How the U.S. stole the sacred Pipestone quarry from the Ihanktonwan

In researching the history of Indian Boarding Schools in Minnesota, I came across the story of how the U.S. government stole the sacred Pipestone quarry from the Ihanktonwan people. (The federal government calls them the Yankton Sioux Tribe.)

In Dakota, Ihanktonwan means “People of the End Village People,” according to the Ihanktonwan Community College. “The Ihanktonwan are also known as the ‘Land of the Friendly People of the Seven Council Fires,'” known in Dakota as the Oceti Sakowin.

Historically, the Ihanktonwan’s role included protecting the sacred Pipestone Quarry, Wikipedia says,

The U.S. government took away that sacred duty.

Pipestone National Monument. Photo: National Park Service

As soon as settlers started arriving in what would become western Minnesota, they made illegal claims on the pipestone.

Within 20 years, newly arrived settlers began digging new quarry pits and stealing the sacred stone. A homestead patent was filed within the quarry reserve area, and the Mayor of Pipestone violated the law for many years by building his house within the reservation and occupying it until the U.S. Army forced him to move out of the reservation.

National Park Service

The Ihanktonwan signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1858, “ceded more than 11 million acres of land known as the Yankton Delta … in exchange for a 430,000-acre reservation,” according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Ihanktonwan got an important concession in Article VIII of the treaty:

The said Yancton Indians shall be secured in the free and unrestricted use of the red pipe-stone quarry, or so much thereof as they have been accustomed to frequent and use for the purpose of procuring stone for pipes; and the United States hereby stipulate and agree to cause to be surveyed and marked so much thereof as shall be necessary and proper for that purpose, and retain the same and keep it open and free to the Indians to visit and procure stone for pipes so long as they shall desire.

Treaty of 1858

Two different treaty interpretations emerged. To the Ihanktonwan, the treaty meant they still controlled the land. To the U.S. government, Indians, weren’t competent to own the land. The treaty allowed the Ihanktonwan the right to use and occupancy the quarry, but the U.S. government maintained the land title. (This follows from the U.S. government’s worldview of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny.)

Children at Pipestone Indian Boarding School circa 1900. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

The land dispute came to a head in 1892 when Congress passed a bill establishing the Pipestone Indian Boarding School on quarry lands. It opened in 1893 and ran for 60 years until 1953. Like other Indian boarding schools, its goal was to assimilate Indian children into western culture.

The Ihanktonwan strongly opposed the school, according to research posted by Carlton College. “First, it was built illegally on Yankton Sioux reservation land. Second, during the school’s tenure, management of the quarries fell largely to the white superintendent of the school instead of the Yankton people.”

The dispute went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision in Yankton Sioux Tribe of Indians v. United States was issued Nov. 22, 1926. The court wrote:

It is quite clear from all the surrounding circumstances that the Indians understood that by this [treaty] provision there was granted to them full ownership of the tract, and their claim to that effect they have always persistently and stoutly maintained. The validity of that claim the government has sometimes denied, and at other times apparently conceded.

Yankton Sioux Tribe of Indians v. United States

The court concluded:

That the United States has taken and holds possession of the entire quarry tract of 648 acres is not in dispute; and since the Indians are the owners of it in fee, they are entitled to just compensation as for a taking under the power of eminent domain.

Yankton Sioux Tribe of Indians v. United States

The U.S. government paid the Ihanktonwan Oyate $338,558.90 for the land, but the federal government maintained full control, writes the National Park Service, which now oversees the property.

The federal government created the Pipestone National Monument in 1937. It’s “mandated to protect the right of Native Americans enrolled in any federally-recognized tribe to quarry pipestone,” the National Park Service says.

A treaty is a contract between two governments. The U.S. government should not have been able to use eminent domain against an Indian nation, as it might against a city or county. It’s just one more example of broken treaties.

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