Crazy Horse Memorial
For 14 years, Native Americans watched the carving of Mount Rushmore, a tribute to white American leaders, in the sacred Black Hills. In 1948, seven years after Mount Rushmore was completed, Chief Henry Standing Bear approached sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski about creating a mountain carving to show the world that Native Americans had great leaders, too.
Korczak, who had worked on Mount Rushmore with Gutzon Borglum, agreed, and the plans to build the Crazy Horse Memorial (12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, 605/673-4681, www.crazyhorsememorial.org, summer daily from 7 a.m. until after the laser light show, winter daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m., $10 per person or $27 per car; $5 bicycles, motorcycles, walk-ins) were born.
Crazy Horse lived in a time of great turmoil for his people, and at a time when Lakota history was maintained by oral tradition and storytelling. Born sometime between 1840 and 1845, Crazy Horse grew to manhood when Europeans were entering the Great Plains, home of the Sioux, in greater and greater numbers. Very few white men had visited South Dakota in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
After the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806 passed through eastern South Dakota on its way up the Missouri River in search of a river passage to the West Coast. With new American ownership, the Lewis and Clark exploration expedition was followed by the fur traders associated with the American Fur Company. These traders established bases of operation in South Dakota in 1817 in Pierre (pronounced Peer).
The real European invasion of the Black Hills region didn’t start until gold was discovered by the Custer expedition of 1874. Crazy Horse, by that time in his thirties, had already distinguished himself as a warrior and as a great hunter. Involved in the victory against the soldiers at Fort Fetterman in northeastern Wyoming, Crazy Horse would also be involved in the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, known also as “Custer’s Last Stand,” where George Armstrong Custer, whose 1874 expedition brought about the gold rush, was killed with all of his troops.
Crazy Horse was not interested in renown. He did not allow others to photograph him. He did not go to Washington to negotiate. He did not give speeches and he never signed a treaty. He was one of the Lakota’s great leaders.
Inspired by the stories of Chief Henry Standing Bear, Ziolkowski imagined a memorial that would include the largest mountain carving in the world, a museum, a university, and a medical center. The carving was to be of Crazy Horse on horseback, pointing to the Black Hills, his homeland. Korczak, working alone, started carving in 1948.
The carving is still underway today, with the third generation of Ziolkowskis working on the mountain. When completed, the carving will be 641 feet long by 563 feet high. No federal funds have been used to finance the work.
Today, the carving remains far from complete and there is no estimated finish date on the carving. However, the memorial has seen a great deal of progress in the past decade. The face, 87 feet high, is virtually complete and much work has been accomplished in recent years on the horse’s head. The carving is a fascinating project and it provides visitors with a one-of-a-kind opportunity to view an extraordinary piece of art in progress. This is the only ongoing mountain carving in the world. It captures the imagination.
In addition to the mountain carving, the grounds of the Crazy Horse Monument include many of the attractions that Korczak originally envisioned. The Welcome Center has an information desk, conference facilities, and a small theater. Be sure to see the 20-minute orientation video. The historic film footage follows Korczak as he climbs hundreds of stairs to start carving a granite mountain with a jackhammer. It adds a human perspective to the whole project. Connected to the Welcome Center, the wood-paneled Native American Museum is filled with Native American artwork and artifacts, most of which were donated to the facility. There is also the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, where visitors are encouraged to participate in Lakota games, and listen to staff and Native American vendors discuss Lakota history and culture. Native American artists are provided free booth space within the center to display and sell their artistic creations.
Other facilities on-site include a gift shop, a restaurant, and Korczak’s original home and studio on the mountain. The studio displays some of his other artistic works, and the lobby of the original welcome center has been preserved as well. One of the favorite souvenirs of the memorial is available here. Inside the lobby fireplace, there is a pile of rocks blasted off the mountain. Visitors are encouraged to take a stone home with them when they leave.
A bus ($4) brings visitors close to the base of the sculpture to get a different perspective of the carving. The bus leaves every 15 minutes or so, depending on weather and the mountain blasting schedule and includes a narrative of the history of the carving. It’s a short ride, no longer than three-quarters of a mile, and the bus stops at a parking lot right at the base of the carving where the presentation continues.
In early June, hikers are allowed to climb Crazy Horse Mountain during the annual Volksmarch. For an entry fee of a can of food, around 10,000 hikers are allowed to climb the mountain and stand on Crazy Horse’s outstretched arm.
During the summer months, a laser light show is presented nightly. The show begins as soon as it’s dark, so the start time varies with the time of sunset.
Crazy Horse Memorial is located about five miles north of Custer off of Highway 16/385.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition