A 73-year-old dream lives on at the Crazy Horse Memorial
John R. Beyer
At the end of 1939, the promising sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski received an intriguing letter with an invitation to visit the Black Hills in South Dakota.
Ziolkowski was living on the East Coast at the time and had just won first place at the New York World’s Fair for his sculpture of Polish composer and politician Ignacy Jan Paderewski – which, by coincidence, tickled the ivories of the former Hesperia hotel around 1922.
Ziolkowski already knew the Black Hills well. He had worked for a short time on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial choreographed by Gutzon Borglum. Ziolkowski had been hired as a sculptor’s assistant in early 1939, but after his arrival he learned that Borglum’s son Lincoln was the main assistant. Dissatisfied, the Polish-American artist expressed his dissatisfaction with enough force.
“I was supposed to be the main assistant,” he reportedly said.
“Well, I am,” Lincoln reportedly replied. “What are you going to do about it?”
A rather disorderly brawl broke out between the two men. Ziolkowski was fired and headed east again, leaving only one lesson to the aspiring artists: don’t hit the boss’s son in the face.
Chief Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder and much respected man, sent the aforementioned letter to Ziolkowski. In his correspondence were the words that would forever change the artist’s life.
Standing Bear wrote: “My fellow bosses and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too.
Having been involved, even for a short time, on Mount Rushmore, Ziolkowski knew exactly what the Chief was saying: if a mountain in the Black Hills can have carved faces of American presidents, then another mountain in those same hills can speak. great Native American leaders.
Ziolkowski was there.
He returned to the Black Hills later in 1939, met Standing Bear and other members of the Lakota tribe, and began to draw plans.
The Lakota wanted to immortalize arguably their most famous warlord, Tȟašúŋke Witkó, better known as Crazy Horse. Part of the Oglala group, Crazy Horse made a name for itself in numerous battles against the US military in the Black Hills. But the battle that cemented his legacy involved leading his warriors against General George Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.
Now, Crazy Horse’s combat strategy was admired by friends and foes alike, but Standing Bear envisioned a sculpture that would represent all Native Americans as opposed to the isolated feats of a single man. He wanted them to be proud of their heritage and their culture.
For a few years Ziolkowski developed the project, but when World War II broke out he enlisted in the military. He suffered serious injuries in 1944 at Omaha Beach in Normandy and was released in November 1945.
After returning home and recovering, he returned once more to the Black Hills in 1947. He would call the area his home for the rest of his life.
Ziolkowski thought the best boulder to carve such a large and detailed image would be in the Tetons of Wyoming, but the Lakota wanted Crazy Horse carved out of rock in their sacred grounds in the Black Hills – and they got what they wanted. wanted.
The US government offered to fund part of the project, but Ziolkowski refused. He didn’t believe the government that had treated Native Americans so reprehensibly in the past had to have anything to do with the monument. In fact, in 1949, the Crazy Horse Memorial obtained association status for this purpose.
Yet land deals, trades, purchases, trades and all sorts of things that don’t make much sense to me still needed brokerage. Perhaps Ziolkowski’s own words will clarify everything: “It is ironic that the Crazy Horse Foundation had to buy land from the state of South Dakota to give it to the federal government in exchange for the land the government owned at Crazy. Horse so that the The Crazy Horse Memorial could be carved – and could grow for the benefit of the Indian people from whom we took the land in the first place. “
Ah, much clearer.
The mountainside blasting began in earnest on June 3, 1948, and Ziolkowski turned out to be a machine.
He started out on his own and lived on his own. Alone, too, he carved out of the tree-strewn landscape a house, roads, a reception center and much more for the tourists he hoped to come and see his work. He also needed public funds to keep this really huge dream alive. He charged 75 cents per person to watch him work.
When he started carving the mountain, after blowing up the unusable rock, he had $ 174 under his belt. It seemed like a little money was missing. His luck quickly turned as more people came to donate their time and finances. Then his luck really changed in 1950, when he met 24-year-old Ruth Ross, a volunteer who had fallen in love with the sculptor. Ziolkowski, 42, knew he had met a lifelong partner and they quickly married.
They had 10 children when Ziolkowski died of acute pancreatitis in 1982 in Sturgis, South Dakota. His wife died at the age of 87 in 2014. Their children and children of children still carry on the work at the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Since Laureen and I were in South Dakota we knew this was a must see place.
Laureen asked, “Is this a must-see place? “
“I believe with all my heart this is a place to go,” I replied.
“So we have to. We just have to stop and visit, ”Laureen said.
We generally agree on where to go, and the Crazy Horse Memorial was at the top of the list. Biggest ball of twine in Branson, Missouri? Not really. That’s not to say, however, that we wouldn’t stop at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum (where the ball is) if we were in Branson.
“It’s a big ball of string, but not as big as the Crazy Horse Memorial,” I might observe one day.
It has been over 73 years since the first works began on the memorial. In fact, if and when the memorial is completed, it could be the largest rock sculpture in the world. Ziolkowski’s plans called for the sculpture to be almost 650 feet long and almost 560 feet high – truly a grand undertaking.
Unfortunately the weather was rather humid when we visited and clouds kept rolling over the Crazy Horse sculpture obscuring our view. But we were good with it. The rain was something we hadn’t seen for about 300 years. It was refreshing and cool.
“What is this from the sky? ” I asked.
Laureen looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Then we went to the visitors center (sheltered from the rain).
The Crazy Horse Memorial is not just the sculpture on the mountain. No, it’s a real learning experience for everyone who visits. There is the Visitor Center, where docents are present to answer any questions regarding the memorial, or anything related to the history of the Black Hills and the tribes that live there.
Many areas are reserved within the multiple buildings that make up the visitors center. There are theaters showing the actual sculpture of the mountain, with Ziolkowski speaking most of the time. There is an education and conference center for traveling groups, a Native American cultural center, a 9/11 memorial, a North American Indian museum and much more.
The memorial’s mission statement is: “To protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of all North American Indians”.
We spent hours watching this and that. These hours were full of learning, understanding and fun.
What have I learned? That two men had a dream. One was a Lakota elder. The other was a Polish-American immigrant and sculptor. They dreamed of creating a memorial not just to one man, but to a whole race of people – a memorial that all Native Americans could adopt to help them better understand the beautiful culture they have inherited.
Yes, two men had a dream. It’s not over, but does it really matter? What they started in 1948 remains with us. And the work continues. The dream is alive with everyone who visits the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
One of Ziolkowski’s mottos was: “When legends die, dreams stop. When dreams end, there is no more greatness.
Out of respect for him and for ourselves, we should all dream more.
Contact John R. Beyer at [email protected]