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Making Sense of the Crazy Horse Memorial

• January 07, 2011 • 5:00 AM

A larger-than-Rushmore size granite memorial to the famous Sioux warrior has been under construction since 1948, but is that really what the Sioux residents in the area need?

More than 60 years in the making and still incomplete, the South Dakota mountain that is being continually transformed into the Crazy Horse Memorial sculpture lies only a few miles from the shadow of Mount Rushmore.

When complete, this provocative granite tribute to the larger-than-life, late 19th century Sioux warrior will be the largest sculpture in the world — a three-dimensional, mountain-sized homage 563 feet high and 641 feet long. The sculpture’s face, head and hair alone could hold the granite faces of all four presidents from the nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Despite its half-finished look, on a recent cloudless afternoon, the neoclassical sculpture of the Sioux warrior surveying his surroundings from atop his horse very nearly seemed to levitate over a carpet of Ponderosa pines.

Although progress has been slow, the sculpture’s 97.5-foot-high face has been completed; the top of his outstretched arm has been cleared; and work is ongoing on his horse’s head. Interruptions from visitors and electrical storms mean more gets done in fall and winter than in summer. But even in winter, some days temperatures fall so far below zero that diesel fuel turns to jelly, sidelining the heavy equipment needed to run the operation.

Since there’s no proven photo of Crazy Horse, the memorial’s face is based on eye-witness descriptions of the man. Five survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn present at the memorial’s 1948 inception agreed that Crazy Horse was short, wore his hair long and loose in battle, had a scar across his face, and wore a stone talisman behind his ear.

Born around 1840 in what is now northwestern South Dakota, Crazy Horse is perhaps best remembered for his pivotal role in bringing about Custer’s last stand. A warrior, hunter and Sioux leader, he was never a chief.

However, author and Native-American historian Donovin Sprague, a descendant of the warrior, says Crazy Horse is important to the Sioux today because Crazy Horse stood for Lakota values — bravery, generosity, wisdom and respect.

“Crazy Horse never went to Washington, D.C.,” said Sprague, the memorial’s director of education until last February. “He never signed a treaty. He stood up for his people to the end and defended their way of life.”

Here in the Sioux’s sacred Black Hills, critics say that the memorial project has become as much about the life of Korczak Ziolkowski, the self-taught Polish-American sculptor who began the project, than Crazy Horse himself.

Sioux leader Henry Standing Bear said he recruited Ziolkowski to do the sculpture because he wanted the white man to know that the red man had heroes, too. Standing Bear contacted Ziolkowski after hearing that one of the sculpture’s works had won first prize at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

When Ziolkowski started work on the mountain, there were no roads, water or electricity. And at the June 3, 1948 dedication, the sculptor had less than $200 to his name.

Since Ziolkowski’s passing in 1982, the sculptor’s widow, Ruth Ziolkowski, has overseen a continuation of the work as president and CEO of the private nonprofit Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, running everything on and off the mountain.

Critics wonder why the project, which already has cost tens of millions of dollars over six decades, remains incomplete. Ruth Ziolkowski says: “We don’t have any projections of when we’ll finish [or of final costs]; nor did Korczak when he was alive. We’re working as fast as we can.” (Big carving projects can drag on; Georgia’s Stone Mountain bas-relief, interrupted by two world wars and funding battles, took 56 years to complete.)

Questions have arisen over the years about the project’s proximity to Rushmore, although given the two memorials’ subject matter the question could almost be reversed. While Korzcak Ziolkowski briefly worked for sculptor Gutzon Borglum at Mount Rushmore, Ruth Ziolkowski emphatically says her late husband hoped that the public would never compare his Crazy Horse to the presidential memorial.

“If Korczak had had his way, he would have gone as far from Rushmore as he could,” said Ruth Ziolkowski, “but Standing Bear and the elders wanted the sculpture here in the Black Hills. Standing Bear and Korczak traveled six or eight weeks looking for an area that could be bought, with good solid granite and someplace people could get to, to see.”

Despite the denials, Michael Shanks, a classical scholar at Stanford University, says that the two mountain sculptures so near to each other suggests competitive emulation.

