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Crazy Horse’s face is the first identifiable part of the gigantic sculpture to emerge from the granite. Photos by Mary O'Brien
Crazy Horse’s face is the first identifiable part of the gigantic sculpture to emerge from the granite. Photos by Mary O'Brien

The Crazy Horse Memorial: Larger Than Life in South Dakota

Who was Chief Crazy Horse, the subject of the colossal sculpture being carved out of a mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota? 

And who was Korczak Ziolkowski, the creator of the chief's still-unfinished monument?

They were giants of men who devoted their lives to huge tasks, both of them knowing that they wouldn’t live long enough to see the end of their efforts.

The Young Sioux Warrior

The son of a Medicine Man also called Crazy Horse, the future Oglala Sioux leader was known as “Curly” when he was a boy, but his boyhood was short. He had killed a buffalo and was riding his own horse before he was 12. He was still a young man when he became a fearless warrior chief, though he never wore scalps on his belt, or a war bonnet on his head.

Fighting was common among the tribes, but in the 1860s and ‘70s, the enemy became the United States Army. The U.S. population was expanding to the West where there was land for the claiming, a railroad to be built and gold in the hills. The Sioux were inexorably driven from their lands.

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The government promised to set aside Indian reservations in 1868, and some of the chiefs agreed that they and their followers would live on them. Crazy Horse and his Oglala warriors were among those who continued to fight.

Among other battles, he led a successful assault on Custer’s troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. But by 1877, his people were weary and starving and his wife was dying of tuberculosis. When he was promised a reservation of his own, he surrendered.

He agreed to parley with officials at Fort Robinson, but when he realized that he was being arrested instead, he resisted and was bayoneted by a soldier. He died that night.

His parents claimed his 35-year-old body and his final resting place is unknown. It is believed to be somewhere on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

One of the many adaptations of Korczak’s concept of the finished Crazy Horse.
One of the many adaptations of Korczak’s concept of the finished Crazy Horse.

A Dakota DaVinci

Born in Boston, orphaned at the age of one and completely self-taught, Korczak Ziolkowski was a brilliant engineer and a gifted sculptor. He won first prize for his bust of Paderewski at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He joined the westward movement and eventually went to work on the Mt. Rushmore Memorial.  

“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes too,” wrote Lakota Chief Standing Bear when he asked Korczak to return to the Black Hills to carve a memorial to Crazy Horse. 

The sculptor was almost 40. He had a jeep, a jackhammer, an old gas-powered generator and $174 in the bank when he started on the mountain.

Crazy Horse had always refused to be photographed, so Korczak worked from his model of an idealized, proud Indian riding a galloping horse into the wind, his hair blowing free and his hand pointing ahead as if to speak the words attributed to him: “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

Up close and personal with a buffalo from the relative safety of a jeep. (Note the side mirror.)
Up close and personal with a buffalo from the relative safety of a jeep. (Note the side mirror.)

At first it was just the man and the mountain. Korczak refused to accept taxpayers’ money, refusing two $10 million federal grants. He battled financial hardship, injuries and the lack of needed manpower, depending on donations and admission fees to the work site. Today, admission is $10 a person or $27 for a car with any number of visitors.

The Monument Takes Shape

Korczak and his wife, Ruth started all alone. They knew it would take more than a lifetime to finish Crazy Horse, so they prepared three books of detailed plans to be used with the sculptor’s models to complete the project.

Sixty years have passed since the first dynamite blast. Now Crazy Horse has a face; his arm is taking shape; and when I was there, work was being done on the 22-story horse’s head. 

The memorial will be three dimensional, seeming to rise out of the mountain. At 563 feet, it will dwarf the four presidents on Mt. Rushmore, only 17 miles away.

There are hiking trails in the Badlands, but on the boardwalk, you’re less likely to come across a rattlesnake.
There are hiking trails in the Badlands, but on the boardwalk, you’re less likely to come across a rattlesnake.

The Crazy Horse Foundation

At the site, there is now a state-of-the-art visitor center, museum and restaurant. Importantly, a Crazy Horse Foundation has been funded and the sculptor left plans for an American Indian University and Medical Training Center at the foot of the mountain.

Korczak died in 1982, confident that the project would be finished. 

When I visited last May, his widow stopped by the restaurant.  A small woman, brimming with energy and looking much younger than her 82 years, she told us, “If you really believe in what you do, and you just keep doing it, and you try as hard as you can, there is nothing you can’t do.”

Ruth and seven of the ten Ziolkowski children – and 28 grandchildren during the summer season - are actively involved in different aspects of the project. Ruth also said, “Don’t make a mistake because you can’t start over.” 

The Longhorn Saloon in the town of Scenic is open every August when a Motorcycle Rally rides through the Reservation. The original sign read “No Indians Allowed.” The “No” was recently painted over.
The Longhorn Saloon is open every August when a Motorcycle Rally rides through the Reservation. The original sign read “No Indians Allowed.” The “No” was recently painted over.

They’ve never made a mistake.

South Dakota a Treasury of History and Nature

On a trip to Rapid City and its environs I had a long visit at Crazy Horse Memorial and was inspired – obviously - by the stories of its heroic subject and the epic ongoing achievement of its creator.

I also visited a lighted Mt. Rushmore at night. When you look up the mountain at those serene, familiar, presidential faces, you can’t help feeling a swelling patriotism. We know them and we trust them.

Southwestern South Dakota is an eye-opener. The Badlands and the Black Hills; herds of wild horses and of buffalo – including springtime foals and calves; whitetail and pronghorn deer, mountain goats, wild turkeys and prairie dog villages where the critters pop up and down to their underground homes like so many jack-in-the-boxes. 

I even spent two days on an Indian reservation, gaining a better understanding of the toll that American injustice has taken on our native people -– and how they are overcoming their deprivations.

 

Helpful Links:

Crazy Horse Memorial

Mt. Rushmore

Badlands

Tours and Guides
Or phone Kerry Frei: 605-985-5249

A comfortable motel and restaurant on the Reservation is The Lakota Prairie Ranch Resort

 

Mary O'Brien

 


Mary O'Brien is a travel writer and editor for newspapers and magazines. She lives in the Chicago area, but she'd rather be on the road. 

 

Read more GoNOMAD stories by Mary O'Brien:

Egypt: Who WAS King Tut?

Quebec: A City for All Seasons

 

Read more GoNOMAD stories about South Dakota

 

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