Crazy Horse—Transforming a Mountain Into a Monument
WHAT would impel a brilliant young self-taught Polish-American sculptor to take on the task of transforming a mountain into an imagined likeness of a respected Indian warrior? It was no hasty decision, for Korczak Ziolkowski—that was the sculptor’s name—took seven years to make up his mind.
In 1939, Korczak received a letter from an old Lakota Indian chief, Henry Standing Bear, who lived on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The chief invited him to create a memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota to one of the legendary Indian chiefs. The Lakota Indian people view the Black Hills as sacred Indian territory, and they were not happy when sculptor Gutzon Borglum completed his mammoth sculpture depicting four U.S. presidents on Mount Rushmore, right in the middle of their revered Black Hills. Chief Standing Bear wrote to Korczak saying: “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.”
Why Crazy Horse?
Why did they choose Crazy Horse?a Robb DeWall explains: “It was the Indians who picked Crazy Horse for the memorial. In essence Crazy Horse was an Indian’s Indian—an extraordinarily brave warrior and a brilliant military tactician, the first Indian known to have used the decoy system. He . . . never signed a treaty and never went on the reservation.”
What gave Korczak the idea for his design? He heard a story about the answer Crazy Horse gave to a white trader who mocked him for refusing to go and live on the reservation when most of the Lakota had already done so. The trader asked: “Where are your lands now?” Crazy Horse “looked to the horizon, pointed over his horse’s head, and proclaimed proudly, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried.’”
Where to Locate the Memorial
The first task was to choose the mountain that would be converted into what was planned to be the biggest sculpture in the world, even outdoing nearby Mount Rushmore. In 1947, Korczak and Chief Standing Bear finally settled on a mountain that would serve their purpose. It was the 600-foot [200 m] peak of a mountain that was 6,740 feet [2,050 m] above sea level. Korczak called it Thunderhead Mountain because of the unusual cloud formations that sometimes formed over it. How would they get permission to reshape this mountain into a gigantic monument to an Indian?
DeWall explains in the book Korczak—Storyteller in Stone: “Anyone could file a mining claim in the Black Hills and, in effect, ‘own’ the land in question as long as $100 worth of assessment work was performed every year. Korczak found it ironic the government didn’t care if the mountain ended up looking like an Indian on horseback, just as long as he did the required amount of assessment work each year.”
How Much Mountain to Be Moved?
Korczak, with limited means, faced a monumental task, and at first, he was working on his own. The original dynamite blast that took place June 3, 1948, blew away a modest ten tons of rock. From that start to 1994, an estimated 8.4 million tons of rock were blasted from the mountain. Several hundred Indian people attended the initial blasting, including five of the nine living survivors of the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn (June 25, 1876).b
Korczak was a relentless and dedicated man. Using local timber that he had harvested, he built a 741-step staircase to the top of the mountain, where he planned to blast and carve out the horse’s head. He needed power to drive the jackhammer. This came from an old gasoline-powered compressor. Korczak had to lay out 2,040 feet [620 m] of 3-inch [8 cm] pipeline up and across the mountain to where he was drilling. Whenever the compressor stopped without warning, he had to descend that staircase, all 741 steps, to restart the motor. His record was nine trips back and forth in one day! He could not afford to have someone tend the compressor. He obviously had great stamina and determination.
In 1951, using 174 gallons [660 L] of white paint, he painted an outline of the projected sculpture on the mountainside. This made it easier for visitors to visualize the final work.
A Tragedy and a Crisis
During the 1970’s and early ’80’s, Korczak concentrated on blasting out enough rock to start the shape of the horse’s head. He had already suffered two heart attacks (1968 and 1970). In the summer of 1982, he had a successful quadruple heart bypass operation. Then, tragedy struck—Korczak died suddenly in October of that same year at the age of 74. Now what would happen to the vast Crazy Horse project? Would it die with the sculptor?
Korczak never expected to complete his work himself. He knew that it would take more than one lifetime to finish the project, so he had made detailed plans for the job. His wife, Ruth, and their ten children were just as dedicated to the completion of the monument as he was. Ruth had been involved in the project every step of the way, helping him in his calculations and also in the physical aspects of the work.
