The World’s Largest Mountain Carving: Crazy Horse Memorial

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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.

crazy horse face

Background for the Crazy Horse Memorial

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, Korczak Ziolkowski

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.

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.  Once they start carving this hand, no more visitors will be allowed up there as the ledge will be too narrow.
The view from the top of the sculpture. You can see the visitor centre in the distance.

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.

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.  Once they start carving this hand, no more visitors will be allowed up there as the ledge will be too narrow.
I would sneer at you even if my face wasn’t frozen in this position.

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.

crazy horse stats

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.

Artist depiction of completed memorial
Artist depiction of memorial when completed


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).

crazy horse memorial in South Dakota will be the world’s largest mountain sculpture
You can’t really get a sense of the scale of this sculpture until you are up close to 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!!

crazy horse visit
My family is dwarfed in comparison.

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.


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13 thoughts on “The World’s Largest Mountain Carving: Crazy Horse Memorial”

  1. This is so emotional… Crazy Horse was courageous, but he wasn’t the only one! I wish History hadn’t happened that way, we’ve to regret so many things…

    1. Yes, the history was complicated. The Sioux were fighting a losing battle because the US moving westward was going to happen, and their old way of life wasn’t going to last. BTW, Crazy Horse was from the Lakota tribe and when they got pushed out of their lands by the Americans, they went and pushed the Crow tribe out of theirs. The Crow hated them and helped the US army as scouts. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that. Plenty of regret to go around for all involved.

  2. Loved Crazy Horse even more than Mt. Rushmore. I visited with my Mom about 17 years ago so the monument must have progressed a ton by now. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. An interesting story and landmark for sure. I can certainly see why the Native community might be upset about the creation of a sculpture in the mountain landscape. The fact that the Lakota community members are not actively part of the project is concerning. I hope that it works out to be a monument that brings respect and unity to the community.

  4. I thought the backstory was really interesting especially that the Chief traded 900 acres of his own land to the US government for rights to build. That’s a big commitment! It’s also really interesting to hear about the controversy, there are some good points here.

  5. Never heard of this memorial, but thanks for filling me in. Such a crazy story, but now that I’ve heard it once I definitely won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.

  6. Finding common ground between trying to preserve history, tell a story and be sensitive to indigenous issues is a tough one. It’s an amazing feat to be building something that has taken 50 years with another 50 to go.

  7. Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful post. I can understand why this monument is controversial but I think the proud history of the indigenous people of our world deserves to be told. If the memorial serves to remind people of their tragic past then I think it is worth visiting and discussing. Great that you took your kids and were able to explain this to them.

  8. This is one huge monument never heard of it before but sure it is something that one must explore for the sheer size and the effort taken to build it…

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