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A Monumental Tribute to Crazy Horse Has Been Taking Shape for Decades

Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving currently in progress. donahos/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Out of the hills of South Dakota, just 18 miles (28.9 kilometers) or so west of the quartet of presidential mugs that peer down from Mount Rushmore, another mountainside monument slowly rises. For more than 70 years actually, it's been rising and rising and rising. But it's getting there.

The Crazy Horse Memorial, the only active mountain carving in the world, is a project so literally monumental in size, so audacious in scope that it's become practically legendary in its own right, like the man carved into the mountain himself. The massive sculpture is the drawn-out dream of a long-sighted Native American chief and a dogged Polish American sculptor. And it's a weighty legacy for the sculptor's family, which toils still to complete that vision.

"We've lived it all our lives, and we just go ahead, and keep our nose to the grindstone, and just do it. You just do it," says Jadwiga Ziolkowski, who along with her sister Monique, serves as the CEO of the Crazy Horse Memorial. "You keep your eye on what it is you're working toward, something that's bigger than yourself, something that's going to be here a long time after the family is gone. You just know it's the right thing to do, and you move forward."

Crazy Horse
Crazy Horse was a Lakota leader who is best known for his part in the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn where Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and 200 of the Seventh Cavalry were killed. This painting on cloth by Sioux Indian Kills Two (1869-1927) depicts a battle between Custer and Crazy Horse.
UniversalImagesGroup/Contributor/Getty Images

Who Was Crazy Horse?

Tasunke Witco was a heroic Lakota leader of the Oglala band of Native Americans. He was born in the mid-19th century, probably around 1840, as white armies began their marauding ways through the West, driving the natives from their lands.

Crazy Horse, the English translation of his name, was given to him later in life. Noted Western author Larry McMurtry explains in his 1999 book "Crazy Horse: A Life":

His own people experienced him as a mystery while he was alive: they called him Our Strange Man. In his life, he would have three names: Curly, His Horses Looking, Crazy Horse (Ta-Shunka-Witco). We know him as Crazy Horse, but in life few knew him well; in truth it is only in a certain limited way that we who are living now can know him at all.

Crazy Horse spent his formative years hunting on the plains of the Dakotas and was a full warrior by his midteens, according to his Crazy Horse Memorial bio. He soon became a good one. In 1865, at somewhere around 25 years old, he was named a "Shirt Wearer" (a war leader) by his tribe.

He's probably best known for his part in one 1876 battle in particular: the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He led the band of Lakota warriors who rose up against Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his entire Seventh Cavalry. Custer was killed (the battle is also known as Custer's Last Stand) along with nine of his officers. Another 280 enlisted soldiers and 32 Indians also died.

A year later, as soldiers unexpectedly tried to take a war-weary Crazy Horse into custody at Fort Robinson, Nebraska — after he walked willingly into the camp to discuss terms of a possible truce — Crazy Horse was bayoneted in the back by a soldier and died. He was in his mid-30s.

Crazy Horse, who famously never had his picture taken and is revered by Native Americans today, ended up as mysterious in death as he was in life. His burial spot is unknown.

Korczak Ziolkowski
Designer Korczak Ziolkowski had been working on nearby Mount Rushmore when Oglala Lakota Chief Standing Bear asked him to create the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Carl Iwasaki/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

The Story of the Monument

Not long after Crazy Horse was murdered, Mato Naji was born around Pierre, South Dakota. He was educated in Western ways at the Carlisle Indian School, took the name Henry Standing Bear, and later became an Oglala Lakota chief.

In the 1930s, looking for a way to honor Crazy Horse and his people, Chief Standing Bear jumped on a project designed to rival the one that was currently being blasted out of a mountain in the Black Hills. He quickly recruited designer Korczak Ziolkowski, who had been working on nearby Mount Rushmore, to carve Thunderhead Mountain into a monument that would, in the end, dwarf the paean to the presidents to the east. (See sidebar below.)

"Henry wrote to Dad," Jadwiga says, "and said, 'We would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also.'"

It would become Korczak's life's work (he died in 1982), that of his wife, Ruth (she died in 2014), and many of their 10 children.

"To a degree, it was the challenge," Jadwiga says of her father's motivation to shape the mountain. "But mostly, he had seen from his visits here how important the Native people are to one another, how they respect their elders, and how they lived with such grace. How they took care of each other no matter what. It was just such a beautiful thing ... He just thought that was something that should be taught, that people should know about something that wasn't from the TV or the newspapers. It wasn't the wars or Custer's Last Stand or anything like that.

"He came out and learned a whole different side of the Native American people, how gracious they were, and how they cared about each other. He wanted to keep that culture alive."

Crazy Horse Memorial
A crew of 15 spends five days a week blasting and chiseling the mountain. When the massive sculpture is finished it will depict Crazy Horse from the torso up on the back of a horse.
SteveElliott/Flickr/(CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Future of Crazy Horse Memorial

Begun in 1948, the Crazy Horse Memorial was slow to take shape in the first few decades of its existence. But it's clearly, if agonizingly, getting there. The front half of Crazy Horse's massive stone head — easily visible with a zoom-in on Google Earth or Google Maps — was completed in 1998, his eyes staring sternly to the southeast across the hills. A yet-to-be-finished outstretched arm points his way.

When the sculpture is finished — it's still probably decades away, at least — it will depict the chief, from the torso up, on the back of a horse. The horse's head, with flowing mane, will forever rest under Crazy Horse's arm.

"It really has been getting there. And people are starting to see that now. It's grown and changed so much in the last four or five years, it's incredible to see," Jadwiga says. "In the next six to 11 years, [we'll be finishing] the hand, the Indian's arm ... going back and finishing up the hairline at Crazy Horse's scalp, and always working on the horse's head, working down toward the horse's head and mane. You start at the top and work down."

The Crazy Horse Memorial (in non-pandemic years) is visited by more than 1 million people annually. The site now includes a welcome center, theaters, a Native American museum, a restaurant, an educational and cultural center, a "university" that sponsors educational programs that allow Native Americans to earn college credit and the inevitable gift shop.

Though there has been some controversy about the memorial throughout its history. Some Native Americans object to its place in the sacred Black Hills, some wonder whether it's all just a big money-making scheme, some bristle at the massive tribute to such a humble and mysterious man and some say that non-Indians should not be running the place. Though it's important to note that the project, on private land, never has accepted any federal or state money for its work. It's supported entirely by donations and visitors' fees.

For those who have long been working on the project — a crew of 15 spends five days a week blasting and chiseling the mountain into what Standing Bear and Korczak imagined all those years ago — the doubters, the impatient, the critics have proven to be not nearly as difficult to shape as the rock itself.

"There's a lot of people that never thought it would be done," Jadwiga says. "And it's not always been easy. You have your moments. My dad had a line; 'Everybody has a mountain ...' Each one of us in life has something that we're struggling with, that we have to get over."

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