WASHINGTON - Even before opening, the new building of the National Museum
of the American Indian has become embroiled in a long-standing dispute
among followers of the Sacred Pipe religious tradition.
After complaints from some Lakota religious leaders, NMAI Director Rick
West decided to remove an installation of red pipestone from the atrium
floor of the new building on the National Mall, scheduled to open among
great ceremony on September 21.
The red clay stone, also know as Catlinite after the famous painter of
Indians George Catlin, came from a quarry in the Pipestone National
Monument in Minnesota held sacred by Sioux nations as the source of the
carved bowls for the chanunpa, the sacred pipe. The installation was
fashioned by Travis Erickson, Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, noted carver of
pipe bowls. Erickson, the descendant of traditional carvers, holds one of
81 U.S. government permits to quarry pipestone from the National Monument.
According to several reports, the complaints came from Arvol Looking Horse,
Lakota, Keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman pipe bundle in Green
Grass, S.D., on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. Although the
controversy has now reached a national level, having an impact on a major
new institution of Indian culture, it has been a subject of long debate
among the Sioux nations (Dakota, Lakota and Nakota) for some time.
The dispute raises profound questions in Sioux theology, including the
degree to which non-tribal members and non-Indians should have access to
the rituals taught to the Lakota by the visiting White Buffalo Calf Woman,
possibly as recently as the late 18th century. It also poses an issue for
the administration of the NMAI, about the extent to which its own scholarly
and cultural judgment should yield to one side or another in an on-going
"I know Arvol's never approved of what we're doing here at Pipestone,"
Erickson told Indian Country Today, which includes fashioning objects from
the stone for sale. "In Arvol's spiritual belief," he said, "the stone is
sacred even as it sits in the ground because it is the blood of our
Looking Horse was not available for comment by press time.
Erickson said, "I look at it as this is kind of like the blood of our Earth
Mother. Thanks to our Earth Mother, I can survive through it.
"When we do ceremonies, which we do all the time, I apologize to the spirit
of our Creator and to the Earth Mother if I am offending them by what I do.
At the same time, I have this gift to be able to carve a lot of different
things, that a lot of people like my carvings. How should I honor that
"I suppose I could give them away, but at the same time I have these
children that have been given to me by the Spirit, that I am responsible
"I'm just following my grandfather's path," Erickson said. "My grandfather
raised seven children on the pipestone, and the pipes that he used to make
and sell to people. Was my grandfather wrong? I mean he was one of the
traditionalists back then in the '70s, when he was carving."
Erickson said that he had done historical research on the quarries and
found that "even in the late 1600s and early 1700s, pipestone was always
In the old days, he said, people would offer tobacco and buffalo hides for
the carved bowls. "We're trying to keep that tradition in a way," he said.
"We still trade with other people. We get hand drums and flutes and
blankets and bearskins and whatever. But money is a form of trade too, and
the way the world runs, is on money."
Although the floor installation was removed at the end of July, NMAI
spokesperson Suzette Brewer said that pipe bowls carved by Erickson would
still be on display in the museum's fourth floor Lelawi Theater and that he
would remain a part of its 18-minute introductory film.
She said the museum began to receive calls on both sides of the issue in
mid-July. "Anytime you get more than five or six phone calls, you consider
it a groundswell," she said.
"Both sides were pretty passionate about it," she said.
Erickson supervised the installation in June with prayers and ceremonies.
The museum gave him a commission of $50,000 for the quarried stone.
Museum Director West, southern Cheyenne, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune
that he consulted about a dozen tribal leaders and Indian staff members
before deciding to remove the stones. "People have very strong views on
both sides of this, but the weight of the sentiment was to remove the
stones," he said.
"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."