April 12, 2011

Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota

Tallgrass Prairies at Pipestone National Monument

If you happen to be driving across the flat Great Plains on I-90 in southwestern Minnesota and are looking for a place to get off the road to stretch your legs, do a short hike, and see some really interesting Native American history and geologic features, then Pipestone National Monument is just for you.

You can reach Pipestone National Monument by driving 27 miles north from I-90 using MN-23 to the town of Pipestone, MN. Pipestone National Monument preserves and interprets the story of the unique red pipestone clay formation.

Pipestone quarry with ice covering the bottom

Pipestone was a critical substance for tribes all across North America, as it was easily carved, but strong enough to be resistant to fracturing. Thus, it was used for carving ceremonial pipes and effigies. A trade network connected this 12" thick pipestone layer to tribes as far away as the Pacific Coast and Atlantic Coast. It is said that this site was open to any tribes, no matter at war or peace, and they could send members from thousands of miles away. In addition, intermediary tribes certainly traded this material to far away groups.

File:WLA brooklynmuseum Native American Plains Pipe Bowl representing Owl.jpg
Pipestone pipe at Brooklyn Museum

The pipestone itself is an ancient metamorphosed mudstone that is interbedded with Souix quartzite, which is the primary erosion-resistant rock that outcrops across this region of Minnesota and South Dakota. This quartzite formed as river-sand deposits some 1.7 billion years ago. These were rivers flowing before there were any animals or plants on land. So, yeah it is really old!

Red Pipestone layer under the pink Souix Quartzite

So, when you visit Pipestone National Monument, of course you have to check out the visitor center first to get information about how the Native peoples acquired, carved, and trades this pipestone. You can even buy real pipestone pieces from the gift shop. Then you can walk the 3/4 mile loop trail which will take you out to the active pipestone quarry.

You might even see people down in the quarry removing pipestone today, as is their right under treaty with the government. In fact, any registered Native American can work the quarries once they get an NPS permit. Many do it from traditional ceremonial or spiritual reason. Some sell their goods on the open market. Depending on the individual tribal philosophies, some are adamantly opposed to selling these goods for money, while others say it is a traditional approach, since it was done in pre-contact times.

Some glacial erratic boulders left on the land during the Ice Age

The trail will then take you past some nice patches of tallgrass prairie, through a thicket of riparian trees along the creek and up to Pipestone Falls.
Pipestone Falls

These fall drop off a rocky erosion-resistant outcrop of Souix Quartzite. As you can see in the picture above, it was still iced over being I visited in March.

The oracle site

Up on the cliff-face you will encounter The Oracle. This rock formation that sort of looks like a face, is said to speak to those who stare at it quietly. I was the only visitor at the park that morning and was very quiet, but did not hear anything. Perhaps it was because the falls were too loud.

Also available to view in the visitor center are petroglyphs that were taken inside for their protection.

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