which has the names of his expedition carved into the rock. Both Catlin and Nicollet helped bring attention to the region that the Sioux did not want.

Such was the interest in the stone and the quarry that, in 1849, a piece from the quarry was included in the Washington Monument, then under construction in Washington, DC. The token stone, chosen to be Minnesota’s official State contribution to the monument, is located at the 220-foot level of the monument where visitors can still see it today. In 1855, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha drew further attention to the quarry. In 1857, Inkpaduta retreated there with a group of white hostages, after he and a band of Santee Sioux set upon a group of settlers at Spirit Lake in Iowa. The Sioux killed more than 30 settlers in their protest against the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux.

In 1859, the Federal Government set aside land, including what would become Pipestone National Monument, for the Yankton Sioux, who already occupied it. The creation of the reservation gave the Sioux the right to quarry. Following the end of the Civil War, white settlement in the area and use of the quarry increased. Some of the white settlers made claims to the land to establish homesteads, which led to protracted battles to decide true ownership. The Yankton Sioux’s claim to the property as their reservation was settled in 1890. They soon sold the property to the United States for $125,000. Perhaps because the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and North Railway had established a right of way and built tracks on the eastern edge of the reservation, the Yankton Sioux allowed the sale with the stipulation that the land would remain a park or reservation. Nevertheless, Congress authorized a further intrusion into the reservation when it allowed construction of an Indian School in 1892. Homesteaders also made claims against the reservation’s land. Litigation tied up final determination of ownership until 1929, though less than ten years later in 1937, the land again reverted to the government, this time as a national park.

Immediately upon entering the park, visitors will see a collection of rocks that are spiritually significant to tribes in the area. Called the “Three Maidens,” these rocks mark the spiritual gateway to the quarries. Historically an arrangement of other stones and offerings surrounded the Three Maidens. On these stones, those who came to quarry or worship carved a series of figures petroglyphs into very hard stone. These petroglyphs must have been quite important because they required a great effort to form. The figures include large game and birds, turtles, and human forms, which are readily visible, as well as other forms that are not identifiable. Fewer carved stones are visible today than in the past. Some relocated stones are on display in the visitor center.

In addition to the area around the Three Maidens formation, other archeological areas in the park record where the extracted pipestone was dressed and formed. Visits to the quarries to find and prepare the stone often lasted several weeks. During this time the tallgrass prairie, nearby Winnewissa Falls, and Lake Hiawatha must have provided ample food to support the carvers, some of whom traveled great distances. Pipestone, once extracted, was usually formed on site. Visitors can spot the remaining open quarry spaces easily by following the Circle Trail, a ¾ of a mile paved trail that leads through the prairie by the pipestone quarries.

Today, members of federally recognized Indian tribes may quarry pipestone from the land within the park. In much the same way as their ancestors did, tribal members extract pipestone by removing the earth and hard Sioux Quartzite that overlays the softer pipestone. Using hand tools to extract the stone, they remove layers of quartzite by chipping off larger chunks, reducing them to smaller pieces, and then discarding them or using them to help form a protective retaining wall around the quarry pit to prevent its collapse. Extracting the quartzite exposes the vein of pipestone that once revealed is carefully broken off the vein. These pieces from the pipestone layer have internal strata along which the large slabs are broken into smaller, more workable pieces that are shaped into pipe bowls to which a pipestem is added. The form of the pipes has changed over time, with details determined by individual carvers. Although perhaps most familiar as the stereotypical “peace pipe,” these pipes were used in a number of settings and held a wide cultural significance as items of trade, war, peace, and other rituals. A video presentation at the visitor center provides a history of the use, creation, and significance of pipes and pipestone. Local American Indians carve pipestone throughout the summer months in the Upper Midwest Indian Cultural Center, which is inside the visitor center. The park also offers hiking and picnicking opportunities.

Pipestone National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located just north of the city of Pipestone, MN, roughly seven miles from the South Dakota border. Pipestone is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as Cannomok’e Pipestone National Monument. There is a fee to visit the park that is waived for members of federally recognized tribes. The visitor center is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm on Monday to Thursday and to 6:00pm Friday through Sunday. The visitor center is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. For more information, visit the National Park Service Pipestone National Monument website or call 507-825-5464.

Pipestone National Monument is also featured in the National Park Service Pipestone, Minnesota Travel Itinerary. Pipestone National Monument has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Engineering Record.


Last updated: August 4, 2017