The Unfinished Tribute to Crazy Horse


This week, David Clark is our tour guide as we take a closer look at some of America's greatest monuments. His series continues today with the story of a monument-in-progress, the unfinished tribute to Crazy Horse.

If everything goes according to plan, by the twenty-second century America's largest monument won't honor any presidents, and won't glorify the Republic's early history. It will be the most immense statue in the world "“ 563 feet high and 641 feet long "“ and it will depict a native warrior who lived and fought as an enemy of westward imperialism and a fugitive from the US government, who was driven from his people's land and, after his surrender and imprisonment, surreptitiously murdered by US soldiers.

The gargantuan Crazy Horse Memorial, carved out of a mountain in the Black Hills just southwest of Mt. Rushmore, will certainly remind us that "the red man had great heroes, too" -- as Chief Standing Bear of the Lakota Sioux intended it to -- but it will also conjure all the fierce brutality and shameless injustice of American history, the kind of bloodstains that are scrubbed off our most well-known monuments. The image of Crazy Horse is at once a symbol for the many virtues of the Native Americans and for the many savage sins of the United States.

Korczak Ziolkowski's No Indian-Lover

In the 1940s a group of Lakota chiefs decided to counter the iconography of Mr. Rushmore with a mountain sculpture of their own, in honor of those native civilizations that the US government and the apotheosized Presidents had systematically conquered. The chiefs found their craftsman in a Polish-American named Korczak Ziolkowski, who was out west already to work on Mt. Rushmore and relished the chance to devise and execute a colossal carving on his own terms. Ziolkowski didn't consider himself "an Indian-lover," in his words: rather, he was "a storyteller in stone" who respected the Lakota and their hero and understood the broad significance of a Crazy Horse monument. So the chiefs got their sculptor, and Ziolkowski got his life's mission.

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The unkempt sculptor exuded vitality; he carried himself as a cheery, rough-tongued, hard-drinking mountain man, an icon in his own right for the rugged individualism of the western "white man" -- the cowboy, the settler, the prospector. He knew he had the talent for a more prosperous and celebrated life in the arts, but was fully devoted to the monument, the setting, the work, and the lifestyle. "I'm the world's biggest chiseler," he boasted. "I've got $23 dollars in my bank account . . . If I had stayed in the East I'd be a millionaire fancy-ass sculptor today."

While almost single-handedly shaping the mountain, Ziolkowski suffered quite a few injuries, including two heart attacks. Once, his son Casimir mis-steered a tractor over a 170 foot cliff, tumbled through the air right over Korczak's head -- and luckily planted on the only soft dirt heap in sight, miraculously unharmed. After all this, Ziolkowski managed a peaceful death, and was buried in a tomb he blasted for himself at the base of the mountain, knowing he wouldn't live to see Crazy Horse finished.

Early on, Ziolkowski's first wife had joined him out in the Hills for a short time, then promptly divorced him. Apparently, the idea of wearing her life out with an eccentric dynamite-nut stranded in backwoods didn't appeal to her, once she'd given it a try. The second wife worked out better: she endured, even thrived, and after Korczak's death has been managing the project with the help of their clan of children (7 out of 10 are still working on or for the Memorial). There's a visitor center and a museum at the base of the unfinished sculpture, which opened to educate the public and raise funds for continued work. In fact, Ziolkowski refused to accept government funding, fearing the Feds would hijack his vision, so the Crazy Horse Memorial is all privately funded by donations and visitor fees.

Crazy Horse's nine-story-tall face was finished in 1998. There's a catch, though: nobody knows exactly what Crazy Horse looked like. Whether the warrior chief refused to have his photograph taken for fear that it would steal his "shadow" and shorten his life, as one story goes, or he just didn't care for the artistic medium, Crazy Horse left no (definitive) photographic remains. (There are plenty of "reputed" but unproven photos of Crazy Horse circulating today.) Ziolkowski, therefore, intended to fashion a nonspecific face to represent the Idea of Crazy Horse -- a symbol rather than a mimetic likeness.

The Controversies, The Ironies & The Paradoxes

Plenty of controversy seethes around the Memorial. In the beginning, some local people opposed the project for racial reasons, and even went so far as to vandalize Ziolkowski's smaller works out of spite. While racist opposition has faded in time, other forms continue. Some Native Americans protest that blasting images into their sacred mountains is no way to honor their cultures and traditions, regardless of whose faced is chiseled out in the end. And others wonder why Lakota chiefs conceived the project without the permission of Crazy Horse's family, or why the Ziolkowski family seems to control the whole project (and handles all the funds). Still, none of the trouble has halted the work, which continues today and will keep on indefinitely.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is a tangle of paradoxes and sobering ironies. The largest sculpture in America will honor a people the United States trod over, a man the government captured and killed. The four heads of Mt. Rushmore -- heroes of the white Republic -- will be overshadowed by a larger-than-life reminder of one of the Republic's greatest crimes. A lone Polish-American immigrant will have been the primary architect and sculptor of a tribute to Native American history, community, and values. And the colossal form will depict a man who was wary of photographers, of whom no unequivocal image survives. [Images courtesy of]

Previously: The Statue of Liberty, The Washington Monument, The Gateway Arch