It might have been the hardest manual labour I have ever experienced. Three back-breaking days in the scorching summer sun of Minnesota with pick axe and sledgehammer in hand.
Here, my friend and I chipped away at what seemed like three metres (but was only 1.2) of Sioux quartzite, one of the hardest rocks in the world.
Our mission: to help a well-know pipe maker retrieve the precious soft reddish stone needed to carve pipe bowls, hidden in veins just below the hard rock.
The process is exhausting and meticulous but part of a ritual pipe makers have practiced at this sacred quarry since time began.
With numb hands, we kept hammering, joking and goofing off to ease the discomfort. We still didn't really understand the significance of what we were doing, or how revered the precious rock was throughout First Nations communities, until the pipe maker made us stop.
"You guys must be more respectful. Act as if you are digging a grave," he barked, which helped explain why we went through a cleansing ceremony when we first arrived at the protected site.
According to the story he shared, the pipestone is dark red when wet because it is the remains of his ancestors. Not a symbol of the remains but the remains themselves.
As we dug through to the red rock, the human connection was visceral as the pipestone was covered by a layer of light-coloured spongy wet rock. Not only was its similarity to fat covering flesh impossible to miss, but this final step left us with a somber feeling as we began pulling it from the earth.
As the pipe maker continued, he said the remains of his people were settled in this quarry during the time of a great flood. It was after that the first pipe was given to all First Nations with teachings on how it should be shared with future generations.
If this all seems a little confusing, the rule of thumb is sacred objects (pipes, drums, rattles) do not represent a spirit; They are a spirit. As an example, an eagle feather does not represent the spirit of the eagle -- it is the spirit of the eagle.
This may help explain why First Nations people are so protective and can become angered when others so casually try to lay claim to these 'symbols' as logos and such. It would be like someone silk-screening your grandmother's urn of ashes onto a T-shirt and wearing it about without the due respect her spiritual remains deserve.
Delving into the world of First Nations spirituality can be difficult. Under the Indian Act (not to be confused with treaties), many ceremonies were outlawed. People hid their practices, and it's a stigma that remains even to this day.
Go ahead and ask me my ceremonial name. Chances are I likely won't tell you because of my cultural muscle-memory of keeping it a secret.
Since those hot summer days many years ago when I pretty much thought I knew it all as a born-again 'Indian,' I've reflected on the trip and how it helped me rediscover the importance of First Nations ceremonies.
To this day, I'm grateful not only to have been invited to travel to the source of one of our most sacred objects, but to have helped in the excavation. Without a doubt, the journey helped deepen my spiritual relationships, because like the tools of all religions, I now know they are given to First Nations people by a higher power.
When I sit with my pipe after having fasted together, danced together and travelled together, I understand where it comes from and how it has and will continue to help me strive to be a better person.
The lesson in all of this? First, be wary of someone asking for help when they have a truckful of sledgehammers and picks. The second is to value the times when you're asked to dig deep, because you just might discover something that will forever change the meaning of your life.
James Wilson is commissioner of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, a neutral body mandated to encourage discussion, facilitate public understanding and enhance mutual respect between all peoples in Manitoba.