By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In this week’s Finding Minnesota, we go to Pipestone County where pipe makers are carving out a piece of history — and keeping a sacred tradition alive.

The picturesque, spring waterfall at Pipestone National Monument flows like a postcard that’s come to life. It demands the attention of visitors. For Bud Johnston, the waterfall is beauty but the stone is sacred.

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“This is our people. This is the past seven generations. This is me and I’m supposed to take the next seven generations,” said Johnston.

Johnston grew up on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin, but he really became interested in his Ojibwe heritage while living in California in the 1970’s. But something was missing. At ceremonies, Native American pipes were hard to come by.

“I mumbled, if I ever get back around Pipestone, I’ll make pipes available to whoever needs them,” said Johnston.

As fate would have it, an airlines job eventually allowed Johnston to move to the small town. He taught himself how to make pipes and began quarrying at the nearby national park in 1984.

Twelve years later, he bought the last train depot in town and formed “The Keepers of the Sacred Tradition of Pipe Makers.”

“There were 32 of us carving pipestone when we formed the organization in 1996. There are only 8 of us left,” Johnston said.

But while numbers dwindle, believers grow.

“The freedom to express yourself naturally as you feel God calls you to. You don’t have to be native to believe in prayer through pipe,” said visitor Heather Klemencic.

With a piece of pipestone in hand, Johnston saws, carves and files away.

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“You can go to a smaller file and start knocking the bumps down,” Johnston said.

When he has just the right shape, he boils it and then adds wax. A process that brings out color and sometimes more.

“You’re waxing it. Wow, look at this! Wow, look at that! You’ll be amazed, I think, how the color of that pipe will change,” said Johnston.

When it’s done, a stem, often carved from a sumac tree, is added. And then the pipe is ready to be smoked with a traditional form of tobacco.

“My people call it kinnikinnick. It’s the bark of the red willow mixed with herbs that are in your area,” said Johnston.

The pipe can be used for many reasons. Tribes would smoke before battle, seeking help from the spirits. It’s also a symbol of peace and protection and the Ojibwe people believe the smoke is a vehicle to the creator.

And interest in these pipes extends far beyond Johnston’s train depot.

“We’ve done classes in France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand,” said Johnston.

They’ve had visitors from all those countries, too.

Pipestone is a rare crossroads between a sacred rock and a sacred tradition — one that Johnston hopes to keep alive with his own two hands.

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“It’s so funny to watch somebody. They’ll get done making something, doesn’t seem to matter what it is, and they can’t take their hands off of it,” said Johnston. “The philosophy of uniting the world over the pipe, to me, is a huge thing.”

John Lauritsen