Yankton Sioux runners complete spiritual quest

A group of approximately 30 people gathered in Lion's Park near the National Guard Armory in Vermillion Friday evening, stood in a circle, and prayed.

Just over 20 members of this group had just completed running approximately 90 miles to bring attention to an important part of their lives they feel is in jeopardy.

Friday's run began early that morning at Greenwood, located southwest of Marty near the Missouri River. The runners gathered under the Yankton Sioux Tribe's Treaty of 1858 Monument to prepare for the start of the "Spiritual Run for the Sacred Pipe."

The runners' ultimate destination is Pipestone, MN, where they hope they make progress at a meeting with National Park Service officials to limit the use of pipestone, which is in abundance in that region. The stone is sacred to members of the Yankton Sioux and other Native American tribes.

After camping Friday night in Vermillion, the runners continued their spiritual quest by running to Sioux Falls on Saturday. They arrived in Flandreau on Sunday, and were scheduled to arrive in Pipestone Monday evening.

John Rouse, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, was among the runners who covered Friday's route from Greenwood to Vermillion by taking turns running relays. A caravan of several vehicles followed, carrying camping supplies. Women and young children who also were part of this spiritual quest rode along and provided needed support.

"Just to get up and start running again was probably the hardest thing, but after you run that first mile, things start loosening up. I ran six miles today," Rouse said.

It's not the first time members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe have made this run.

"We had made this run every year from 1986 through 1994, protesting the sale and the exploitation of the sacred stone," Rouse said.

Allen Hare, one of the run's organizers and a transportation planner for the Yankton Sioux Tribe, said the National Park Service is attempting to limit access to sacred sites to preserve resources, and tribes want to maintain year-round access. While at the meeting, Yankton Sioux officials and runners also want to protest the sale of trinkets made from pipestone.

Spiritual stories that have long been a part of the Sioux's beliefs address the cultural importance of the Pipestone region to American Indians. A Brule Sioux legend, told by Lame Deer to Richard Erados, in Winner in 1969, was narrated in the book, American Indian Myths and Legends.

When the world was freshly made, according to the narrative, Unktehi the water monster fought the people and created a great flood, whose waters engulfed the lands. Perhaps the Great Spirit, Wakan Tanka, was angry with his human children, for he allowed Unktehi to win, and the waters rose in wrath over the new earth. Soon everything was under water except the hill next to the location where the sacred red pipestone quarry is today.

The people climbed up to save themselves, but it was no use. The rising waters swept over the hill, and falling rocks smashed down upon the people, killing everyone except one girl who was saved by a big eagle, Wanblee Galeshka, who flew her to the only safe spot, the highest stone pinnacle in the Black Hills. From this union descended the nation of the Lakota Oyate, the eagle nation. As for the other people who died, their red blood turned to pipestone, and created the pipestone quarry, which became sacred, as it was formed from the blood of the ancestors. That is why the pipes made from the red rock are sacred.

"In our spiritual life, we have a prayer pipe," Hare said. "The stone that we use to make that pipe comes from only one place, and that's at Pipestone. The stone is used by all of the tribes, and it's sacred, but right now we have people who have been making trinkets out of that stone for the last 50 years. They are depleting our spiritual resources."

One of the goals of the run is to try to convince people to stop using the pipestone as a common commercial building product.

"Once we get to Pipestone, we are having a tribal consultation meeting that will includes tribes and the National Park Service over access to sacred sites," Hare said. "They (the NPS) want to limit the native people access to some of the pipestone, and what we want to do is try to convince them that we need access to the stone 24/7."

The sacred pipe made of pipestone, he said, is as important to the spiritual life of the Sioux people as the symbol of the cross is to Christians, Hare said.

"We pray to the Great Spirit using the pipe, and we put all of prayers in that pipe, and smoke it, and our prayers go to God in that way," he said.

Difficulty in raising adequate funds had postponed the run for several years, he noted. Rouse is glad to be among the group of tribal members out this year, spreading the word once again about this important issue.

"The pipestone is actually the blood of our people – 'the way' is what we call it," Rouse said. The non-sacred use of the pipestone, he said, is similar to the desecration of cemetery.

"That's the best way that I can describe it to you," Rouse said. "That's how we feel about it. And we're trying to do something peaceful to get our message across.

"Rightfully, we are the caretakers of that area according to oral history, and we've been going by that for thousands of years now, and the modern world doesn't want to grasp that," he said. Much of the economic livelihood of the community of Pipestone, Rouse said, is based on the quarrying and selling of the stone.

American Indians have been quarrying the stone at the monument for at least 3,000 years.

"The most sacred thing that we hold in the way of our rituals and spiritual life is the pipe," Hare said. "It is like a conduit to God."

Attempts to contact Curt Frain, chief of visitor services at the Pipestone National Monument, were unsuccessful Friday.

While the park is open to visitors from all across the world, the quarries themselves are only open to members of recognized Indian tribes with federally regulated quarry permits.

Hare said the Yankton Sioux Tribe was able to make some progress in the 1980s when it first began this spiritual run. "People kind of got our message, but politics and the economics of the (Pipestone,MN) area that relies on the stone has pushed that message to the side," he said. "The whole city of Pipestone relies on the stone for its economy and for tourism.

"They sell a lot of it to tourists," Hare said. "That's what we don't like. We have been seeing our sacred way of life desecrated for so long, it makes our people weak as a whole. If we can, through this pipestone run, get something back, that will strengthen us spiritually and make us a whole people once again."

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