- Case Study:

Pipestone National Monument, MN (Dakota et. al.)


The Place

In southwestern Minnesota a 2-inch-thick band of smooth, pinkish-red stone rises to just under the surface of the prairie and farmland. Its names reflect the complexity of its history: pipestone, for its use as the carved bowls of sacred pipes of many American Indian tribes; and catlinite, after George Catlin, the first European-American to document the quarries.


Pipestone objects dating back as far as 3,000 years have been found in several places on the North American continent, and pipes are known to have been made for at least 2,000 years. Stone was quarried as tribes traveled through the area, and the quarries were understood to be neutral ground. Pipestone was also heavily circulated through trade, first between tribes and later also with settlers. The pipe was often smoked to seal a treaty. Around 1700 the Yankton Sioux moved west and established their permanent residence in the area of the quarries, consolidating the quarrying and trading of pipestones.
In 1836 George Catlin arrived, documented the quarries, and popularized them in the imagination of many in the eastern states. In 1858 the Yankton signed a treaty with the United States government which included the continued, exclusive ownership of the quarries and rights to regulate quarrying, though they gave up all land in the vicinity except one square mile, where the quarries are located. Despite the treaty, settlers claimed portions of the reserved land and built on it. Legal conflict broke out in the early 1890’s, when the government and the citizens of Pipestone, MN decided to build the Pipestone Indian School on reserved quarry land. This resulted in a complex battle for legal recognition of Yankton ownership of the land that wasn’t resolved until 1926, when the Supreme Court determined in Yankton Sioux Tribe of Indians v. United States that the land had been taken from the Yankton Sioux and that they were owed compensation. In 1928 they were paid $328,558, and control of the land was transferred to the National Park Service (NPS). Over the course of these events the Yankton Sioux were eventually forced to cede the reserve land around the quarries and the control of quarrying in return for the money for damages. They were then forced to apply for a permit from the superintendent of the Pipestone Indian School, which had been established on the quarry land. Additionally, the Yankton were now unable to prevent other tribes from quarrying the stone.
Prior to the beginning of the NPS’s management of the quarries, the last visit by active quarries was in 1911. In 1937 the area was designated the Pipestone National Monument, and in 1946 the NPS finalized and implemented a permit system open to legal members of any American Indian tribe. Quarriers trickled back into the area, and many settled there permanently, supporting themselves on money earned from the sale of finished pipes. In 1954, the Pipestone Indian Shrine Association (PISA) was founded by American Indians to regulate trade and work with the NPS to improve and update the cultural center and museum in the park. They also worked to ensure that the ancient art and practices of quarriers and pipemakers continued. For a long time these local quarriers were the main representatives of Native American culture in the area around Pipestone.

Controversy over Park Management

Following legislative changes in the way that the law and federal government related to Native Americans in the 1960's and 1970's a resurgence in interest in traditional Native American ways of life and Native Americans began to demand more control over their sacred sites. Pipestone, traditionally a very sacred site, became a point of interest. More traditionally minded Native Americans from reservations in South Dakota began to visit Pipestone and were angered by depictions of Native Americans in National Park Service exhibits. Native religions and cultures were discussed in the past tense. Many complained that too much emphasis was placed on white settlers, especially George Catlin. The exhibits were framed by a 1950's era White view of Native Americans. To many Native tribes the presentation of pipes in exhibits was also offensive. Of the 60 pipes on display, 20 were displayed with stem and bowl joined. To many tribes, including Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota, the bowl and stem are only joined in ceremony. Thus, the perpetual display of joined pipes was seen as a particularly egregious show of disrespect towards certain Native peoples.
In the early 1990's, the Park service agreed to speedily execute a renovation of exhibits and the visitor center in response to mounting pressure by Native groups to improve the depictions of Native peoples and cultures.
Another issue was raised by more traditional Yankton Sioux about the ownership of the monument and the fact that National Park Service employees regulated the quarrying of the sacred stone. In order to receive a permit to quarry stone in the monument, applicants must be enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe. There are currently many federally unrecognized tribes throughout the United States, none of which are able to apply for a permit to quarry pipestone. In 1986 the National Congress of American Indians voted to prohibit the sale of any type of finished pipestone object, whether intended for ceremonial uses or no. The Yankton Sioux followed that with a petition to Senator Inouye of Hawaii asking for the return of the quarries to them under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Protests and petitioning lasted for seven years, and then faded. The NPS management of the monument and quarries did not change, and objects, including pipes, continue to be sold at the cultural center and museum through the PISA, which some argue did not adequately represent American Indians. A significant issue in place here is not only the claims that the Yankton Sioux have to monument land, but that Pipestone's status as a National Monument makes it a tourist destination for non-Natives who are not there for religious or cultural purposes. In general, the Yankton Sioux were spearheading an effort by more traditionally minded Native Americans for Natives to have more control over the sale and spread of pipestone.

