Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial


Howard Adelman

Because we were driving west to east, we passed the Crazy Horse Memorial (CHM) on our way to Mount Rushmore (MR) located seventeen kilometres south of Mount Rushmore about a mile from Custer, South Dakota. On Thunderhead Mountain. We spent four hours there and could have stayed longer, but we wanted to allow three hours for Mount Rushmore. As it turned out, we need not have rushed since we spent less than an hour at the MR monument where we found the excellent ice cream to be the most memorable part of the visit. This blog is as much about the latter as it is about the Crazy Horse Memorial, if only by way of contrast and comparison.

That is not just my shtick. When you are at the Crazy Horse Memorial, the comparisons are thrust at you all the time. Let me list some of the notable points of comparison:

  • MR is a post WWI monument begun in the 1920s and left incomplete in 1941 when the Americans entered WWII; CHM is a post WWII monument started in 1948 and continues to this day, 67 years later
  • MR has been left unfinished; CHM is on-going and will take decades to complete.
  • MR ostensibly honours the core values of the American dream as exemplified by the four presidents, namely independence from foreign rule (Washington), territorial expansion (Jefferson), preservation of the union (Lincoln) and the rights of Americans to realize their manifest destiny by memorializing the hero of the Spanish-American War and builder of the Panama Canal as an exemplar of all the “highest” qualities of those who “tamed the West”; in contrast, the values of Crazy Horse celebrated by the sculpture combine his skill in battle with his enormous integrity, his defensive vision for his people and his selfless dedication to their welfare
  • Both monuments started as the vision of a single man, Doane Robinson, superintendent of South Dakota’s State Historical Society in the case of MR, and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear for CHM
  • Chief Standing Bear had first tried to get Crazy Horse memorialized on Mount Rushmore and only when he was unsuccessful did he opt to pursue the dream of a separate sculpture to send out a message that, “my fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too”
  • Behind the MR monument was an imperial political vision; behind the CHM was the vision of preserving a culture, both in memory and in life
  • Both projects were appropriated by the vision of the sculptors chosen to execute the vision, John Gutzon Borglum (JGB) in the case of MR, and Korczak Ziolkowski (KZ) in the case of the CHM
  • Both sculptors were highly recognized when they assumed responsibility for their respective projects, though Korczak Ziolkowski had worked on the MR project for three weeks in the summer of 1939 before he was fired allegedly, according o a letter on display at the CHM, because Borglun said that the MR project was not large enough for the two of them
  • Both projects were taken over by other family members when the originating sculptor died, Lincoln Borglum for MR and as a family enterprise led by KZ’s wife, Ruth, and their ten children in the case of the CHM
  • Seven months after his father died, Lincoln declared the project “finished” after making some final touches to what had been done to that date; when KZ died on 20 October 1982, his wife and children took responsibility for the project a responsibility that continues to this day and into the foreseeable future
  • MR was from the start a government-funded project; the MCH is boastfully a non-government project that even refuses to accept government funds as contributions
  • While MR began as a dream of carving giant statues to immortalize Clark and Lewis, Buffalo Bill and General Custer who had contributed so much to the “opening” of the West, and morphed into a national monument to celebrate the imperial vision that led to that so-called “opening”, the MCH has also morphed and become as much as a saga about one family – the Ziolkowskis – as about Crazy Horse and Lakota & Indian culture; thus, the short introductory film viewed before visiting the sculpture itself is called “Dreams and Dynamite” and is much more about KZ and his family’s dedication and commitment than about either Chief Standing Bear or Chief Crazy Horse
  • In spite of the artistic dedication required to work on such huge projects lasting over long spans of time, both projects are testimony to the flexibility or adaptability of the artists, for Borglum had been commissioned previously to work on the statues of secessionists and rebels, Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, that were being carved into the Stone Mountain in Georgia, a project he abandoned when it became embroiled in governmental and political infighting, and Borglun easily shifted to celebrating the heroes of America as a unified and powerful singular state; KZ, who had previously won first prize at the New York World’s Fair for his sculpture of the head of enlightened and progressive Governor Wilbur L. Cross of Connecticut (a retired English professor at Yale suddenly thrust into the governor’s mansion in 1931 as the Democratic candidate to successfully unseat the Republicans); the celebration of native culture and love of the land seemed at the opposite end of the spectrum from KZ’s previous enthrallment with sophistication, progressivism and a belief in mastering and improving upon nature
  • MR is overtly a tourist attraction, created from the get-go as such; CHM is an Indian cultural centre, an Indian museum and a nascent university focused on Indian studies, and tourism is used to both solicit donations for all the projects as well as disseminate information about Indian culture
  • In each case, the accuracy of the resemblance of the image to the real person became a bone of contention, especially of Teddy Roosevelt at Mount Rushmore, surprising since he was both a living hero for Borglum before Roosevelt died as well as a patron (Roosevelt had commissioned Borglum to make a bust of Lincoln that Roosevelt exhibited in the White House), while the controversy over the representative quality of Crazy Horse was two-fold – Crazy Horse never wanted even a picture of himself lest the portrait steal his spirit, and, hence, there is no way to measure the accuracy of the sculpture (though there is a sketch drawn by a Mormon missionary which Crazy Horse’s sister said was accurate), but the chiefs who had known Crazy Horse and contended that the model was not an accurate representation of the person, were told by Ziolkowski that the sculpture was iconic and intended to represent all Indians, a contention often repeated when one visits the memorial
  • Both memorials are clearly monumental – the faces of the presidents are 60 feet high – but the head of Crazy Horse alone is 87 feet and the overall dimension of the CHM dwarfs not only Mount Rushmore – it is 641 feet long and 563 feet high –  but three times higher than Niagara Falls and compares favourably with the Egyptian pyramids: the Great Pyramid of Giza is 455 feet high though 756 feet at the base

One could go on with a number of other comparisons, but a major message of the CHM is that it is an antithesis to Mount Rushmore and clearly intended as such. But if MR is a testament to America as an imperial power, Crazy Horse is not pictured as a warrior but as an Indian chief pointing with the sentence stating, ”My lands are where my dead lie buried” in answer to an ostensible challenge by a non-Indian, “Where are your lands now?”  CHM is a sculptural expression of “J’accuse” at the same time both a rebuke and an insistence that the land is Indian land because that is where the ancestors of Indians rest and where the spirit of the Indian people resides. The Black Hills were the sacred burial grounds for the Sioux. The fact that the statue actually points away from the hills is accepted as artistic licence and as only symbolic since it would have been very difficult to blast away the sculpture in any other way.

The pointing is itself controversial and is considered an insult in Lakota culture, equivalent to sculpting Washington with his middle finger pointed upward. Chief Standing Bear and his fellow chiefs had only requested that the head of Crazy Horse be carved into the side of the mountain. KZ took it upon himself to enlarge the vision. Further, many Native Americans consider the monument as desecrating the landscape since sacred hills should not be dynamited and carved into.

However, as an outsider and visitor, I was very deeply moved by the memorial and the story of the Native Americans. The artistic qualities of both Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial may be questionable – and certainly were not what inspired me – and while somewhat put off by the self-glorification of the Ziolkowski family counter-balanced by their clear and unequivocal dedication – I felt a deep kinship with victimhood. Perhaps it is my personal reaction. Perhaps it is because I am a Jew. But I suspect it is more. Monuments to heroes turn me off. Memorials to victims inspire me to pursue justice.