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By August 16, 2019 12 Comments
George Catlin, Ioways–note feathered headman’s pipe

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.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Pam Adams says:

    I have taken my children to Pipestone twice and bought them each a medallion and also have brought three of my grandchildren. It is a beautiful place where the presence of God is all over the Creation.

  • mstair says:

    Loved this; reminded me of our sojourn to pipestone with our kids. Read and then got up to look at the pipe and dream catcher hanging on the wall that we got from the trip. Thankful.

  • Robert Otte says:

    You might find the documentary “Father the flame” interesting. It is about pipe making and smoking, including Native Americans use of pipes.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Grand-parenting of the best kind.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I loved this very much as well.

  • Jim Dekker says:

    Lovely. Moving. Thanks much, Jim. I learned more about pipestone and sacred than I’d ever known before. And I’m 71 too. Blessings jcd

  • Eleanor Lamsma says:

    We lived near Pipestone National Monument for several years, and especially when our kids were young we visited many times. We always saw the movie, marveled at the beautiful carvings–including a tiny turtle in a glass case–and one time we bought a pipestone for a souvenir. One of my sons has it now. It’s a special place, with treasured memories, and a great story. A few years back one of my sons brought his family to experience it, and it brought back memories to him. I was blessed to be there with them. Thanks for sharing it, Jim.

  • ltolkamp says:

    A lovely, even sacred, piece of writing. Sadly, too often in our churches and schools we don’t create enough safe space for children … and adults … to wonder. Thanks for sharing.

  • Simply beautiful. Thank you.

  • Eunice Bossenbrook says:

    “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.”

    At age 75 I wonder more than ever, and it’s not as uncomfortable as it used to be. The world needs more wonder. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, James, for a touching story, and for making some distinctions in regard to what is sacred. My dictionary defines “sacred” as, “exclusively devoted to a deity or to some religious ceremony or use; holy; consecrated; worthy of or regarded with reverence, awe, or respect. Somehow, if something is sacred it is beyond and above being just valuable. And that seemed to be the case for this blood red rock and the smoke that rose from pipes made from this rock. To this native population it was indeed sacred. Like you, I wouldn’t want to take such sentiment away from my children or grandchildren either. I would hope that Ian’s teachers wouldn’t defer to the cross, as though what others hold as sacred means nothing.

    But it is important to recognize what is sacred to one person or group of people is not necessarily sacred to others. To Muslims, the Koran is sacred and contains the very word of God (Allah). We, as Christians, should respect such feelings held by those of the Muslim faith. And yet the Koran is not sacred to Christians.

    For Christians, human life is sacred because people are created in the image of God, making human life different from all other living creatures. That is why Christians don’t want to make exceptions to the rule that no unborn child should be aborted. And if this is what Christians truly believe, such a hard and fast rule should be upheld among Christians. Although, those outside the Christian church do hold to the value of human life, they don’t consider it sacred. That’s a Christian teaching. And yet Christians want to impose their beliefs on everyone by legislating strict anti abortion laws for everyone.

    I’m quite sure, James, you would want your grandson to respect the idea that the red stone of the Pipestone area was sacred to these original inhabitants of the area. But would you want to impose such beliefs of sacredness upon him too?

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