Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, it is an iconic and controversial piece of American history that pays tribute to legendary leadership. And while it doesn’t get as much attention as the four heads down the road do, make no mistake, the Crazy Horse Memorial near Custer, S.D., is a real “rock” star.
The basic backstory
The story of the Crazy Horse Memorial Monument began in 1939, when Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear reached out to Korczaz Ziolkowski about carving a mountainside relief in honor of the Oglala Lakota war chief who led a band of warriors against General Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Ziolkowski was an award-winning sculptor who had served as an assistant on the Mount Rushmore Memorial Monument but left the project after clashing with the designer’s son. The two met and toured potential sites for the monument, but Ziolkowski’s service in World War II prevented the plan from going any further.
After the war, Ziolkowski returned to accept Chief Standing Bear’s offer and devoted the rest of his life to the carving. He began work in 1948 with less than $200 and over the next 33 years, he cleared nearly 7.4 million tons of rock from the site. The federal government offered Zilkowski the money to complete the project several times, but he turned them down because he did not think that they would complete the carving and he preferred to maintain control over his work. He funded his operation with proceeds he made from a small dairy farm, museum, gift shop, carloads of tourists and private donations.
“It’s my life’s work,” he said in 1977 during a “60 Minutes” interview.
The project is not without controversy. Member of the Sioux Nation are opposed to the memorial because they believe that a man who was adamantly against having his picture taken would never agree to have his likeness carved into the side of a mountain.
Despite his belief that he might live to see the finished product, Ziolkowski died in 1982 and is buried at the base of the sculpture. His final wish was that his second wife Ruth Ross and his children continue the work on the monument. The family honored his request, and in 1998, the head of Crazy Horse was unveiled to the public. It is 87 feet high and 58 feet wide. His eyes are 17 feet apart. By comparison, the head of George Washington on Mount Rushmore is 60 feet tall. When completed, the Crazy Horse Memorial Monument will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long, or 35 times bigger than the plaster model on display at the Crazy Horse Memorial Visitors Center.
Plan your trip
Today, work on the mountain is overseen by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation and funded solely through admission fees and contributions. Those who visit the work-in-progress can watch as crews work on Crazy Horse’s left hand and his horse’s mane. They can also tour Ziolkowski’s home/studio, the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, both of which feature Native American art and artifacts from tribal nations all across the continent.
Folks can dine at the Laughing Water Restaurant, which features a stunning view of the mountain, or take part in make-it-take-it craft activities. The site also holds special events throughout the year. Bus trips to the base of the mountain are available when weather and road conditions are favorable. According to the foundation’s website, the Crazy Horse Memorial attracts more than a million visitors per year and provides $1 million in scholarships to Native American students attending South Dakota schools.
Georgia Davenport of Nashville, Tenn., has visited the Crazy Horse Memorial and uses two pieces of rock from the mountain as bookends in her home.
“I love the museum and its history and then seeing it in person is really moving,” she said. “I suggest going to see Mount Rushmore as well since it’s in the same area.”
Sherri Emmons of Indianapolis, Ind., agreed.
“It’s one of the best places out West that we’ve been.”