Pam Tellinghuisen picked up a small piece of pipestone and slowly ran a large file over it. She already had the general shape she wanted, but the soft stone needed some finishing.
Pam was making the image of a frog from the pipestone. This was her first attempt to carve a frog, an animal that stands for long life and fertility to Native Americans. A Native American herself, Pam demonstrates the art of carving at the Pipestone National Monument in Pipestone, Minn. She is one of 23 Native American carvers who are allowed to work in the monument.
The only material the carvers use in their demonstrations is the soft red stone that is found mostly in Southwest Minnesota. The stone is officially called catlinite, in honor of the first white man to record the Native Americans using it. George Catlin, a frontier artist, traveled into the West before European pioneers did. His primary subjects were Native American Indians, and he painted them doing the everyday things they did in life. His work included them quarrying the red stone and using it to make pipes — often peace pipes. Thus the stone acquired the popular name of pipestone.
Today, pipestone quarries are located mostly within the boundaries of Pipestone National Monument and are considered sacred ground. Only Native Americans artists can quarry the stone or sell it at the monument.
Pam is such a person. A member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota nation, she is 24-year veteran carver. She learned to carve from her Dakota mother. She is also the fourth generation in her family to carve pipestone.
"My grandfather would come and work in the quarries and my grandmother would sit and carve frogs while he dug the stone. Once he had enough stone, he would start carving. He made mostly pipes," Pam explained.
To qualify as a carver, a person must be at least a quarter Indian blood.
Although she comes from a long line of Indian people, her father was German. She qualifies to work the pipestone, but her son does not. He's shy of being a quarter blood.
"Many Indians are great carvers, but they fall short of the required blood so they cannot work in the protected quarries or here at the monument," Pam said.
Pam laments the fact that there are so few carvers who qualify. With the past six years they have lost five carvers. The carvers are getting old and few young people want to do it, or they can do it but don't meet the blood standard.
In the museum at the National Monument, there is room for several Native Americans to demonstrate the art of carving. Visitors are welcome to watch and to visit with the carvers.
"You get all kinds of questions," Pam said. "One person even asked where the monument was. He thought the Pipestone National Monument was a statue or something like that." According to Pam, the "monument" is the sacred quarries, the trail and the native plants that grow on the property.
When pipestone is quarried, it is a soft pink stone, about the hardness of a fingernail. That makes for easy carving. After it has been exposed to the elements for a while, it turns very hard, becoming too hard to carve.
The carvers make many items from the stone which then are for sale is the Monument's bookstore. Peace pipes are the most popular items. Pam makes pipes, smudge bowls, letter openers and turtles.
When she finishes a carving, Pam heats it and then covers it with beeswax. The heat allows the wax to soften and cover the stone. After a while, the wax turns the stone to a deep rich dark red. Most artists favor the red, but some cover only certain areas of the item and the result is a two-tone look of pink and red.
Because she is working with the sacred stone, Pam said each piece has meaning. Each artist may carve what they like. It's their choice.
Asked how she knows what items to carve, Pam replied, "The Spirit knows what you need."