A tribe of Native Americans in the northern state of Minnesota digs up a special kind of rock and forms it into a device used for smoking, called a pipe.
The dark red rock is known as pipestone because it has been used for a long time to make the smoking tool.
History of pipestone
The native people consider the rock and pipes sacred. But over time, people moved away from the area and others died. As a result, not many people are permitted to dig out the rock and not many others know how to make the pipes.
Only about 12 people remain in the area who know how to carve the pipes. Cindy Pederson is one of them. She learned from her grandparents over 50 years ago. She said she would be happy to teach the pipe-carving skill to anyone. She added, “The Spirit will be with you if you’re meant to do that.”
Pederson is one of the Dakota people who want to pass along the skill to future generations.
She is part of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Nation. She holds classes on pipe-carving at a small park near the rock quarries. The park in the southwestern part of the state is called Pipestone National Monument.
Darlene St. Clair is a member of the Dakota tribe. She is a professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She also uses the Dakota name lyekiyapiwin to show she is a member of the tribe.
St. Clair said the pipestone is important to the spiritual activities of the Native Americans. “Praying with pipes, we take very seriously,” she said.
Smoking a pipe made from the deep red rock is thought to connect the smoker with “the Creator.” The creator is similar to what many religions mean when they discuss God.
The smoke moves a prayer from the person with the pipe to the creator.
Gabrielle Drapeau said the pipestone area was always a place for prayer. Even enemy tribes would stop fighting when they arrived at the pipestone area. Tradition has it that if people fought on the ground of the pipestone, the rock would stop being available.
Drapeau is a park ranger and cultural resource specialist. She started coming to the rock area as a child. She is part of the Yankton Sioux tribe of South Dakota. When she was young, she heard a story about why the rock turned red. Many people died in a great flood, and their blood changed the color of the rock. The creator then came to the area and said if people smoked from a pipe, they could reach him with a message.
Drapeau said those who smoke the pipes also feel connected to all the people who came before.
Not just any stone
“It’s not just a willy-nilly stone,” she said. Willy-nilly is a combination of words meant to show that something is unimportant.
Because of that, the rock is protected. If you want to cut the rock from the ground, you need to have permission. Only those who are members of Native American tribes can come to remove the rock.
While some, like Pederson, want to teach pipe-making to others, there is disagreement about whether non-Native Americans should be permitted to learn.
Keeping the knowledge safe
Some think the pipe-making knowledge should only be shared with other Native Americans. In addition, many Native Americans think only Indigenous people should be permitted to use the pipes.
Travis Erickson is one of those people permitted to take the rock from the ground. He started doing that at the age of 10. The diggers must work only with hand tools to protect the pipestone area.
Erickson started making the pipes with his family in the 1960s. He learned with other family members and went on to teach his own children how to do the work. But 60 years later, not many people want to do the difficult job of cutting out the pipestone and making the pipes.
He wants to teach the skills to as many young Native Americans as possible. Many of the young people only learn about the pipestone and the pipes when they come for visits.
Cindy Pederson’s brother, Mark, also teaches at the visitor’s center. He recently taught a number of young people how to swing heavy hammers. Many wanted to return and learn more about cutting out the pipestone.
They also tell the young people the history of the area and its important place in the spiritual life of Native Americans.
Drapeau said she tells them they are permitted to come to pipestone for prayer. In the past, many native people were restricted from coming to pipestone for prayer events.
The Pipestone National Monument is run by the National Park Service, a U.S. government agency. About 75,000 people visit each year.
The government and the native people decided that pipes would no longer be sold in the visitor center. But non-Indigenous people can still buy the pipes just a short distance away at stores in the town of Pipestone.
The native people say they want to protect their traditions. Greg Gagnon studies Native Americans and wrote a book about Dakota culture. He said many native people are worried that their traditions will be watered down if they permit everyone to use the pipes.
But Pederson said she is not worried. She said “the spirit” works to help people who create the pipes and receive them.
“Grandma and Grandpa always said the stone takes care of itself, knows what’s in a person’s heart,” she said.
I’m Dan Friedell. And I’m Faith Pirlo
Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by the Associated Press.
Words in This Story
sacred –adj. holy; deserving of religious feelings
park –n. a piece of land that is protected from development for its natural or historic importance
quarry –n. a place where stone is cut from the ground for use in industry
ranger –n. a person who helps oversee public forests and lands
hammer –n. a tool used for driving nails or breaking up rock
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