PIPESTONE NATIONAL MONUMENT, Minn. - Like his uncles and grandfather before him, Travis Erickson takes great pride in the handmade pipes he creates using red stone he digs from the ground and carves into intricate designs.
Used both for works of art and in ceremonies, the pipes are an integral part of the history and culture of Native American tribes in the Plains. It's at Pipestone National Monument where Erickson, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, and other Native Americans quarry for the stone used to make the pipes.
"It's more a spiritual journey for me," said Erickson, a fourth-generation pipe maker who demonstrates to visitors how he uses a variety of tools to carve the pipes.
Visitors to Pipestone can also watch a short film and tour a museum that details the history of the pipestone quarries and the historical significance the pipes have. A three-quarter-mile long trail takes them past several quarries as well as to the Winnewissa Falls. A gift shop sells the pipes starting at around $40.
Erickson says a regular pipe takes about three hours to create. Of course, that's after he's dug the stone out of his quarry, which he has been using since the 1970s. There are currently 56 active quarries, and only enrolled members of federally recognized tribes are allowed to obtain a permit to quarry the stone.
First, soil is shoveled away. Once that is done, quarriers break up the top layer of hard quartzite with a sledge hammer and wedge. Underneath the quartzite, there are one- to three-inch sheets of pipestone, called catlinite. The catlinite sheets are lifted from the pits and cut into smaller pieces which are then be shaped into pipes.
The process can be arduous.
"It's not just like a caveman beating on a rock," Erickson, 50, said. "You do have to read fractures. You have to be able to figure out where is your weakest point."
The quarriers often leave offerings of food and tobacco as a sign of appreciation for the opportunity to quarry the land for the stone.
In the past, Erickson said, tribal members from as far away as California and Florida have traveled to Pipestone National Monument for the opportunity. Now most come from within the Plains region. There are about 150 people on a waitlist for their own quarry.
A quote from Lame Deer, a Lakota leader in the 1800s, hangs on one wall of the visitor center and succinctly describes the pipes' significance to Plains' tribes:
"The stone is our blood, red as our skin. The opening of the bowl is our mouth and the smoke rising from it is our breath, the visible breath of our people. The pipe is our most sacred possession ... it is the heart of all our ceremonies."
Today, though, tribal members don't seem to have the same reverence for the pipe because of the growing focus on technology, said Erickson, who recalled gathering to carve pipes when he was a child with extended family members.
"We are dying," he said. "In the last six years, we've had five pipe makers go."
But for those who continue to put in the time and effort to quarry the stone and carve the pipes, it's worth it.
"They're not dedicated to the quarry. They're dedicated to the spiritual side," Erickson said.