PIPESTONE, Minn. — Following lengthy consultation with 23 affiliated tribes, officials at the Pipestone National Monument, a pipestone quarry in southwestern Minnesota, have decided to end the sale of pipes at the monument's Visitor Center.
The decision was "significantly informed by" concerns shared by tribal leaders, explained monument superintendent Lauren Blacik.
"To many, the pipe is a sacred object," she said. "It's meant to be used for prayer, and many would like to see it respected as such."
Disagreements about the use of pipestone date all the way back to 1858, explained Faith Spotted Eagle, chair of the treaty committee of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.
Spotted Eagle's great-great-great grandfather signed the Treaty of the Yankton, which established the pipestone quarry as a part of the Yankton reservation.
Many tribes traveled to the quarry to mine pipestone, and because of their geographic proximity, “The Yankton were seen as the keepers of the quarry,” Spotted Eagle explained.
However, in 1894, the U.S. decided to recoup the quarry by conning the Yankton into signing a sale agreement, she said.
Since the Yankton were not allowed to leave the reservation, they were destitute and starving. U.S. representatives visited some families and offered combs, trinkets and food in exchange for signatures, Spotted Eagle explained.
“They (the U.S.) didn’t tell them (the Yankton) their signature was for the pipestone,” she said.
With enough signatures, the U.S. was able to buy the quarry for $128 per reservation resident — "even though the tribes had said no."
“The people were infuriated” when they learned of the U.S. government's deceit, Spotted Eagle said.
Since then, the tribes to whom pipestone is sacred have lobbied for tribal ownership and control of the quarry.
“My entire life, my people have fought for the preservation and eventual return of the quarry," Spotted Eagle said. “We would love to have co-management at some point.”
Elsie Whitehorn, tribal historic preservation officer of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, was also part of the tribal caucus that raised concerns about the sale of pipes. She explained that the tribes would like to restore their historical relationship to pipestone.
While Spotted Eagle plans to continue pushing for more tribal decision-making about pipestone, she sees the ending of pipe sales as a significant milestone.
Spotted Eagle had appealed to the previous monument superintendent to meet with members of each involved tribe and ask for feedback about pipestone sales. At first he agreed, but later told her the government didn't have enough funding to pursue such discussions.
When Blacik became superintendent in May 2018, everything changed, Spotted Eagle said.
“She recognized that there was a consensus building that had been there for years,” Spotted Eagle stated.
After consulting with the tribes, Blacik met with the Pipestone Indian Shrine Association — which manages the Visitor Center store — and asked that pipes not be sold at the monument anymore.
“This is what visionary leadership can do,” Spotted Eagle said of the cooperation between Blacik and the tribes.
Blacik said she had seen that carrying a pipe is a privilege and an honor, and the National Park Service shouldn't get to decide who carries one.
Eventually, added Spotted Eagle, the goal is to end sales of all pipestone crafts.
“The stone is the blood of our people,” she said. “It’s a spiritual item, and it should not be sold.”
Ending all pipestone sales would require protection of the stone by the U.S. Congress.
Whitehorn agreed that the concern is much deeper than just pipe sales — the physical place of the pipestone quarry holds special significance.
"The location is very important to us as a people," she said. "It encompasses the whole surroundings in all directions, including below and above." Even the earth and the sky that interact with pipestone have deep spiritual ties.
Whitehorn added that she has read several historical accounts of her predecessors visiting the quarry as a sort of pilgrimage. In each case, she said, "They got a sense of healing or redirection or purpose" as a result of the visit.
"I would like to see a reunion of the ancestral people with the ancestral land," Whitehorn said.
While Spotted Eagle celebrates the step the monument has made to respect Native American culture, she also acknowledges that it is the culmination of centuries of effort by her forebears.
“I am totally thankful to the people who have passed on into the spirit world who have fought for this," she said. "It’s a generational fight.”
Pipestone National Monument will host an open house from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Visitor Center to answer questions about the decision to stop selling pipes. Changes will become effective later in 2019.