Quarrying and Carving Sacred Red Pipestone for Peace Pipes

Southwest Minnesota Artists, http://video.pioneer.org/video/2365719491/ / “You spend some time with the stone, and you know what the stone wants to be,” said pipe carver Rona Johnston.

Kristin Butler

For centuries, Natives have used peace pipes as tools to connect with the Creator.

“Today, so many people all over the world really are searching for some kind of a connection to Mother Earth. Many, many people have heard of pipestone pipes. But they have no idea where they come from, or what they do,” said Ojibwe pipemaker Bud Johnston.

Fifty-three pipestone pits, each stretching roughly 15 feet long and deep, form craters across Pipestone National Monument in Pipestone, Minnesota.

It’s a slow and laborious project to chisel past quartzite to get to the red pipestone underground. For centuries, Natives have harvested the stone by hand using sledge hammers, crowbars, wedges and picks to break past the hard, metamorphic rock to access the sacred, red pipestone.

Native artisans carve peace pipes both for prayer rituals and for sale. They are taught to use all the quarried stone, if possible, or return it to Mother Earth. Pipestone is hard yet soft enough to file down with flint tools. It’s also extremely durable, withstanding intense heat. Because pipestone doesn’t crack in the sunlight, pipes can last for generations.

Bud’s grandfather’s pipe has been passed down for six or seven generations. A member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians from Bad River, Wisconsin, Bud has been making pipes since landing in Pipestone, Minnesota, more than 20 years ago.

The founding president of the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers, Bud has been reelected to lead the nonprofit every two years since its formation in 1996. The nonprofit was formed by local Natives and tribal leaders to protect and educate the public about the nearby pipestone quarries within the National Park Service park, Pipestone National Monument.

“I’ve worked with the National Park Service since 1984; I do guided tours of the quarries and tell people about the history of the region,” Bud said.

Only people of Native ancestry are permitted to quarry the pipestone at the National Monument, established in August 1937. Enrolled tribal persons from Canada or the U.S. can apply for a quarry permit through the National Park Service with their tribal I.D. card. “Now there’s a waiting list of a couple hundred people to get a pit. Permits come up for renewal every January. If you’re actively quarrying, you can keep renewing every January,” Bud explained.

Before quarrying, Bud prays to the Creator, and often times he’ll partake in ceremonial sweats before digging for pipestone. He also puts tobacco in Mother Earth to show appreciation for her gift.

After quarrying, pipes are carved into various shapes and sizes, often with very long stems leading to smooth bowls for loading the pipe. Before Bud or his wife Rona Johnston, a Cherokee artist and pipemaker, design a pipe, they reflect on the stone itself. “I really do feel that the stone talks to people,” Bud said.

“You spend some time with the stone, and you know what the stone wants to be,” Rona added. “The stone tells me; I can tell in that stone if it’s going to be a bear pipe or a buffalo pipe, and if it feels like the right thing, then I take that piece of stone, and I’ll sketch on the stone, cut out the basic shape, and then start carving it.”

The stem of the pipe is really the most personal part of the pipe. Indian artisans often decorate pipe stems with their “personal medicine, colors and prayers. When someone passes away, the stem gets buried with the owner,” Rona said. Rona, who designs beadwork for regalia like fancy shawl dresses, will occasionally put beadwork on stems or on bags for pipes and medicine bags.

Pipes are incredibly sacred — tools for connecting with the Great Spirit. “They are very important to tribal cultures. Tribal people use their pipes as their focal point to help them with their prayers,” Rona explained.

Bud often leads classes to teach people how to carve pipes. He guides people on how to use peace pipes for prayer. “When we do classes, I ask people if they plan to use it in their prayers, and if they are, I’ll ask them if they want to know how I was taught to use it. If they want to fire it up, we can do that,” he said.

As a federally recognized tribal church and nonprofit, Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers leads school presentations. Keepers members enter any prison or jail across the country, 24 hours a day, if a tribal person wants to speak with a spiritual person. “We’ve had pipemaking talks and donated over 170 pipes to prisons all over the United States,” Bud said.

One way American Indians show respect for the pipe is hosting a feast for the pipes. “Load your pipe, put it on the table, bring some of your friends and family over, and while you’re eating dinner, talk about what that pipe has done in your life,” Bud said. “Then smoke the pipe when you’re done. That way you’re showing respect for that tool that you’re using.”

The Keepers hold feasts annually. “We start dinner about 7 o’clock. Last year, we had a bunch of spiritual people from Montreal and Toronto down. When we did the feast for the pipes, we had 27 pipes on the table. We were talking until 1 o’clock in the morning. It was powerful,” Bud said.

Bud also serves as the current chairman of the Pipestone Convention and Visitor Bureau. For seven or eight years, he’s traveled with the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) to the world’s largest tourism trade fair, held annually in Berlin, Germany. ITB Berlin showcases more than 10,000 exhibitors and organizations from more than 180 countries. “At ITB, so many people want to talk about pipestone, what it is, where it is, and how to get there. It’s helped a lot with tourism to our county,” Bud said.

Learn more about Pipekeers at Pipekeepers.org. The world’s largest peace pipe — a vision shared by three spiritual people: one Lakota and two Anishinaabe — stands on the grounds of the historic Rock Island Railroad depot near the entrance to the Pipestone National Monument, home to the Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipemakers.

Read part 1: Why Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota Is Worth a Visit

This story was originally published April 7, 2017.