Chances are, if you are headed to Keystone, South Dakota, you’re probably making a stop to see Mount Rushmore. Despite its popularity as a travel stop, Rushmore isn’t the largest mountain carving in the world – or even in Keystone. Just around the highway bend, the world’s largest mountain statue is taking the shape of Crazy Horse.
The story of the Crazy Horse Memorial is a monumental story of two men: Korczak Ziółkowski and Crazy Horse, himself.
Crazy Horse was a war leader of the Ogalala Sioux, who took up arms against the U.S. Federal Government in territory disputes in the late 1700s. His most iconic victory was at the Battle of Little Bighorn in June of 1876. Personal glory, however, was short-lived, as he was caught by U.S. troops and killed within a year, dying in May of 1877.
He was a Native American hero, because he was one of the last of his tribe to never sign a treaty with the Americans, never leave the plains or live on a reservation, and he never learned to speak English. He also did not allow pictures of himself to be taken, which proved problematic for creating a six-story, three-dimensional version of his likeness.
Korczak Ziółkowski was the son of two Polish immigrants who left him an orphan at the age of one. Raised through the foster system after the turn of the century, he became a self-made man, carving wood for ships and then furniture. Then he moved on to work as a professional sculptor before he moved to South Dakota to help with Mt. Rushmore.
Due to some workplace drama, Ziółkowski’s tenure on Rushmore lasted only three months. Fortunately, he had already achieved some notoriety thanks to a big sculpture prize win at the World’s Fair in New York, and Chief Henry Standing Bear had contacted him about creating an Indian response to Mt. Rushmore to let white men know that red men had great leaders, too.
Thunder Mountain was the site where the legacy of the two men would meet. It was the site that Ziółkowski selected for the new memorial.
There are a couple of good reasons for the Thunder Mountain location. First, it was only about 17 miles from Rushmore, and it is planned to be much larger than Rushmore. That’s a nice how-do-you-do from Ziółkowski to his former employer.
Second, it’s in the Black Hills, which had been promised, in treaty, by the U.S. government to be left to the Sioux people. This lasted until gold was found, and we did what we did best back then. To the Indians, this monument was an eternal reminder that this place is theirs. In fact, Crazy Horse, when completed, will be pointing out to the white man where his land is.
To further the whole “Screw the U.S. Government,” nature of the project, Ziółkowski forbade any government assistance on the project. That’s a pledge that his surviving family is keeping, and that means a long, slow construction project as the planned mountain statue, university and hospital at the site can only be completed as quickly as admission tickets can be sold.
Finally, just because I love bitter irony: the original plan the Native Americans asked Ziółkowski to complete was a 100-foot head-only statue. Ziółkowski apparently had some ego and really wanted his statue to be the world’s largest and to dwarf his former job site at Rushmore, so his vision expanded to include carving the top 500 feet of the mountain with most of the body and a horse. His arm will be outstretched with a finger pointing out his people’s lands. However, a pointed finger in many native cultures is rude or vulgar. So if the is completed without revision, the world’s largest statue, intended to honor the Native Americans and their lands, will instead essentially be giving them the finger.