Ray Derby on Pipestone

Harvey Derby

Harvey Derby, grandfather of Ray Derby, polishes a pipestone pipe. 

"[Indian culture] was never not normal, because you grow up with it. It’s like a farm kid growing up on a farm, he always knows the smell of cows. Growing up, there was a lot of racism, a lot of prejudice in this town.  I can recall a long time ago some of these things had an impact on my life. You can’t change your skin. So you move forward, and you accept, and let people know you’re not happy with their perceptions of you as an individual of color."

I met Ray Derby while poking around Little Feather Indian Center, accidentally interrupting a family meeting on the future of Little Feather. Ray is a man with short greying hair and the air and look of a once great high school football player–which he was. Ray played football, wrestled, and ran track at the public school he went to in Pipestone. After graduating from high school, Ray left Pipestone to study computer science at a local community college and then worked around the country as an IT technician.

At the time of our interview in 2012, Ray and his wife from Chicago had just moved to Pipestone to help run the Little Feather Indian Center after the death in 2010 of Ray’s father, Chuck, who founded the organization. Prior to this, Ray had spent thirty years away from his community, working with computers in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Denver. Although his Anglo mother raised him as a Christian, Ray considers himself a “Native American Traditionalist”, and grew up quarrying Pipestone with his relatives. He is an enrolled member of the Sisseton band of Dakota people. Although I arrived unannounced, Ray sat with me for hours sharing with me his life story, his religious convictions, and his hopes for the Dakota community of Pipestone, while we shared the pack of cigarettes I was advised to bring for my interviews with Dakota people. Gifts of tobacco traditionally accompany not only prayer, but also establish proper relationships for moments of cultural teaching or cultural exchange. While some consider commercial tobacco problematic cigarettes contain tobacco so in a pinch, cigarettes will do.

Ray has been quarrying since he was a child:

“I grew up on making stone, from chanupas to small crafts. I gave a lot of things I made away, but I also did it to sustain my livelihood. It was a way to make money so I could pay bills or buy a bicycle or whatever. It was back in those days, when you saved money to get your stereo, or whatever you were after. So it was a way to make money to buy things, no different than it was 200 years ago. The Indian family might have had a pipe and gave it away, but they gave it away in trade for a buffalo hide of blanket. What’s being traded since those days has changed to green, paper money. I don’t believe there’s a significant difference between either situation, it’s just 150 years later.”

Ray reflected on growing up Dakota in Pipestone: 

“[Indian culture] was never not normal, because you grow up with it. It’s like a farm kid growing up on a farm, he always knows the smell of cows. Growing up, there was a lot of racism, a lot of prejudice in this town.  I can recall a long time ago some of these things had an impact on my life. You can’t change your skin. So you move forward, and you accept, and let people know you’re not happy with their perceptions of you as an individual of color.  But through my schooling, I just knew there were other things out there for me.  Getting an education was something my dad very much approved of. The economy here doesn’t support the kinda things I went to school for pursue.   I had to move to where the jobs were, so I did.  Not a lot of people stay here, after they graduate. Not a lot of people stay here. Unless you’ve got a farming family and gotta big outfit outside of town.  There were two hundred of us that graduated from the [high] school, and I would bet 75-80% have left. At the time, there was nothing here for industry. There were only a couple of things to do, and everyone had bigger and better outlooks on what they wanted to do.

But you know what? I’ve always had a pipe. I’ve always had pipestone, I’ve always had my sage and my sweet grass. I’ve always carried that. —Ray Derby

"I’ve always had a pouch that I’ve carried with, you know, tobacco in it and hair, my own hair. It was kinda my protector. There’s a couple of stones, they go back years, they were called wotai stones. It can come from anywhere, but it depends on its significance, how you wanna look at it.  And it happens to be something that catches your eye at a special time.  And this wotai stone caught my eye one day my dad and I were in the quarry.  And just out of nowhere I caught this glint of it.  It’s a solid white stone with a lot of quartz on the outside, like a white-quartz.  And it was a special time, being that I was with my dad and we were quarrying and I kept that stone to this day.  That was in 1980 when I got that stone.”