One Man's Interpretation: Travis Erikson

In contemporary Dakota usage, the Pipe becomes “awakened” through a ceremony with a Spiritual Man in a sweat ceremony. According to Dakota people in Pipestone, blessing the chanupa at a sweat is a relatively recent addition to the pipe tradition.

Travis Erikson

Travis Erikson, a fourth generation pipestone artist, has worked as a cultural interpreter for that National Park Service.

Travis Erikson talking about the awakening of his Pipe and conflict between his own inner journey for spirituality and organized religious tradition and practice.

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“Our belief says you take the pipe into the sweat lodge and have it blessed. I had carved, this pipe, I figured, I’m a pipemaker, I should have my own pipe. So what I did was, and you know I was reading all the traditional stuff and the spirituality of things and I carved this pipe and I came out here and I put it together and I loaded it and I prayed with it and I smoked the pipe and it felt good there was energy inside of me that felt good, that you know I’m making a connection. When I put that stem with that pipe and I load it and I’m praying I felt excited, I felt good. It was part of what I was. Good things were happening, spirits were coming to visit me in my dreams, giving me messages and stuff. One day, an individual came up to me and said, ‘Have you had that pipe blessed?’ And I go ‘What do you mean blessed?’ [And he said] ‘Well taken to a sweat lodge and then have the spiritual man bless that pipe for you’. And I said ‘I haven’t done that’ [and he says] ‘Oh you should do that you know’ and I believed it. And I took the pipe in [to the sweat lodge] and did what he said. Then about three days later after the ceremony, I came out here with that same pipe and I burned my sage, I’m putting it together you know this is traditional right, traditional beliefs here. And I was putting my pipe together and I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel that spark, that energy, that excitingness. And I go ‘Oh well maybe it’s an off day’, I loaded that pipe, said my prayers but it felt lousy, smoked the pipe and it just had this weird feeling. It was bugging me so for two weeks off and on I used that pipe and kept getting no spark, no energy, no feeling or whatever. And then finally I figured it out, that, because someone told me that I needed to do that, I gave away my individuality to someone else to rule. And I did what he said and it took [the spark] away. From the heart, from the soul, that pipe was already broken because I used it and I believed it. And so that’s why I go off on a spiritual journey and not an organized form of religion or whatever you want to call it.”

The awakening of the chanupa through a sweat lodge ceremony perhaps maintains the distinction between a sacred chanupa and a Pipestone pipe available for purchase from a Native artist. Travis Erikson, enrolled Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota, pipestone resident, and fourth generation pipestone carver who works as a cultural interpreter for the National Park Service might disagree with this analysis.  Erikson has thirty-eight years of quarrying experience.  It was Erikson’s mother, Chuck Derby’s sister, who taught Travis to carve catlinite.

Erikson has made his living selling his art, and has worked as a “cultural demonstrator” for the Park Service, and has given speeches about his work. He has a distinct and highly individualistic conception of his religious/cultural beliefs, which he prefers to term a “spiritual journey”. He is an outspoken supporter for the right of Native artists to sell pipestone crafts, something that informs his understanding of Native American spiritual practice. Because of his connection with the Park Service, and undoubtedly his enthusiasm for saying what he thinks, Erikson is quoted in a large amount of Park Service literature on the spiritual nature of the quarries and quarrying.

You didn’t dig it out. You didn’t suffer like I did. I’ve been quarrying for 38 years... They never went through what I went through, so they have no business telling me what I can do with my stone. —Travis Erikson

For Erikson, sacredness is a subjective relationship determined by individual experience, rather than adherence to rules governed by tradition. He recounts:

“Sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll put the pipe together, and I’ll burn my sage, I’ll load the bowl, and I won’t really say nothing. But I can go outside, and I can smoke the pipe, I’ll smoke it slowly, I’m actually enjoying the smoking of the pipe, right? And I’m still talking to Spirit, but not in no formal way. I’m just sitting on my lawn chair, setting it down, mixing the tobacco up, putting it back down, maybe relight it again. I’m still having a sacred moment. Even now is a sacred moment because we’re exchanging information. We didn’t even burn sage, and you didn’t give tobacco or nothing ya know, but we’re still having a sacred moment. See, a lot of people believe that if you’re gonna come to me, and get this information, you have to offer me tobacco. I don’t go in for that, unless you want to, unless that’s something you’re comfortable with.”

