Within the solid bedrock of the Pipestone National Monument in the southwest corner of Minnesota, between the thick, hard layers of quartzite, runs a long vein of blood-red pipestone. Called catlinite for artist George Catlin, this soft stone stretches out in seams 15 to 18 inches (38 to 45 centimeters) thick from south-central Minnesota all the way to the Badlands in South Dakota.
Pipestone is found across the United States in a variety of colors — black, white, yellow, green and blue, to name a few. But the only place in the world you’ll find red catlinite pipestone is Minnesota’s Pipestone National Monument. And it’s this red pipestone that Native Americans have been using to carve their most sacred pipes for generations.
Native Americans have carved and used stone pipes since 1,500 B.C.E. But archeological evidence shows they’ve quarried pipestone and used it for at least 3,000 years to make the pipes they use in ceremony and prayer. And for centuries, Indigenous people have traveled from throughout the United States to excavate red pipestone from the quarry in what’s now known as Pipestone National Monument because it is considered so sacred.
“None has the same cultural significance or millennia of history behind it and legends and origin stories from Indigenous groups as the red pipestone found here,” says Gabrielle Drapeau, an interpretive park ranger at the Pipestone National Monument and an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.
Where Does Red Pipestone Come From?
The geologic formations of the Pipestone National Monument consist of clay (catlinite), Sioux quartzite and gravel conglomerate. Catlinite is only found at Pipestone National Monument and was likely formed when tons of clay were deposited in the area billions of years ago — possibly by floodwaters — and then quickly buried under thousands of feet of sand. Pressure and heat turned the clay and sand into stone roughly 1.6 billion years ago. Glaciers from the Pleistocene ice age further shaped the landscape.
Red pipestone gets its color from traces of the iron-bearing mineral hematite. It also contains little or no quartz, making it about as soft as a human fingernail (2.5 on the Mohs Hardness scale). That’s also why pipestone is so easy to carve with the simplest tools.
Why Is Red Pipestone Sacred to Native Americans?
Native Americans have different theories about why catlinite is red. For centuries, the quarry was considered “neutral” by Native tribes. They would go to excavate and work in peace.
“Even enemy tribes would come here and put down their weapons,” Drapeau says. “They could be in a quarry pit right next to each other, and they wouldn’t do anything because they were doing spiritual work. They were working to have that connection to God.”
But origin stories for why each tribe had such sacred connections to the red pipestone differ. According to the legend of the Dakota Sioux, for instance, the Great Spirit sent a flood to cleanse Earth, and many Indigenous people were killed. Their blood seeped down into the stone and that is what gives the pipestone its distinct red color. This tale explains why many Native Americans refer to the pipestone as the “blood of the people,” Drapeau says.
Drapeau also says that’s why smoking from a pipe made of pipestone quarried there is deeply significant. “So, the pipestone itself represents the blood of our ancestors,” she says. “It’s very significant because in my way of life that’s who we pray to.”
Artist Catlin, who met with close to 70 different Native American tribes between 1830 and 1838, including the Pawnee, Cheyenne, Crow and Blackfeet, documented the stories of the pipestone of the Dakota (Sioux), Ihanktonwan Dakota (Yankton Sioux), Te-Moak, and the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa. From Catlin’s retelling of the Dakota (Sioux)’s story:
He [the Great Spirit] then told his red children that this red stone was their flesh, that they were made from it, that they must all smoke to him through it, that they must use it for nothing but pipes: and as it belonged alike to all tribes, the ground was sacred, and no weapons must be used or brought upon it.
Just keep in mind, Catlin, who is considered by some as controversial today for often taking too much artistic license, recorded these stories through his own lens, and his perceptions were formed by his time. But they still lend a unique perspective of the different legends of the pipestones’ origin.
Is Pipestone Still Quarried at Pipestone National Monument?
Pipestone National Monument is still an active quarry site and Native Americans still use the red pipestone to make ceremonial pipes. The catlinite vein in Minnesota slants to the east at about 8 degrees. Quarries are found along the edge of this seam in a north to south line.
The seams typically have four layers of pipestone, and they must be removed one at a time, and by hand. No power tools are permitted, Drapeau says. The first layer isn’t usable, and the middle layers are good for small carvings. The bottom layer is the thickest and best quality with the deepest, reddest color.
“We still have Native Americans from all over the country making the journey here to put in the physical labor just to get the stone because it’s that significant,” Drapeau says.
The public is welcome to visit, observe cultural demonstrations and attend special events; nearly 80,000 do each year. But only enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe are permitted to excavate red pipestone.
“We don’t know how much pipestone is in the park. We really have no idea,” Drapeau says. But there is no worry that it will run out. “It is said that every time a native person dies, a drop of blood turns into stone and gets put back into the ground by our Creator.”
“We’ve been doing this for thousands of years,” she says, “and it is believed that we’ll continue to do it for thousands of years to come.”