“Neoclassical has always been a favorite style of those who want to create something that will stand the test of time,” said Shanks. “To emulate the greats of antiquity, you adapt their style. But the quirkiness of this thing, that [Mount Rushmore] is 10 miles away makes it idiosyncratic.”

Today, critics of the project often cite the fact that the memorial’s gate and concession fees have made the project “big money,” although the foundation receives no government funding and is financed by private donations and admissions. For the 2009 fiscal year, the foundation reported assets around $50 million, with revenue of a little more than $9 million that year, $3.5 million of that from admissions.

When the mountain sculpture is finished, memorial foundation plans call for an onsite university and medical training center.

Ruth Ziolkowski said the memorial foundation gave away almost $130,000 in college scholarship money to South Dakota Indian students in 2009, adding that her late husband hoped that his sculpture would help Native Americans regain their pride.

But South Dakota State Sen. Jim Bradford, a Sioux who lives on and represents the people of Pine Ridge reservation, says Crazy Horse is not as relevant to today’s Sioux as people would think.

“People on the reservation are more concerned with everyday life,” he said. “The No. 1 problem is total poverty; everything revolves around that. We’re struggling for financial independence. So consciousness about Crazy Horse and history are not relevant to what we’re experiencing.”

The root of the problem lies in the lack of economic development on the reservation.

Bradford likens the economic situation at the Pine Ridge reservation to present-day Mexico — a stratified society with no middle class. Employment options in his area tend to be divided between higher-paying jobs with the local school system, the tribal council and Bureau of Indian Affairs, or jobs at minimum wage.

“We’ve got between 25,000 and 30,000 on the reservation,” said Bradford. “In my District 27, I represent 60,000 people and probably 50,000 are Indians. But full-blooded Sioux are now very few and far between. We’re not losing our culture as much as we’re trying to regain it. But from who?”

Here on the Northern Plains, the Indians’ existence was historically tied to the fortunes of their primary food source — the American buffalo.

The buffalo were so much a part of their “Lakota-nomics” that the war with the white man was really a war of survival against the bison’s demise.

This was partly a result of wanton killing after the arrival of white men in the 1800s.

When Crazy Horse was born, the bison populations may have numbered as high as 60 million. By the early 1880s, however, the buffalo were virtually exterminated; their numbers dwindling to an estimated few hundred.

Today, generous estimates put their numbers at no more than half a million in the whole of North America.

Thus, it’s not hard to make the case that approaching the end of the 19th century, the Sioux were sociologically pinned to the wall in a “kill or be killed” endgame some historians say culminated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

On a June day in 1876, Gen. George Armstrong Custer led 265 soldiers into attacking what he thought would be a small Indian encampment. Instead, he found 2,500 Plains warriors.

Although his actions at the Little Bighorn elevated Crazy Horse to that of legend among both his friends and enemies, by the latter half of 1877, the U.S.’ war with the Sioux was finished. Crazy Horse and nearly 900 of his people surrendered to life on a reservation.

In September 1877, Crazy Horse, surrendered and disarmed, was bayoneted in the back by a U.S. Army private. He died a few hours later.

Who can say what Crazy Horse might think of his own mountain-sized memorial, or the fate of his fellow Sioux? The irony is, as Bradford points out, that millions of dollars are being spent on a memorial that has very little meaning for many Sioux living destitute on their own reservations.

It’s hard to reconcile the vision of an ancient nomadic people inextricably linked to the land upon which they once roamed, with the contemporary reality of their existence on the reservations, largely living off the very government that wrecked their once fiercely independent way of life.

“Up until 1950, an Indian was not even considered a citizen,” said Bradford. “They couldn’t vote; they couldn’t have liquor. So, a lot of Indians are still bitter. They just want things to be better and don’t know how, because they’ve become totally dependent on the federal government.”

One can only surmise that Crazy Horse would agree with Red Cloud, the Lakota chief, who famously observed of the white interlopers: “They make many promises, more than I can remember. They never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”

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Bruce Dorminey
Bruce Dorminey is an award-winning U.S.-based science journalist and author of Distant Wanderers: The Search for Planets beyond the Solar System. A former Hong Kong bureau chief for Aviation Week and Space Technology and former Paris-based technology correspondent for the Financial Times newspaper, he's covered everything from potato blight to dark energy.

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