- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

Down the road from Mount Rushmore, that American icon with the gigantic faces of four great American leaders sculpted on the mountainside, another colossal mountain sculpture honors another great figure of American history in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

This mountain sculpture is even larger than Mount Rushmore. Although it is little more than a 20-minute drive from there, most visitors to Mount Rushmore never take the time to seek it out.

That was my initial thinking, too: Why bother? A second mammoth mountain memorial so near to Mount Rushmore? Ridiculous. Then I saw the Crazy Horse Memorial and took time to learn about it.

What I learned is that this is a significant sight that should not be missed; that there is a compelling reason why it is located where it is; that behind it lies a story of vision, daring and determination, an inspiring tale of one man and his dream to carve in stone a tribute to the spirit of the American Indian.

Reader’s Digest was right to call it “one of the wonders of the modern world.” A work in progress, yes, but already a mesmerizing sight.

Work on the Crazy Horse Memorial officially began in 1948, and no one is predicting when it will be completed. Those in charge of the project say it all depends on weather and the availability of funds — it is being financed entirely from private donations and fees paid by visitors.

It may be a work in progress, but it is far enough along to command attention. A completed three-dimensional head of Crazy Horse stands at the peak of the mountain, silhouetted against the sky. The sculpture is massive — all four of Mount Rushmore’s presidential heads together could fit easily inside the head of Crazy Horse. It’s that big.

From chin to the top of the forehead is nearly 9 stories — 871/2 feet high, slightly more than 58 feet wide. His nose is 271/2 feet long. Each eye opening and eyelid is a little less than 18 feet wide and a little less than 9 feet high.

The head is more than 17 feet taller than the Great Sphinx — and yet the head is but a part of this massive memorial. The head of the horse that Crazy Horse is riding will be 22 stories high.

This carving in-the-round is the largest sculptural project in the world: 563 feet high — that’s 8 feet higher than the Washington Monument — and 641 feet long.

The idea for the Crazy Horse Memorial came about in late 1939. The dreamer was Korczak Ziolkowski, then 31. This orphaned son of Polish immigrants had never taken a lesson in art or sculpture, but he won first prize in sculpture by popular vote of visitors to the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Newspaper coverage of the award mentioned that he had spent part of that summer in the Black Hills of South Dakota assisting the great sculptor Gutzon Borglum on the Mount Rushmore project. A Sioux chief, Henry Standing Bear, wrote and invited him to come back to the Black Hills and carve a mountain memorial to Crazy Horse. “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too,” the chief wrote.

Korczak — he usually went by only his first name — did not accept the invitation until 1947, but he spent the years between extensively studying the history of the American Indian and also serving in World War II. He didn’t like the idea of doing the monument in the Black Hills because of its proximity to Mount Rushmore and because other locations, such as the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, were better suited to mountain sculpting.

The Black Hills, though, were and are considered sacred to the Indians of that region, so Standing Bear and his fellow chiefs insisted.


In 1947, when Korczak got under way at the site that he and Standing Bear had selected, it was nothing but land with lots of trees. He had to build roads, dig wells, bring in electricity and build his own cabin, all while living in the wilderness in a small tent. There was no money.

At the time of the official dedication of the memorial in June 1948, attended by five of the nine Indians who had fought alongside Crazy Horse at the Battle of Little Big Horn, Korczak had just $174.

To get to the top of the mountain, which rises 600 feet from the ground to 6,740 feet above sea level, he built a 700-foot-long, 741-step staircase; to do that, over time, he had to carry up an estimated 29 tons of wood on his back.

Assisting him with the staircase was a young woman 18 years younger; later they would marry and raise a family of five sons and five daughters. Years earlier, while she was a high school student, she had worked as a volunteer on his project to build his Noah Webster statue in West Hartford, Conn., said to be the largest statue carved from a single slab of marble since Michelangelo carved his David in the early 1500s.

