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When you’re nine, I’m guessing you don’t think much about the word sacred. We were already on our way when it occurred to me that our grandson probably needed to know something of it. I’m driving, my wife is shotgun. I’d say we’re babysitting, but Ian’s no baby.
“You know the word sacred, Ian?’ I said. He was sitting in the backseat, talking to us and playing with a handful of connectable toys he’d taken along for the trip. He’s nine. “What?” he said, not because he didn’t hear me.
“The word sacred,” I said again. “You got any idea what it means?”
Long pause. Finally, “Secret?” he answers. Wasn’t really a bad guess.
We told him sacred meant, like, “super precious, really precious.” I told him to think about the cross and what a cross meant all by itself and how if he had one right then in his fingers, chances are he wouldn’t use it to pick his nose. “We might say the cross is sacred,” I told him.
I couldn’t see his face, but his silence suggested that he caught my drift. I thought he should know that word before we got to the monument because it was going to be important to know about the stone Native people have quarried there for hundreds, maybe thousands of years–how the stone, pipestone, is sacred to Native people. Our grandson goes to a Christian school, but he’s a Protestant kid, and I’m quite sure Protestant kids don’t talk much about sacred.
Just inside, the monument has a wonderful introductory film, 22 minutes long. It plays every half hour and had started five minutes before we got in the door. It was scorching outside, so just sitting in the air-conditioned theater was blessed relief. My grandson, like any kid his age, can seem distant, even unobservant; but sometimes, a year later, he’ll floor you with the accuracy of what he’s not forgotten.
Pipestone Monument’s video tells a Native story of how and why the pipestone got so red–so sacred. Once upon a time, there was a flood. The story is a creation myth with a healthy dash of Noah maybe. The flood was a slayer: people were dying, drowning all around, when a little girl climbed the highest hill she could find, and, once on top, she prayed.
It was dark in that mini-theater. Ian was sitting a row behind me, so I couldn’t see his face. He’s going into fourth grade. I don’t think he knew much about sacred, but by all means he knows about prayer.
That little Indian girl prayed, the film said; and the Great Spirit answered, sent a giant cloud and a man to rescue her.
I’d have given anything to know what Ian was thinking right then: a little girl’s fervent prayers to an Indian God answered just like that. Magic. Sacred. Sort of.
But more. The voice said the blood of all those people who’d drowned soaked into the earth and made the rockbed red beneath it, blood red, and therefore sacred. And so for centuries, long before Ian’s great-great-great-great grandparents were anywhere near Pipestone, Minnesota, Native people quarried this lovely red rock for sacred pipes because the smoke of tobacco and sweet grass and sage, smoke that rises from those sacred pipes, rises to the Great Spirit like prayer. Sacred.
We couldn’t have been sitting at Pipestone National Monument for fifteen minutes. Our grandson isn’t even ten years old, and I couldn’t help but wonder how all of this was going down in his mind, in his soul. I couldn’t help wonder what his teacher will tell him next spring when the fourth grade takes its class trip to Pipestone National Monument. When that happens, he would already have been there, already have thought about all of that blood red rock, already maybe have some thoughts about the word sacred.
It’s a Christian school he attends. I hope the teacher doesn’t just tell them all that business of the little girl’s prayer is sort of hocus-pocus. I hope that she doesn’t just say, “We know Jesus, don’t we?” and act as if the case is closed. I really hope she just smiles and lets my grandson and all those fourth-graders wonder a little.
After all, his grandpa wonders, and he’s 71 years old.
When the video ended, we hiked the trail. It was hot, super hot. But there’s a falls, a beauty for the prairie, something refreshing. This spring’s been full of rain.
We hit a McDonalds on the way home. Ian wanted McNuggets. While he poked at his food, he slowly unwrapped something his grandma had bought for him while I was watching the part of the film we’d missed when we came in late.
Inside a nest of wrapping paper, cut and smoothed from blood red rock, from Pipestone, sacred pipestone, was a cross, a small, smooth cross.
I thought that was wonderful. Still do–super precious, even sacred.