While the historical quarry wall had been the centre of the industry for years, nowadays permits were given to smaller quarries on the flats nearer the visitor centre. Pits arranged in two clear straight lines parallel to the main quarry face had been dug down to the pipestone level. They tended to fill up with water in the wet season and the Parks Service had to arrange for these to be drained whenever someone wished to quarry.
In one or two pits I saw recently active workings; some of the craftspeople who worked in the visitor centre maybe. Their tools were scattered around the pits. Here you got a much better picture of the thin seam of the glossy deep pink pipestone. A few fragments of the rock littered the ground, a stark contrast to the grey stone of the quartzite. It is a captivating stone; you could see why it was valued for its beauty by many tribes. It is not just its appearance but the softy smoothness when you held it in your hand is almost magical. It was relatively easy to carve into any shape but some care had to be taken. It could break under pressure. It still meant that the stone could be made into the intricately carved cylinder shapes and drilled with a bowl for the tobacco and a long tube to allow the smoker to drawer. Only the bowl and far end of the pipe would be made of the stone, the rest, where the smoker would chomp down with his teeth, would be wooden. The wooden pipes would be regularly replaced but the pipestone parts could be past down generation to generation.
The stream I was following topples over the quarry edge in a pretty cataract, and it zigzags manically in amongst the quarry workings. The removal of the rock appears piecemeal, of course. The rock has all been hand dug over the centuries by individuals and small groups. Modern equipment could have systematically dug out the overburden easily and sliced off the layer of pipestone in an even manner, but that is not allowed. Various treaties and agreements allow Indians to obtain permits and come and take small amounts of pipestone for pipes, ornaments, jewellery and souvenirs. The result are intricate and artisanal facets to the stone. In a couple of places stacks of quartzite have been left standing away from the main face. One is called the Leaping Rock – the challenge is not the distance from the cliff edge to the stack, more to ensure you manage to check the momentum used to jump the gap so you don’t go shooting off the far side and smash yourself to death on the ground below.
The pathway runs along the bottom of the man made escarpment for a while then steps up in amongst the workings. Some rocks when carved have given the appearance of various characters and animals, and are now preserved. From a particular angle, one face has the appearance of an old woman, not a natural impression but more like the carvings you might see on totem poles. When you first see the excavations by the waterfall they appear modest, but the quarry face goes on for nearly a quarter of a mile, and all the way along you see the rubble, cut blocks and the remaining exposed solid rock showing the excavations are of monumental proportions. All those hands, all those years, all those generations. There was some ingenuity in the excavation. To constantly chip away at the quartzite would take months just to get a small piece of pipestone out. The technique most commonly used was to exploit the natural cracks in the quartzite at the top of the hill; bash down long metal pegs to weaken the joins and using crowbars to lever chunks of rock off, that would tumble down away from the face. There they would be broken up into rubble to be transported away from the face onto the big piles I had seen earlier.
The trail was a well marked tarmacced path and not very long. I could see the small escarpment that was the main quarry just beyond a range of trees. Between me and it was a rare site in modern America, a stretching plain of tall prairie grass dominating the terrain for about half a kilometre. About waist height it was a tangle of stems with, at this time of year, extensive seed heads which rattled and whooshed in the wind. I could see variations in the texture as I looked out; there were obviously other species intermingled with the grass. This was not something that would be easy to navigate through – to walk through the patch here might take ten, twenty minutes, and who knew what potholes and depressions lurked below to give you a twisted ankle, or how scratched (or even poisoned) you might get if your bare skin came in contact with the vegetation. How did the settlers manage to get through all this from the east, let alone burn it down and make cultivated fields? Of course it would die down over the winter and there would be paths of least resistance, but it was another reminder how tough those trekkers must have been to even attempt it. Where the grass met a small coppice of trees I noticed a huge pile of loose boulders; a very odd feature in a landscape of rolling prairies.
