Lesser known than Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota is the nearby Crazy Horse Memorial. This memorial is a work in progress and is being built on a scale to dwarf Mt. Rushmore eventually. When the Crazy Horse Memorial is finished, it will be the largest mountain sculpture in the world – a testament to the larger than life characters who populated the Wild West during frontier days.
Background for the Crazy Horse Memorial
The Sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski
The Crazy Horse Memorial has been a work in progress for the last 50+ years and is expected to take another 50 years. The sculptor who set this work in motion was Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American sculptor from Boston. He had previously worked on then nearby mountain carving of the presidents at Mt Rushmore and his name appears on the list of workers for that monument . I find it amusing that Korczak decided to build a sculpture that would dwarf his previous boss’s work. I’m pretty sure there was no love lost there.
In 1947, Chief Henry Standing Bear invited Korczak to the sacred lands of the Lakota tribes in the Black Hills of South Dakota. His brother had been trying in vain to get Crazy Horse put in beside the Mt. Rushmore presidents. Giving up on Mt. Rushmore, Chief Standing Bear wanted to build a monument to honour Native American culture and heroes. He traded 900 acres of his own land to the US government for rights to build a sculpture where it stands now.
Korczak came out West with his wife, pitched a tent and started blasting a mountain that he and Chief Standing Bear chose, colourfully named Thunderhead Mountain.
“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, also.”
Chief Henry Standing Bear
Conditions were tough because the Native Americans had no money to pay him. Korczak persevered through sheer grit and hard graft. For example, in the beginning he felled trees and sold the timber to buy dynamite to start the blasting. Having had enough of the primitive living conditions, Korczak’s first wife went back to Boston.
Korczak then married one of his students who had come from Boston to help him, Ruth Ross. Together they shared a vision of the sculpture. Korczak and Ruth skipped the Netflix part and went straight onto ‘chill’ – producing 10 children, many of whom also undertook to work on the massive project.
Although Korczak and Ruth have passed away, six of their children still work on the sculpture. The day we visited, we saw three of the children on site doing various jobs from on-site inspections to fence painting. A video in the visitor centre indicates that Korczak gave his children the option of walking away from his lifetime project. I think it is touching that so many of them and their own children have chosen to stay and continue Korczak’s work.
Crazy Horse, Lakota Warrior
Why Crazy Horse? He was a Lakota war chief who fought in the Black Hills Wars in the mid 19th century. He was known for his courage, defiance and devotion to his native way of life. The Native Americans had been given the Black Hills as their sacred land by the US government under the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. With the discovery of gold though in the Black Hills, American settlers started encroaching onto Sioux land while the federal government looked the other way.
Although the Lakota fought bravely to preserve their land, the U.S. government eventually annexed the Black Hills and moved the Native Americans to reservations. Crazy Horse, himself, died tragically young when he was knifed in the back by American soldiers. Crazy Horse had entered a US fort under a truce flag to ransom his wife and daughter who were being held hostage.
Crazy Horse appears to have a permanent sneer on his face which does not make his appearance particularly friendly. The look, however, was the result of a scar left by a gunshot to the face by another Native American brave who was upset that Crazy Horse stole his woman. This woman, Black Buffalo Woman, was the love of Crazy Horse’s life. He was punished for running off with Black Buffalo Woman by being stripped of his war chief title. Even without a title, he was honoured among the Sioux and noted for never having been wounded in battle.
When finished, the statue will show Crazy Horse on his horse pointing to the Black Hills. It captures an iconic scene from Crazy Horse’s life.
The story goes that Crazy Horse was asked derisively by an American soldier, “Where are your lands now, Crazy Horse?” In answer, Crazy Horse pointed to the Black Hills and said, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
Interestingly, Crazy Horse never allowed himself to be photographed. His likeness was described by several of his contemporaries to Korczak. Although friends of Crazy Horse said Korczak’s sketches were a credible likeness, the importance of the sculpture lies not in the physical likeness of Crazy Horse but in what his warrior spirit represents to his people.
Creating Crazy Horse Memorial
The memorial will be a series of superlatives as the statistics below show. The statue will dwarf many other world landmarks, including the pyramids of Giza. In a land of timeless wonder, it is only fitting that the statue itself shall be fitting as well.
When the memorial is finished, not only will there be the sculpture but also a Native American university and a museum. The memorial is not federally funded and relies entirely on visitor fees and donations.
The Crazy Horse Memorial has had its share of controversy. Some Lakota are upset that their sacred lands are being blasted to create a memorial. Descendants of Crazy Horse believe he would not have wanted their sacred lands destroyed to create a giant statue of him. Other Lakota believe that Chief Standing Bear went ahead and decided on the statue without asking the rest of the tribe what they thought. Yet, another point of contention, is that Korczak’s family is fundraising for millions of dollars over an extended period of time in Crazy Horse’s name. Cultural appropriation and all that.
Visiting Crazy Horse Memorial
When we visited, we took the opportunity to get up close and personal with the statue. The ordinary tour just takes you to the bottom of the mountain. Most of the tourists stick with this tour where you get to gaze up at Crazy Horse’s flared nostril.
For an extra fee, though you will be taken directly to the face area in order to get a better close-up view. The walkway we stood on will be the left hand pointing to the distance whenever it gets completed. Once they start carving this hand, no more visitors will be allowed up there as the ledge will be too narrow. We were able to see some of the workers who were hard at work under the blazing South Dakota sun. Contrary to what you may think, the sculpting is more than just blowing up things (although that seems to be a large part of it).
We figured our children will always remember when they were allowed to go onto the statue if they ever visit it again in the future. After all we did miss the boat on standing on a president at Mt Rushmore or a bit of the Sphinx!!
The Crazy Horse Memorial is located about 8 miles from Mt Rushmore. The Crazy Horse Memorial is pretty impressive and, if you are in the area, I urge to visit this amazing place. For me, it embodies the spirit of the American West – the courage, the romance, the tragedy and the unfailing hope of people, both as evidenced by Korczak and his family and Crazy Horse himself. This memorial will ensure that this period in American history will never be forgotten.