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.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Little Feather Indian Interpretive Center

I confess, I was a biased visitor to Pipestone, MN and I went out of my way to find the kitschiest, strangest, most amusing manifestations of the city's claim as the "Home of the Peacepipe." This is thanks largely to Sally J. Southwick's somewhat long-winded but thoroughly researched Building on a Borrowed Past: Place and Identity in Pipestone, MN which I read for a college course on public history. I was not disappointed...

Here we see a sign declaring Pipestone as the "Crossroads of the Indian World." This sign is outside "Fort Pipestone" a replica frontier fort...that never actually existed. That's right: this fort is not even a reconstruction of a destroyed fort but a complete tourist fabrication. Entry is free, but you're supposed to buy souvenirs at the gift shop. Sadly, I did not have time to spend my hard-earned paychecks buying miniature keychains in the shape of calumets. Next time.

The biggest surprise was finding this little gem in the midst of all the peacepipe kitsch: The Little Feather Indian Interpretive Center, a Dakota-owned and operated museum dedicated, among other things, to honoring American Indian women "firsts" (i.e. first Native American Miss America, first Native American ballerina, etc.). The museum also features an extensive collection of photographs from the Fort Snelling internment camp where thousands of Dakota were imprisoned and several hundred died following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

The portion on American Indian women is called the "Ancient Voices Museum" and was my favorite part of the center. Though the text was a little wordy and the laminated labels reflected the light in such a way that sometimes made it hard to read, the information and photographs displayed were fascinating and moving. They highlighted several American Indian women from tribes across the United States and their landmark "firsts." I read about the first Native American woman to become a registered nurse, the first Native American woman to "speak out for American Indian issues," and many other fascinating women. Their stories were accompanied by photographs and artifacts including a display of women's clothing. I did have some reservations with the decision to highlight "firsts" as this format tended to celebrate women for doing "white" things (ballet, Miss America pageant) and essentially for assimilating into the dominant culture. However, I also understand the value of portraying American Indians' lives and achievements in contemporary society, particularly when the myth of the "Vanishing Indian" is all too present in today's discourse and popular culture. Ultimately, the very existence of a museum like this was exciting to me and I was deeply moved by the overall presentation.

I think I was so taken with this museum because this was the last place I expected to find an exhibit highlighting the experiences of American Indian women from around the country. My prior knowledge of Pipestone (again, from Southwick's book) led me to believe the town and its heritage had been entirely appropriated and repackaged by white settlers and that it remained so today. Not so, if this museum is anything to go by.

More Pipestone adventures in my next post...


Welcome to the blog of the Museum Maven!

I am a soon-to-be professional public historian interested in history and "cultural" museums and sites of all kinds. Since my earliest years on family vacations, I preferred visiting castle ruins and the birthplaces of famous women and men over amusement parks. I have visited plenty of both but never considered sharing my observations with anyone other than my patient (and likewise museum-loving) mother until now. I hope my entries will serve as part-review part-publicity for the various sites I visit during my travels. As I am based in the Upper Midwest, my entries will be biased towards that region, but I am an enthusiastic and frequent traveler and hope to add entries on museums and historic sites around the world.

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