His first priority had been to finish the horse’s head. But his death changed that plan. In 1987 his widow, along with directors of the nonprofit foundation, decided to concentrate on Crazy Horse’s face. What motivated that change? Since the face was much smaller than the horse’s head, it would be completed more quickly and the cost would be lower. It would also give the public a more recognizable image in less time and perhaps boost public support for the project.
Crazy Horse’s head is 87 feet 6 inches [26.7 m] high and 58 feet [18 m] wide. It is claimed that “all four 60-foot [20 m] high heads on Mount Rushmore would fit inside just Crazy Horse’s head—with room to spare!” According to some sources, Crazy Horse, with his outstretched left arm and his horse, will be the largest sculptural work in the world—563 feet [172 m] high and 641 feet [195 m] long. The arm itself will be 227 feet [69 m] long, and the pointing finger 37.5 feet [11.4 m] long and 10 feet [3 m] thick.
Korczak would not accept federal funds for his project. On two occasions he was offered 10 million dollars in potential federal government funding, which he rejected. DeWall states that Korczak “steadfastly remained true to his free enterprise philosophy. During his lifetime he single-handedly raised and spent more than five million dollars on Crazy Horse.” He took no salary and had no personal expense account.
Today there is an entrance fee for car groups and lesser amounts for individuals and motor bikes. At present, more than a million visitors come to Crazy Horse each year. Many donations of equipment and money have been made that have helped to keep the project rolling.
The Indian Museum
At the Crazy Horse site, there is the impressive Indian Museum of North America, built of local timber. In it are thousands of Indian artifacts representing many of the tribes of North America, which number over 500. There is also an extensive library of reference works on Native Americans, which students and scholars can consult.
Native Americans, such as Priscilla Engen and Freda Goodsell (Oglala Lakota), are also on hand to answer questions and explain some of the arts and handicrafts that are displayed. Donovin Sprague, a university instructor and member of the Miniconjou, a Lakota tribe, is available for consultation during visits. He is a great, great grandson of Chief Hump, who participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn back in 1876.
The Future of the Crazy Horse Memorial?
A new home is planned for the museum. Korczak’s original vision was to have the museum nearer to the base of the monument and in the style of a Navajo hogan. It will be a multistoried building, 350 feet [110 m] in diameter. There are also plans for a university and medical training center for the North American Indian. However, before these grandiose visions can be made reality, the Crazy Horse monument itself must be finished. How long is that going to take? Korczak’s wife, Ruth, says: “We cannot set any dates, since there are too many variables involved—the weather, the severity of the winters, finances, and other factors. The really important element is that we make constant progress toward our ultimate aim.”
a As a young man, Crazy Horse (c. 1840-77) was known as His Horse Stands in Sight. “It was probably before his twentieth year that he was given the name Crazy Horse [Tasunke Witko, Lakota language], becoming the third, and the last, in his family to carry it.” His father and grandfather before him also bore that name.—Encyclopedia of North American Indians.
b At that historic battle, a mixed army of some 2,000 Teton Sioux (Lakotas) and Cheyennes wiped out Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his unit of 215 cavalrymen and routed the cavalry reinforcements led by Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. Crazy Horse was one of the Indian leaders in that battle.
[Picture on page 14, 15]
Scale model of Crazy Horse with horse’s head painted on the mountainside
Pages 2 and 15: Korczak, Sculptor © Crazy Horse Memorial Fnd.
[Picture on page 15]
Korczak and Chief Henry Standing Bear on June 3, 1948. Behind them is the marble scale model and the mountain before blasting
Photo: Crazy Horse Memorial archives
[Picture on page 16]
The Ziolkowski family. Fourth from the right is Ruth, widow of Korczak
Crazy Horse photo
[Picture on page 17]
Interior of the Indian Museum
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Annual march to the face of Crazy Horse
Photos by Robb DeWall, courtesy Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation (nonprofit)
[Picture Credit Line on page 16]
Photo by Robb DeWall, courtesy Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation (nonprofit)