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August 2022
2min read

A few miles from Mount Rushmore there is a mountain-carving project that, theoretically, ought to please the Indians a good deal more than the famous heads of the four Presidents. If ever completed, it will be a stunningly large equestrian statue of Chief Crazy Horse, the Sioux leader who fought nobly for his people and helped do in Custer at the Little Bighorn.

The planned dimensions of the Crazy Horse monument match the ego of its creator, sculptor-genius (as he describes himself) Korczak Ziolkowski: 563 feet high, 641 feet long, an 87½-foot head for the Chief and a 219-foot head for his pony (“enough space for a five-room house in each of the horse’s nostrils,” Ziolkowski says).

But tourists who turn off the highway about four miles north of Custer, South Dakota, to drive to Thunderhead Mountain and observe the Crazy Horse carving are likely to be disappointed. First of all, they are charged two dollars per car to get into the grounds. Then, ushered out upon a terrace where a big plaster model of the monument glistens in the sunlight, they hear a spiel explaining how Ziolkowski, “the grandson of a Polish count” (but born in Boston), has been working on the mountain for over a quarter of a century, without state or federal aid; how several million tons of granite have been blasted away already; what the historical significance of the statue will be, etc.

The trouble is that when the tourists lift their eyes to the mountain itself, all they see is a vast expanse of granite that looks as if perhaps it has been subjected to strip mining. Through pay binoculars on the terrace it is possible to make out a few machines and cables on slopes of the mountain, a certain amount of shaping along the top, and a relatively small hole that has been punched through where, allegedly, the space under Crazy Horse’s outstretched arm will be. Even with the help of the hole it is very difficult to visualize the finished monument. Many visitors express disbelief that it will ever be completed.

For consolation they can buy refreshments (including buffalo burgers) and souvenirs (including replicas of the Crazy Horse Monument, or rather of the model, in assorted sizes); they can also go on a guided tour of the sprawling fifty-seven-room building that is Ziolkowski’s combination home, studio, and museum. There are many wood carvings and pieces in other media to testify that the sixtyeight-year-old Ziolkowski really is a sculptor, and whole walls covered with illustrated articles about him cut from newspapers and magazines. A row of marble heads of famous people lines the walk leading from the parking lot into the main building; all of them have been deprived of their noses by someone equipped with a sledge hammer and, apparently, an intense dislike for Ziolkowski.

What do the Indians think of the Crazy Horse project? Back when Ziolkowski was getting started, he drew encouraging words from an eminent Sioux, Chief Henry Standing Bear: “Please carve us a mountain so the white man will know that the red man had great heroes, too.” That was before the days of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the surge for “red power.” “Crazy Hoarse never let a white man take his picture,” observed Lame Deer, a Sioux medicine man and activist, a few years ago. “The whole idea of making a beautiful wild mountain into a statue of him is a pollution of the landscape.” Said another, Fools Crow: “This mountain doesn’t want the statue to be built. The ghost of Crazy Horse doesn’t want it. It will never be finished.”

E.M.H.

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