Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, a monument to the revered Indian leader Crazy Horse is being carved out of a mountain. (Bob Sessions photo)

Crazy Horse Memorial isn’t as well-known as that other rock sculpture in South Dakota–the one with the famous four faces–but it’s also worth a visit, especially for visitors with an interest in understanding the Native American history of the American West.

The site’s mission is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the native peoples of North America. The sculpture is of Crazy Horse, also known as Tasunka Witco, who was a nineteenth-century Lakota warrior who lived in the Black Hills during the height of the conflicts between the region’s native peoples and whites. He fought in many of the pivotal conflicts of the era, including the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In 1877, he was mortally wounded while in federal custody at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, and died at the age of 34.

In 1939, Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear (a cousin of Crazy Horse) invited Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American sculptor who was working on Mount Rushmore at the time, to carve a statue in honor of one of the greatest of all Indian leaders. Standing Bear wrote to him, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also.”

It would take nearly ten years for Korczak to accept the invitation. He arrived at Thunderhead Mountain in the Black Hills in 1947 with just $147 to his name but great enthusiasm for the project that would consume the rest of his life.

Appropriately, when the first blast was made on the mountain in 1948, five survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn were in attendance.

In 1950 Korczak married Ruth Ross, who’d come from Connecticut to volunteer on the massive project. The two had ten children, five boys and five girls, and as they grew the carving became a family project. Korczak passed away in 1982 and Ruth in 2014. Today four of their children and many of their 23 grandchildren are still involved in the carving, which will likely take decades to complete.

This scale model of the Crazy Horse Memorial shows what it will eventually look like. (Bob Sessions photo)

The mountain is made of pegmatite granite and is being carved with combination of drilling, blasting, and polishing. For decades Korczak used old-fashioned tape measures and a theodolite (an early type of survey instrument) to work out the places where the rock needed to be carved away. Today laser scanners provide guidance, but craftsmen still follow the lines of the scale model created by Korczak.

When it’s completed, the memorial will stand 563 feet tall (taller than the Washington Monument). Crazy Horse’s face alone is 87 feet. His hand will be about 25 feet tall, and the horse’s head will be 219 feet, making it taller than the Statue of Liberty. Crazy Horse is the world’s largest mountain carving in progress.

A long-distance view of the mountain shows how much still needs to be carved. (Bob Sessions photo)

Because no photos were ever taken of Crazy Horse, the monument isn’t an actual likeness, but rather memorializes his spirit. His left hand gestures outward in response to a derisive question once asked of him by a member of the U.S. Cavalry: “Where are your lands now?” Crazy Horse replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

Over the years an extensive complex of buildings has grown up around the monument. It includes the Indian Museum of North America, the Sculptor’s Studio-Home, and a Native American Educational and Cultural Center where storytelling, dances, songs, and other performances are given by members of many tribes. The monument also funds college scholarships for Native American students.

More than one million visitors come here each year. The non-profit memorial accepts no federal or state funding is entirely financed by donations and admissions.

When it’s completed–and it’s not clear when that will be–the Crazy Horse Memorial will be far larger than Mount Rushmore. Which seems appropriate, doesn’t it?

The Crazy Horse Memorial, even unfinished, is an inspiring place to visit. (Bob Sessions photo)

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