Erikson has sold his carvings at the Pipestone Shrine Association gift shop, and has carved catlinite figures for commission. He began seriously carving pipestone objects at sixteen, having learned under the supervision of an elder. At that age, what motivated him was the “easy money.” He explains: 

“You didn’t have to punch a clock in or pay taxes or anything ya know, and as time goes on now it’s just a personal, spiritual journey. It helps, ya know, knowing that the pipe helps other people as prayer is a form of healing, and helping other people to do that is part of that, but it’s still a journey for me, seeking who I am as a carver or spiritual person. I carve a lot of different styles of pipes. A lot of times, if ya know, whatever animal or design they want carved, it doesn’t necessarily have to mean anything to me, but I know it means something to them so I carve that for them, but it’s still a journey for me.” Erikson says he is interested in carving a dragon’s foot on a pipestone bowl.

Native Americans remain divided over the legitimacy of selling Pipestone objects to anyone.  Minnesota Public Radio’s 2009 article on the Pipestone quarries quotes, Arvol Looking Horse, a South Dakota Pipe-keeper who opposes the sale of pipestone art. He says, “Somebody who makes a pipe and sells it for money is doing more damage than good,” said Looking Horse. “Once money is on your mind, the spirit doesn’t come back to help that person."1

Erikson called this “an extreme belief.” He said:

“What lot of people don’t understand, is if you go back 300 years ago pipestone rock was traded. Now the world is changing, and money becomes the medium of exchange. And they think that money is the root of all evil. Money is not the root of all evil, money’s not the root of all evil, money is a tool. The root of evil comes within us. People will come to me and say I don’t believe in buying it, but I’ll trade. You know what? If you look on a dollar bill it has the word trade on it. That’s what money was used for. But they’ll say I’ll trade these three eagle feathers for that chunk of stone over there. That’s fine, I can do that, but can this eagle feather buy me groceries? Can this eagle feather pay my electric bill? Rent is due; will this eagle feather pay for my rent? And in the United States it’s illegal to sell eagle feathers so I’m screwed. I can’t do nothing but trade them off to someone else… A lady can wear a necklace because she got it from her grandmother on her deathbed. She considers that sacred, but that means nothing to me. I respect what it means for her, but I could buy the same necklace because I thought it was cool. Whether I gave money for it or a bag of groceries, it doesn’t matter because once it is in your possession you are the one who empowers what that necklace means. Same thing as the pipe, ya know. My teachings is that it’s a stick and a stone stuck together until you take it to ceremony and pray with that pipe. Then it’s sacred. It’s in your mind, and it’s up to you to empower that item.”

In 2004, Erikson was chosen to carve a Pipestone floor installation for the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum removed the installation after considerable complaints from Native Americans about the work. 

Although we did not discuss the installation, Travis feels strongly about his right to interpret the carving tradition. When asked about those who say he cannot do what he does with selling the Pipestone, he responded:

“I say, you didn’t dig it out. You didn’t suffer like I did. I’ve been quarrying for 38 years. I have a bad back, bad knees, bad shoulders, and hands because of all the quarrying I’ve done over the years. I’ve got broken bones from the hammer hitting me, broken foot whatever [he demonstrates scars]. Falling into my pit, breaking a kneecap or whatever. They never went through what I went through, so they have no business telling me what I can do with my stone.”

  1. Mark Steil, "Pipestone: A Spiritual Place," MPRNews, last modified September 29, 2009, accessed August 17, 2015,