Stone pipes have been in use on the North American continent since around 1,500 B.C. and archaeological evidence suggests that the pipestone quarries of Pipestone National Monument have been in use for 3,000 years. Carvers prize this durable yet relatively soft stone, which ranges in color from mottled pink to brick red. Though these grounds are not the only source of pipestone on the North American continent, by all accounts this location came to be the preferred source of pipestone among the Plains tribes because of the quality of the stone. Oral tradition tells us that the site was used by people of all tribes, and that all tribes - even enemies - laid down their arms before quarrying side by side. Archaeological evidence shows many different tribes quarried here. By 1700, the Dakota Sioux were the dominant presence at the pipestone quarries.
Ceremonial smoking marked the activities of the Plains people: rallying forces for warfare, trading goods, rituals, and ceremonies. Bowls, stems, and tobacco were stored in animal-skin pouches or in bundles with other sacred objects. Ashes were disposed of only in special places. Pipes were often valued possessions buried with the dead.
There were as many variations in pipe design as there were carvers. By the time George Catlin arrived to the pipestone quarries in 1836, the simple tubes of earlier times had developed into elbow and disk forms, as well as elaborate animal and human effigies. The Pawnee and Sioux were master effigy carvers. A popular pipe form was the T-shaped calumet. Calumets became widely known as "peace pipes" because they were the pipes whites usually encountered at treaty ceremonies, even though pipes had other important uses.
As America grew westward in the 19th century, pipes found their way into white society through trade. Increasing contact between whites and Indians inspired new subject matter for carvers. Sometimes these effigies honored white politicians and explorers. Sometimes the images were caricatures far from flattering.
In the mid-19th Century, as the native peoples who inhabited what became Minnesota were moved onto reservations, some tribal nations ceded their rights to the pipestone quarry. However, the Yankton Sioux specifically set out to protect their invaluable source of pipestone. The Yankton Sioux secured "free and unrestricted access" by the Treaty of 1858, which also placed them on a reservation in what is today South Dakota. The treaty established a one square mile reserved area around the quarries.
The Yanktons held the pipestone quarries and traveled to them regularly to procure the pipestone. Within 20 years, settlers had arrived and began a period of difficulty for the Yanktons. The Yanktons noticed that outsiders were digging new quarry pits and stealing the sacred stone. A homestead patent was filed within the quarry reserve area, and the Mayor of Pipestone violated the law for many years by building his house within the reservation and occupying it until the U.S. Army forced him to move out of the reservation. In the 1880s, the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern Railroad paid the Yanktons for right-of-way through part of the quarry reserve just above the quartzite cliffs. In 1892, a bill passed Congress to establish the Pipestone Indian School on the northeastern corner of the quarry reservation, despite protests from the Yanktons.
Protecting the quarries became difficult for the Yanktons, who had to travel 150 miles one-way to reach the quarries from their reservation. Over time, fewer and fewer quarriers made the journey. In 1899, the Yanktons began proceedings to be compensated for damages to their quarry reservation.
After several attempts to reach a resolution first through the U.S. Congress, then through a new agency called the Indian Court of Claims, the Yanktons spent decades seeking compensation. After the Indian Court of Claims first found that they did not have authority to act on the Yanktons' case, changes in the law later allowed the ICC to rule in the case. The ICC eventually decided against the Yanktons in 1926, stating that the quarry reservation was only an easement and that the Yanktons had no right to compensation for it. The case proceeded to the Supreme Court in 1926. The Supreme Court reversed the ICC's ruling and ordered the ICC to determine the value of the land for payment of damages. In 1928, the Yanktons received $338,558.90 for the land but gave up any claim to the quarries.
Pipestone National Monument was signed into existence in 1937 allowing quarrying to resume by Native Americans of any federally-recognized tribe, and officially opening the grounds to visitors. Learn more about Quarrying.
Plains Indian culture has undergone radical change since the era of the free-ranging buffalo herds, yet pipe carving is by no means a lost art. Carvings today are appreciated as artworks as well as for ceremonial use. An age-old tradition continues in the modern world, ever changing yet firmly rooted in the past.