History of the Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is sort of the Native American answer to the Mt. Rushmore monument. A Lakota Chief by the name of Henry Standing Bear spearheaded the project in the late 1930s. While Rushmore was still under construction he and his father lobbied for the sculptor to include Chief Crazy Horse on the memorial. When that failed to come to fruition Chief Standing bear decided to work on creating a separate statue of the legend. He commissioned Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American sculptor to design and oversee the project. Standing Bear also traded his own 800 acres of land for the site in the black hills where the statue was to be created.
Korczak began work in 1948 with a meager budget of $147. One of his volunteer assistants became his wife, Ruth Ziolkowski. The two of them and their ten children turned the project into a family enterprise over the ensuing years. These days the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation heads the project, though many of Ziolkowski’s children are still part of the effort.
I was only roughly familiar with the project when we decided to check it out on the designated anniversary of Crazy Horse’s death. I’d seen a documentary once about the project and the artist Korczak who dedicated much of his life to doggedly working on it. I knew it was yet a very long way from completion but that at least some of the face and head of the statue were in place.
What you will find
Entry was $11 per person to what turned out to be a pretty large compound a good distance from the statue itself. If you pay a bit more you can take a bus tour out to the statue, and yet more if you want to go stand right up at the face on top of the mountain. We decided to pass on these offerings and look around the extensive visitors center and view the statue from a distance.
The center was big and packed with all manner of curiosities. There was a large theater showing a movie about the monument. They have the Indian Museum of North America here. There is a very large gift shop. A large open air Viewing Veranda offers a good view of the statue. On this occasion, there were live Native American dances and history presentations. There is a cafeteria as well as a formal restaurant, both with a lot of Native art on display. There is a large gallery dedicated to the creation of the statue and its history where you can take home pieces of rock blasted off the statue.
They have preserved the interior of the Ziolkowski home along with many pieces of antique polish furniture and sculpture by Ziolkowski and others. Then there is his studio which features more of his work, a preserved workshop and even a large and beautiful stage coach. Then there is the Native American Cultural Center which is yet another museum that also features modern native craftsmen and women who sell their wares and teach about the traditions they work from. In the basement of that is a great exhibit dedicated to Bison. There is even a 9/11 memorial outside in a sculpture garden/park.
It really is an incredible hodge-podge of interesting stuff and I enjoyed looking around and exploring the compound since you never knew quite what you would see next. Much of Ziolkowski’s work is compelling. My favorite was the huge bronze statue of fighting stallions in the park area. Of the museum exhibits the Bison exhibit was probably the most well put together. While there are many great artifacts and artworks on display, the organization and presentation leave a lot of room for improvement. Collections from different donors are in different areas so you get a disjointed and jumbled view of different native cultures with minimal context.
The statue itself is far from finished. Wisely, in the late 1990s they focused on completing the face of the statue so there is something striking to look at now. The whole project is immense, the world’s largest mountain carving should it be completed. In addition to Crazy Horse himself, there is a whole horse to carve out of the mountain. Should it ever be finished, it will be a very impressive sight.
Like Mt Rushmore, there are qualities of the Crazy Horse memorial that didn’t quite sit right with me and it is not a project free of controversy within the Native Amercian community. In celebration of a culture steeped in harmony with nature, they’ve built a gaudy complex and blasted away a mountainside. Further plans for the area include a sports stadium and an airport. It is a grand monument to the spirit of Crazy Horse, but is it in keeping with his spirit? Some say no, others yes. I’d tend to say no.
Personally, I was impressed by the vision and dedication of those who brought this whole thing to life. Crazy Horse himself is passed and his spirit in truth is whatever people who still live make of it. Clearly, it has inspired many to try and do something of epic proportions to demonstrate the significance of the man himself and the culture of Native Americans. I don’t begrudge people wanting to take a single mountain and make a monument of it. And I respect their big dreams and dedication.
I can also recognize the need for the tourist milking station here to raise money for the project, though I really wonder how much of it goes to the statue and how much feeds upon itself only to build more facilities to collect money from tourists. Some of what they have done feels very heartfelt while other aspects very commercial and thoughtless. You can tell it is a sort of democratic collaborative effort rather than a single unified vision. That has its charms but also its drawbacks.
If you are in the area, I would suggest checking it out and spending time exploring the compound there. You are supporting someone’s dream made real and you will probably find many interesting artifacts and ideas to examine and ponder.