Korczak’s early tools consisted of a small jackhammer and an old gasoline-powered compressor. He later acquired and began using a bulldozer and eventually more and better equipment. Until he died at age 74 in 1982, he spent more than 35 years devoting his life and nearly every working hour to the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Besides jackhammering and blasting and bulldozing to carve the mountain, he also had to build — and because of adverse weather conditions constantly rebuild — miles of roads to make it possible to get to and around the mountain.

All the strenuous work gradually took a great toll on the man, who, even before he began this undertaking, was living with pain from old sports injuries and two serious war wounds. He had one back operation after another — four in all. He suffered two heart attacks, one minor, the other massive.

He broke fingers, broke his wrist, broke ribs, tore ligaments, ruptured a tendon and suffered hearing loss. He also suffered from arthritis and the added complications that come from advancing age. He persisted.

Through it all, Korczak never accepted a salary or even a personal expense account for his efforts. To support himself and his family, he raised cattle and hogs for food and sale and designed and operated a dairy and a lumber mill. In winter, when weather made working on the Crazy Horse project impossible, he sometimes accepted sculptural commissions.

He also refused to seek federal or state funds — a policy to which the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation still adamantly adheres. He didn’t believe taxpayers should have to pay for his work; he was a deep believer in free enterprise and the private sector; and he did not trust government to fulfill his dream, which besides the massive mountain carving still envisions a cultural and educational complex.

The plan for the complex includes a large Indian Museum of North America (a small museum and gift shop are there now) and a University and Medical Training Center for the North American Indian.

Korczak knew when he started that this work would not be finished in his lifetime, and he was aware that Mount Rushmore also is an unfinished work because his friend Borglum died without providing information for anyone to understand how he envisioned completing it.

Shortly after beginning the Crazy Horse Memorial, Korczak saw to it that all the models, plans and methods necessary to carry his work to completion were in place. Today, his wife, Ruth, and their children carry on his dream; she and seven of their children work at it full time.


Korczak saw himself as “a storyteller in stone,” and he saw the Crazy Horse Memorial as a memorial not so much to one great chief but to the dignity, greatness and spirit of the American Indian.

Standing Bear and his fellow chiefs picked Crazy Horse, a hero betrayed by his own people and then stabbed in the back by a white solider while under truce. He was a chief who never surrendered, never signed a treaty and never went on a reservation.

He also never permitted his picture to be taken. “Would you imprison my shadow, too?” he once said with scorn to a white photographer. To capture Crazy Horse’s face, Korczak relied on the fading memories of a few old Indians who had known him, plus his own imagination.

Crazy Horse, the old Indians told Korczak, used to wear a stone on his ear and tell his people that one day he would return to them in stone. These Indians told Korczak a story about Crazy Horse that he adapted as his design for the monument.

Long after the Battle of Little Big Horn, when most Sioux had gone on the reservations, a white trader who spoke their language came across Crazy Horse out on the plains. He mocked Crazy Horse, asking him, “Where are your lands now?”

Crazy Horse looked off to the horizon, extended his arm over the head of his horse and pointed his finger toward the distant lands. Then he said with pride: “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

Visitors can look up at that mountain not far from Mount Rushmore, and just below the chin of the head of Crazy Horse, they can see the still early stage of the great chief’s outstretched arm.

More than 4,000 people could stand on that arm. Almost the length of a football field, his arm stretches 263 feet over what will be the 22-story head of a horse. His pointing finger will be 10 feet thick and extend 371/2 feet.

It is a sight not to be missed by anyone in this area of South Dakota.

Visitors will see, in stone high up on that mountain, that what is unfolding is not only the story of an Indian hero but also a fitting tribute to all American Indians.

• • •

For information about the Crazy Horse Memorial, go to www.crazyhorsememorial.org or call 605/673-4681.

For information about other South Dakota destinations, go to www.travelsd.com, e-mail [email protected] or call 800/732-5682.

More information about Crazy Horse is available in “The Journey of Crazy Horse” by Joseph M. Marshall III (Viking), which can be ordered from www.thunderdreamers.com.

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