Skip to main content

Hard quartzite formation holds fragile prized pipestone

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – It took nothing less than a mile-thick glacier to carve the cascade at Sioux Falls, S.D. from the quartzite bedrock. Ironically, the hardness of that same rock formation figures differently at the site in Minnesota where it surrounds the soft pipestone that is prized by American Indian tribal members.

At Sioux Falls, the pink quartzite is tough enough to have taken the tumbling of the Big Sioux River over its steps for more than 10,000 years since the glacier, with very little erosion to the natural spectacle.

Today, society has carved a 42-acre city park around the waterfalls, which state and regional tourism offices are promoting again this spring. On March 30, the Falls Park Visitors Center and Tower resumed its seven-day-a-week spring and summer hours. The observation tower is a five-story ascent powered by elevator (no stairs) for those who want an overlook as opposed to sticking their feet in or fishing downstream.


Photos courtesy Rich Murphy/City of Sioux Falls The pipestone that lies between the quartzite layers is the biggest draw for American Indian tribes.

It’s difficult to believe that before there were glaciers to expose this harder than steel bedrock, the quartzite began as individual grains of sand. They were deposited by streams flowing into an inland sea.

It’s even harder to believe scientists who say this metamorphic formation is 1.7 billion years old. At least that’s the time that uranium-lead dating and potassium-argon dating methods tell geologists that the “Sioux Quartzite” formed.

It’s said to be the oldest exposed rock in South Dakota.

But the quartzite isn’t what most interested the American Indian tribes – it was, of course the pipestone that lies between quartzite layers – most purely at Pipestone, Minn. about 60 miles from the falls.

Where the quartzite had once been sand, geologists say the pipestone, or catlinite, had been clay layers transformed by tectonic forces.

Since 1937, the pipestone quarries have been controlled by the U.S. National Parks Service at Pipestone National Monument with the intention of protecting them from mining by anyone other than American Indians enrolled in federally recognized tribes.

Some elders of tribes that traditionally mined the stone for carving into sacred pipes have said it’s good that the site is regulated. Rights to quarry have been quarreled over both in the past and the present.

“It’s under the National Parks Service, which is good because it’s protected. Otherwise, you’d have all these white people coming over and destroying the place,” said Francis Whitebird, Sicangu Lakota, an elder on the Rosebud Reservation who is a linguistics specialist and educator on traditional culture.

“Not very many tribes use the pipe,” Whitebird said. Lakota, Dakota, Ojibwe, Cheyenne and Arapaho were among others who did. “People think all the tribes do, but they don’t. Other tribes have been stealing Lakota spiritual practices and trying to incorporate it as their own. The way to find out is to listen to the songs they sing, and if they’re singing Lakota songs, they stole from us.”

While non-Natives can’t mine the stone, anyone can watch it being carved at the Upper Midwest Indian Cultural Center at the visitor’s center in Pipestone National Monument. The American Indian carving demonstrators are back for the summer starting April 15. The center is run by the nonprofit Pipestone Indian Shrine Association.

Center demonstrator Pam Tellinghuisen, Dakota, tells tourists that “tribes from all over came here at one time. … the government is again letting all Natives use it.”

“American Indians have been quarrying here for the last 3,000 years, archeological evidence shows,” said Glen Livermont, park superintendent at Pipestone National Monument. “It could be much longer than that.”

“It takes a long time to move enough of that hard quartzite off and out of the quarries to get to that pipestone layer underneath. People can keep renewing their permit year to year as long as they’re able to work it.”

The waiting list for the annual permits is about five years. It kicks in when someone doesn’t renew a permit for one of the 56 quarries to which each person is assigned. “There is so much interest in quarrying by the American Indians – and they all have their personal reasons for being in the quarry – that we can’t do anything but create this waiting list,” Livermont said.

“There is getting to be a long wait, but what we’ve done, we’ve taken part of the quarry and re-assigned it to being monthly quarries. That tends to be for somebody who has a little more experience and can work actively for that month. … it’s all by manual labor. Then we set aside two more quarries for daily people, if they have a day to be here and they want to try.”