Monday, June 15, 2009

Pipestone National Monument

After leaving the Little Feather Center, I moved on to Pipestone National Monument, a site run by the National Park Service.

The site is nicely put together with a small exhibit on the history of quarrying pipestone, a hands-on station where folks can try a hand at shaping pipestone using saws and files, and a demonstration area where visitors can see pipestone craftspeople do their thing. There is also, of course, a gift shop where I could not resist buying pipestone earrings (made by local American Indian craftspeople, so I didn't feel too guilty or kitschy). The big draw, however, is the 3/4 mile walk around the quarries themselves and the surrounding country.

For many years beginning in the late 1800s, pipestone quarries were raided by white settlers in order to make souvenirs for visiting dignitaries. Since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mentions pipestone in his Song of Hiawatha, the town marketers seized on the publicity and tried to make Pipestone the "Peace Capital of the World" (because pipestone is used to make peacepipes), drawing tourists, important statesmen, and settlers to the town and nearby quarries. The pipestone quarries are sacred ground where Native American tribes gather the soft rock to make peacepipes and other objects. According to "legend" heavily publicized by the town founders, tribes from all over the region would travel miles to quarry pipestone and, once they reached the sacred spot, would call truces and cease whatever fighting normally happened between tribes. (For more about Pipestone's 19th-century commercial image, see Southwick's book mentioned in the previous post.) Nowadays, the national monument still capitalizes somewhat on this image but no one is allowed to quarry pipestone except American Indians who have obtained the proper license.

I was particularly struck by the way the Park Service has decided to focus a lot of the site on the natural landscape. The Pipestone quarries is one of the few places in Minnesota that has not been plowed and cultivated (and almost certainly the only one in southern Minnesota!). So the Park Service has begun a rigorous prairie fire program that ensures the health of the native prairie grasses and plants and the nature trail emphasized the local landscape and environment. I really liked this aspect of the site and am pleased to find that more and more places like Pipestone have begun to reinvigorate native prairie landscapes and fend off alien intruders.

My biggest qualm with the Park Service site was the lack of history pertaining to the European appropriation of the quarries and of pipestone as symbols of American history. Southwick's book presented some fascinating examples of how the site has been manipulated for decades by white settlers and it seems that only recently has there been a greater emphasis on interpreting the site from the American Indian perspective. Although, I feel it's unlikely the Park Service will ever talk about Pipestone's dark past (museums and historic sites, quite unfortunately, seem to hate controversy).

There was also a nice little exhibit about the Three Maidens. These are three enormous boulders left over from the last glacial period that sit just down the road from the quarries. American Indian tribes carved petroglyphs into the boulders for centuries but one of Pipestone's European founders removed the petroglyphs in the 1800s and the fragmented pieces now sit in an exhibit at the Park Service site. Again, the exhibit doesn't condemn the removal of the petroglyphs from the Three Maidens and fails to capitalize on this opportunity to explain the Pipestone's complicated history. Shame.

Sadly, the one place I did not have time to see on my visit to Pipestone was the Pipestone County Museum. I stopped there in the morning to get maps and recommendations and intended to return before leaving, but Pipestone National Monument wore me out and I ended up taking an unplanned hour-long nap that lasted until after closing time.


  1. The museum has some inadequacies identified in the General Management Plan ( The General Management Plan calls for a new visitor center facility in a different location. The exhibits would most likely be redone if/when that occurs. The GMP also identifies the current exhibits as "dated, historically inaccurate, inadequate in number, poorly designed by today's standards, difficult to maintain, and culturally offensive to some." We'd all like to see the exhibits improved, but it all boils down to money.

  2. Thank you, that is very good information to have. Speaking as someone who has worked for historical societies in the past, I know how frustrating it can be when you have big plans for change but don't have the funds to implement them. I hope the Park Service is eventually able to make the changes it wants.