The Big Trip: Pipestone


The Butterfield Café had a terrific breakfast special: 2 eggs, 2 cakes, 2 sausage, 2 bacon, $2.75. The bacon was extraordinary. The waitress wore jeans and a Hawaiian shirt. There were signs for Mountain Dew on several of the walls, reflecting their overuse on the sides of the buildings in this little town, and everyone said, “You bet!”

All the folks in the café were regulars. They helped themselves to coffee, sat in the same seats each day, and the cook would come out and sit with them when he wasn’t busy. I learned that Butterfield’s main industry was its chicken processing plant. These guys slaughtered chickens for a living, killing some 60,000 of them a day, most of them destined for pot pies and such (not Perdue quality chicken, which I learned are mainly processed in Washington state).

Butterfield’s other claim to fame was its annual “Camping Bee” with its “Hiawatha Days,” about which I unfortunately could learn nothing, though there were these ancient steam tractors on permanent display at their fairgrounds. A kid in town said that Butterfield had a population of 900; the visitors I met the previous night while camping said it was around 600. Either way, welcome to small town America.

A murder of crows (I love terms of venery, those collective nouns for groups of animals: a shrewdness of apes, an exaltation of larks, a storytelling of ravens) were congregating over my campground, which I passed on my way out of town. Felt slightly ominous.

The prairie wind started whipping up, and I had trouble keeping the car on the road. It felt like a typhoon. An hour later, I see a sign: Warning: Strong Crosswinds Next Half Mile. Yikes—if what I had just been through wasn’t considered strong, what in the world was I to encounter a half mile away?

Another sign told me that the Variety Field Plot Day would be held at the Harris Farm, sponsored by the Mountain Lake Grain Elevator Co-op, and that refreshments would be served and everyone was invited. For all that, I still had no idea what the Variety Field Plot Day was all about. I was in a completely different world.

More crows. Hundreds of them, crows and blackbirds, taking off from a cornfield, thick as locusts, filling the sky like pepper, all from one cornfield.

I love this segment on my tape:

Listening to radio station KDOM from Windom, Minnesota. They just had a promotion where they asked seniors only to call in. They’ll be taking the first 150 who call in, and next week they’ll pick a name, and that person will live free for a month. The station will pay $250 for rent or mortgage, $150 for a car payment, $100 for something else, and coupons from Hy-Vee and another place for “food and sundries.” It’s only for seniors, and this woman named Vera Swenson, who was at the time canning tomatoes, called in. The announcer chatted with her about how the canning was going, and she said she had a good yield of tomatoes; he said it was kind of a wet year, and she replied, “You bet.” Then he asked for her age on the air (74) and her address (Route C and Township Road), though he at least waited until they were off the air to get her phone number. I thought it was just so charming, you know? To have a seniors-only game, and their greatest concern was to live free for a month. The announcer said, “That’s not a bad prize, is it?” and she replied, eagerly, “No, not at all!”

An old, terribly weathered sign reads, “Dangerous intersection, 5 deaths,” though I didn’t see another car for miles around. Later I passed a bowling alley called Bole-mor.

I didn’t know what to expect from Pipestone National Monument. What a quietly amazing place it was. It’s first and foremost a quarry for catlinite, which was (and still is) used to make peace pipes, vitally important to traditional Plains Indian culture. The quarries are sacred to the Lakota, and were neutral territory where all tribes could quarry stone for ceremonial pipes. The Lakota took control of the quarries around 1700, but Minnesota pipestone has been found inside North American burial mounds dating from long before that, and ancient Indian trails leading to the area suggest pipestone may have been quarried there for many centuries.

The seventeenth-century artist George Catlin, who specialized in portraits of Native Americans and for whom the stone is named, wrote:

The Great Spirit at an ancient period here called the Indian nations together, and standing on the precipice of the red pipestone rock, he broke from its wall a piece, and made a huge pipe by turning it in his hand, which he smoked over them, and to the North, the South, the East, and the West, and told them that this stone was red—that it was their flesh—that they must use it for their pipes of peace—that it belonged to them all, and that the war-club and scalping knife must not be raised on its ground. At the last whiff of his pipe his head went into a great cloud, and the whole surface of the rock for several miles was melted and glazed; two great ovens were opened beneath, and two women—guardian spirits of the place—entered them in a blaze of fire; and they are heard there yet (Tso-mec-cos-tee, and Tso-m e-cos-te-won-dee), answering to the invocations of the high priests or medicine men, who consult them when they are visitors to this sacred place.

Then there’s the story of Ptesan­Wi, White Buffalo Calf Woman, a sacred woman of Lakota mythology who gave the people their seven sacred rites. She also gave them the chununpa, or sacred pipe, the holiest of all worship symbols, and told them, “This round rock, which is made of the same red stone as the bowl of the pipe which your Father Wakan Tanka [the Great Mystery] has also given to you; it is the Earth, it is your Grandmother and Mother, and it is where you live and increase.”

As I toured the monument, and watched the artisans carving the pipestone bowls and fashioning ceremonial pipes for sale to the tourists, I found myself pondering Virgil’s suggestion that I look up the medicine man at the reservation as I passed through South Dakota, and ask him for an interpretation of the vision. He and his wife even gave me a detailed ritual to follow so that the medicine man would accept me, and not view me as some wasichu (a term generally meaning “white person,” but with the connotation of someone who is greedy or dishonorable; the word literally means “he who steals the cooking fat”), but as a genuine seeker. The problem is, I already knew what the vision meant. Is it right, I wondered, for me to go and get an interpretation anyway? Is it because I want validation for being a winkte shaman?

Tomorrow’s episode: The Marvelous Corn Palace

Categories: Shamanism, The Big Trip, The Medicine Wheel, Travel | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “The Big Trip: Pipestone

  1. There was so much of interest in this passage I barely know where to start.

    The last link supplied I read from beginning to end and found the subject well expounded.

    As for wanting validation, on a strange and new path which may take one far from any original or comfortable idea or self-concept, I would think it not strange at all to wish for a validation.

    There is so much I haven’t seen.

    Now, the important question: what is the venery noun for a large gathering of geeks?

  2. You’re not the first to wonder about the collective nouns to describe geekdom, nor even the second.

    Maybe a concentration of geeks (thinkers, all), or a gigabyte of geeks?

  3. I like “a wonder of geeks” as concentration can be used for any group of things and gigabyte sounds rather tech specific.

  4. a gaggle of geeks
    a group of geeks
    a gala of geeks
    a stalk of geeks


    hey craig, I made a new blog!


  5. And what a cool blog it is, too! Well done!

  6. aculady

    A google of geeks?

  7. C'nor

    The last comment from aculady about a google of geeks was mine. Sorry I forgot to log my mom out before commenting.

  8. C'nor

    The “google” in “a google of geeks” refers, of course, to both the number and the website.

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