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  • Mikah Meyer

Tearing Down the World's Religious Sites

Unit #28 / 412 - Pipestone National Monument

Westminster Abbey in London.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

The Kaaba in Mecca.

Whether to Christians, Jews, Muslims, or all sorts of ethnicities and cultures, these landmarks stand as sacred places in the eyes of the world.

It would be unthinkable for anyone to deny access to, interfere with, or break down these icons.

Yet that's exactly what was done to Native Americans, specifically at a place we now call Pipestone National Monument.

Though it may seem foreign depending on your religious background, the Natives believed that smoking was a way to communicate with their Creator. By releasing their smoke into the air while praying, it allowed those petitions to reach the heavens. Whether for the Sioux, Crow, Blackfoot, Pawnee or others in the area, one of the ways to do that was via a pipe carved from the red rock unique to this corner of southwestern Minnesota. And because it provided the natural resources to create those pipes, this land was a sacred place.

Yet, in 1858, through a series of European settlers, treaties and reservations, the Natives ceded some access. Their hope was by allowing use of surrounding lands, it would at least preserve this sacred spot--their Westminster Abbey, their Dome of the Rock, their Kaaba.

However, when the Natives were forced onto reservations 150 miles away, it all but ended their ability to reach and quarry the land.

That is, until 1937, when Congress established the Monument to allow traditional quarrying for Natives.

Though those exact quarries are cutoff from public access, Pipestone National Monument allows visitors a chance to meander the grounds of this beautiful red rock and experience a little of why Natives hold this place holy.

On my own visit, the most surprising discoveries came in the form of both the jungle-like scenery created by the rocks, and the animal life surrounding it. On my 30-minute hike of the prairie grounds, I was afforded up close views of this bird, a prancing deer, and a giant crane who floated along the ground just fast enough that I couldn't capture a picture before he escaped into the tall grass.

As beautiful as experiencing the natural red rock, was seeing the final product. With craftsmen working inside the Visitor Center and a museum and shop of uniquely designed pipes, it allowed for a complete start-to-finish discovery of these religious materials.

From earth-held rock to heavens-reaching pipes.

5 Pipestone Highlights (You Can Do)!

1. Walk the Circle Trail

The main outdoor attraction at the Monument, it takes you past large rocks, waterfalls, smelly streams (allegedly there are now factories and manure collections upstream), and any number of animals you are lucky to see.

All the plant species of the trail are described for visitors to better understand. This one in particular made me think of some of my friends from the DC/Maryland/Virginia area.

2. Watch the Visitor Center Video

A must-do orientation for every national park I visit, this 20-minute video (played every 30 minutes on the hour/half-hour) lets Natives who still use and quarry the rock, describe in their own words why it's so meaningful to their communities.

3. Watch a Pipe Made in Front of Your Eyes

With full-time carvers employed by the gift shop, you can see and purchase a start-to-finish pipe.

4. Carve the Pipestone Yourself

Using modern tools, visitors can saw or shave this rock, giving them a feel--and a greater respect--for the artisans who use it to create majestic products.

5. Animal Watch

In the four months since my trip started, I have not been somewhere with so many animals crossing my path in such a short time. Take a seat on one of the benches--or better yet, the rocks--and wait for nature to surprise you!

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations, please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Illinois to Indiana to Michigan to Ohio

-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area

-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway

-Effigy Mounds National Monument

-Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

-Pullman National Monument

-Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

-River Raisin National Battlefield Park

-Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial

-James A. Garfield National Historic Site

Here's the journey thus far:

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