Gift Shop Artist | Virgil Poafpybitty

The art of carving pipestone runs in Virgil Poafpybitty’s blood. Growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation, he watched as his grandfather created intricate pipes, even helping at times by sanding them so as to smooth and polish the reddish brown stone. That experience sparked a lifelong passion for his craft and a commitment to preserving an art form in danger of being forgotten.

“I was always talented at drawing but I never realized I was an artist until my brother asked me to make a pipe for him. Although I had watched my grandfather, no one ever taught me this lost art of pipe making,” said Virgil. “I said I’d try it, so I looked at a lot of photos and just figured it out—and ended up mastering it. Now I’ve been making pipes for over 30 years.”

Like countless Native artists before him, Virgil travels to the quarry at what is now Pipestone National Monument to collect the red stone used for his carvings. For hundreds of years, Native peoples from across the Great Plains have used the stone to carve pipes often used during sacred ceremonies. The Lakota believe the smoke from the pipestone carries prayers to their creator.

Virgil honors that history through his work, using traditional methods to carve his pipes, as well as earrings and other adornments.

“Long ago people had pipes for many uses: for social occasions, for personal use, for

ceremonies. I have a passion for that history and I try to educate people about that history,” said Virgil. “I still hand make everything. I stay away from machines and try to create pieces as they did a long time ago, with just the stone and a chisel.”

Because pipestone is considered sacred, some believe it shouldn’t be sold commercially. Virgil says he has encountered some pushback for selling his pipes, but he believes his approach to using pipestone still honors its precious qualities in a way that adapts to our modern economy.  

“Long ago our chiefs had pipes made for them—and in our ways, you give something and get something in return. In today’s world, we need money to live on to put food on the table. And, while this is my passion, it’s also my primary source of income,” said Virgil. “We forget that we are supposed to treat everything as sacred. Everything has a spirit, especially stone.”

As Virgil continues to hone is craft, he is also hoping to teach more emerging Native artists about the history and beauty of pipestone work. He wants to ensure that the generations of his own children and grandchildren will have the skills and knowledge to protect this tradition for centuries to come.

“Our younger generations need to learn to use pipestone or otherwise it will be lost. I’m teaching my son now—and it’s a difficult skill to teach. It has to be hands on and it’s challenging to get carvings to be perfect,” said Virgil. “I can make things for people but, really, they should try to make their own. I’m open to teaching whoever wants to learn.”  

You can find more work by Lakota artists in The Heritage Center Gift Shop, both in-store and online:


Meet Our Artists - Shawn Espinosa, Parfleche


Meet Our Artists - Miranda Red Cloud, Porcupine Quillwork


Meet Our Artists - Amanda Simmons, Bead Work

Photos © 2017 Red Cloud Indian School, Inc.
last updated: February 6, 2017