I came across a small river in a wooded valley a few steps on. Attached to several trees were multicoloured cloth, prayer ties fluttering in the cold wind; what intentions or requests had been made one can only guess at; perhaps it was just to ask to find a nice solid piece of pipestone up ahead. The trail followed the stream up a small incline through an open woodland till it met the vertical bluff of the quarry face. It could almost be a natural feature, but it is not. Generations of Indians had cut down through the hillside till they reached the narrow seam of pipestone. I realised the pile of loose boulders I had seen was rubble pile that had once been solid rock above where I was standing. Huge amounts of incredibly hard quartzite needed to be removed first before they could get to the deep pink layer of pipestone, and with that seam dipping down to the north, the more they excavated the pipestone the more overburden had first to be removed. So what was left was a deep face of quartzite that had the pipestone at its base.
A sea of grass
I bypassed the centre of town, drove past a small strip of eateries and car services, and came round the north side to where the entrance to a small park was marked by a modest paved road. Although this time I was in a national monument, the approach was manicured to the nth degree like in the State parks. I drove up to a generous sweep of car park (made no doubt to keep the RV drivers happy). I emerged from my car in the sunshine, then dived back in again to get my fleece. The wind was still a bitingly cold northerly. I’d noticed on my journey north from the Interstate some road side infrastructure. There were several huge red and white barriers next to the road which could be brought down when the snow got too deep to venture out. I’m used to closed roads to be part of the mountainous terrain of Europe; I am less used to seeing where transport routes on flat lands can become impassable.
I headed over to the modest visitor centre and spent a few minutes learning of the story of this location and its significance not just for the US today but for all native Americans. The location is one of only a handful where Indians would excavate a special form of dense but pliable stone that could be cut and carved into pipes, including the iconic peace pipes so beloved of Western films. The stone here is something called Catlinite and the only other place it is easily quarried is in Canada. Another form of pipestone can be found way west in Utah, but for the tribes of the plains, Pipestone was the only practical source of this valuable stone.
The importance of this site for such a culturally vital raw material meant that it had become neutral ground for some of the older tribes, including the Dakota and Lakota. The Sioux, maybe with a reputation for not being the most peaceful of Indians, had taken control of the site a few hundred years before white settlers reach the location. But it was still a sacred place, and was managed carefully by the native Americans and National parks board alike.
The little museum in the visitor centre was informative but a bit dusty, and what I wanted to do was look at the quarry itself, so I zipped up the fleece and put on the gloves and woolly hat and headed out into the sunlight.
At the site – the quarries in the trees
For as we wandered round the lake, even though it was a bitterly cold fall afternoon and the sun had barely half an hour left in the sky, the Oakwood park lakes were busy with fowl activity. There were ducks of all plumages clustered around the reed beds. I saw a white pelican, a bird I had always assumed was a marine creature, very much at home about as far from the sea as you could get in North America. There were a few woodland birds in the trees and we spotted the odd eagle or hawk lazily watching the proceedings from dead trunks, along with an occasional heron that was eyeing up the fish life.
The lakes were shallow and almost any rise in the ground lifted the surface from the water. As well as a couple of small islands there were several peninsulas dividing up the open water, and we did a circuit of the coast of one of these before we headed back to the car. On top of a bluff was an open space reputedly the summer camp of the local American Indians, and had been more recently used as a boy scout camp. Another name for the Oakwood lakes was Tetonkaha and there was evidence of native American habitation everywhere. The trail stops told us stories of how the different woods were used for making canoes or poles for tents, or for medicines. The collection of fruit bushes were a valuable source of nutrition in what was a relatively poor natural larder. The tradition of tapping maple sap occurred here as it was such a valued source of energy. We saw what looked like a few raspberry bushes as we wandered around, still with the odd red fruit on despite the snow earlier in the week. Later I discovered they were a type of gooseberry, which made sense as the stems were a bit spikier than your average raspberry cane.
While wandering this landscape with Gray I realised I was missing a big chunk of the story. I’d absorbed the settlers agricultural conversion of the plains quite happily and seen how ranches and huge grain fields were feeding the rest of the country. I had learnt a little about the rocks and the glaciers and knew of the ancient history. But the time in between I’d not taken in. Stupid, really, since I had been staying in Sioux Falls the whole week; you would have thought the name of one of the most infamous clans of native Americans would have triggered something in me. I wondered what the countryside had looked like in those days. From the agricultural museum we had visited that morning I realised most of the land had been completely treeless and covered in the sort of transitional area between the long plain grass to the east and the short plain grass to the west. But even here in the lakes there was very little of the natural swathes of grass you expect in the prairies. I decided the next day I would put that right.