Intra-Indian Debates

In 1996 the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers was formed by a group of quarrying artists dedicated to a liberal reading of pipestone tradition, one of inclusiveness. They offer pipes for sale to anyone, provided that their “heart is into it.,” and offer membership to anyone interested in pipestone in accordance with the organization’s purpose. The conflict between restricted and free use interpretations of pipestone tradition came to the forefront again in 2004, when the new National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) commissioned a floor installation that included pipestone. Travis Erikson, an artist/member of the Keepers, was the artist chosen for the work, and he completed it in June 2004. After a huge Native response against the installation, it was removed in July, well before the museum’s opening in September of the same year.
The issues were several. The NMAI wanted to include pipestone in the forms of raw stone and pipes in one of its exhibits. A Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux artist, Travis Erikson, agreed to do the work; he is a fourth-generation quarrier, and has been quarrying and carving for more than twenty years. A ceremony representing multiple tribes accompanied the installation of the floor piece. Those protesting the installation were led by Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota Sioux and the 19th-generation keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe. They objected to the use of pipestone in the floor because anyone who stepped on or over it would be committing a serious act of disrespect; they thought that Erikson should not have received compensation ($50,000) for the work; and they were offended by the display of joined pipe bowls and stems, which was itself a ceremonial, sacred act.
Looking Horse says that, “In our traditional ways, in our protocols, ceremonies, in our sacred way of life, we respect everything; everything is sacred. For instance, a child, you can't put our children's clothes on the floor. You can't even walk over our children's clothes.” Both sides stood firm in their beliefs, and the NMAI removed the pipestone floor installation because it did not want to maintain such a controversial piece against the wishes of a substantial portion of the Native community: "Our effort is to be responsive in as sound a way we can to community wishes with respect to culturally-sensitive matters. The difficulty is that sometimes the wishes of a community differ within that community. That is clearly the case here."


A huge discussion of the role of pipes and pipestone in modern life continues. On the one hand, Erikson and the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers argue that the pipe has always been a symbol of peace and was historically inclusive of many tribes, which today can and should be extended to the inclusion of many nationalities and races. They have a petition asking that “no legislation be considered that would change this custom and tradition of making and selling pipes and pipestone which dates back at least 5 generations.” Their position of relatively unrestricted use is supported by many elders and medicine men of various tribes. “The Creator has never given such an order [to restrict pipe use to Natives]. A lot of medicine people have told me not to pay attention,” said Clyde Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Indian Movement. The other side of the issue is much more consolidated, almost entirely within the Lakota and Nakota Sioux. Looking Horse says of himself and his position, “Even today, they’re saying that Arvol stands alone. If Crazy Horse was alive, I’m sure he’d stand with me.” He and his supporters in this issue argue that, though the pipe is a symbol of inter-tribal cooperation, it should remain exclusive of non-Natives to protect the tradition from abuse. He acknowledges that pipestone and pipes have always been traded, but that the pipe tradition needs to be strengthened internally before it can survive in a cultural and economic free-market. Additionally, he pointed out that a floor installation should never be an acceptable use under any version of tradition, because it violates the conception of pipestone as sacred.
The National Park Service has taken the position that current debates are solely intra-Native American issues and there is not a place for the Park Service in the Debates. The Park Service still regulates quarrying at the Pipestone National Monument, and the controversy continues within the larger American Indian community.
Updated on June 12, 2006