crazy horse face

The World’s Largest Mountain Carving: Crazy Horse Memorial

Many people have heard of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota.  Lesser known is the Crazy Horse Memorial which is being built nearby on a scale to dwarf Mt. Rushmore.  When the Crazy Horse Memorial is finished, it will be the largest mountain sculpture in the world.

crazy horse face

The Sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski

The Crazy Horse Memorial has been a work in progress for the last 50+ years and is expected to take another 50 years.  The sculptor who set this work in motion, Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American sculptor from Boston of some renown, had previously worked on Mt Rushmore.  I find it amusing that Korczak decided to build a sculpture that would dwarf his previous boss’s work. Do you think there was no love lost there?

In 1947, Chief Henry Standing Bear invited Korczak to the sacred lands of the Lakota tribes in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Chief Standing Bear wanted to build a monument to honour Native American culture and heroes.  Korczak came out west with his wife, pitched a tent and started blasting a mountain that he and Chief Standing Bear chose.

“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, also.”

Chief Henry Standing Bear

Conditions were tough because the Native Americans had no money to pay him.  Korczak persevered through sheer grit and hard graft.  For example, in the beginning he felled trees and sold the timber to buy dynamite to start the blasting.  Korczak’s first wife had enough of the primitive living conditions and went back to Boston.  Korczak, however, married one of his students who had come from Boston to help him, Ruth Ross.  Together they shared the vision of the sculpture and 10 children as well.

crazy horse blast
Blasting the mountain

Although Korczak and Ruth have passed away, six of their children still work on the sculpture.  The day we visited, we saw three of the children on site doing various jobs from on-site inspections to  fence painting.  A video in the visitor centre indicates that Korczak gave his children the option of walking away from his lifetime project.  I think it is touching that so many of them and their own children have chosen to stay and continue Korczak’s work.

Crazy Horse, Lakota Warrior

Why Crazy Horse?  He was a Lakota war chief who fought in the Black Hills Wars in the mid 19th century.  He was known for his courage, defiance and devotion to his native way of life.  The Native Americans had been given the Black Hills as their own land but, with the discovery of gold, American settlers started encroaching into the Black Hills.  Although the Lakota fought bravely to preserve their land, the U.S. government eventually annexed the Black Hills and moved the Native Americans to reservations.  Crazy Horse, himself, died tragically young when he was knifed in the back by American soldiers when he entered a US fort under a truce flag to ransom his wife and daughter who were being held hostage.

Crazy Horse appears to have a permanent sneer on his face which does not make his appearance particularly friendly.  The permanent sneer, however, was the result of a scar left by a gunshot to the face by another Native American brave who was upset that Crazy Horse stole his woman.  This woman, Black Buffalo Woman, was the love of Crazy Horse’s life.  He was punished for running off with another warrior’s wife by being stripped of his war chief title.  He was noted for never having been wounded in battle.

When finished, the statue will show Crazy Horse on his horse pointing to the Black Hills.  It captures an iconic scene from Crazy Horse’s life.

The story goes that Crazy Horse was asked derisively by an American soldier, “Where are your lands now, Crazy Horse?”  In answer, Crazy Horse pointed to the Black Hills and said, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”  

Crazy Horse August 2014
The work so far

Interestingly, Crazy Horse never allowed himself to be photographed.  His likeness was described by several of his contemporaries to Korczak.  Although friends of Crazy Horse said Korczak’s sketches were a credible likeness, the importance of the sculpture lies in more than the physical likeness of Crazy Horse but in what his warrior spirit represents to his people.

Visiting Crazy Horse Memorial

The memorial is a series of superlatives as the statistics below show.  The statue will dwarf many other world landmarks, including the pyramids of Giza.

crazy horse stats

When the memorial is finished, not only will there be the sculpture but also a Native American university and a museum.  The memorial is not federally funded and relies entirely on visitor fees and donations.

Artist depiction of completed memorial
Artist depiction of memorial when completed

When we visited, we took the opportunity to get up close and personal with the statue.  The ordinary tour just takes you to the bottom of the mountain.  For an extra fee, though you will be taken directly to the face area in order to get a better close-up view.  The walkway we stood on will be the left hand pointing to the distance.  Once they start carving this hand, no more visitors will be allowed up there as the ledge will be too narrow.  We figured our children will always remember when they were allowed to go onto the statue if they ever visit it again in the future.  After all we did miss the boat on standing on Mt Rushmore or the Sphinx!!

crazy horse visit
My family is dwarfed in comparison.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is located about 8 miles from Mt Rushmore. The Crazy Horse Memorial is pretty impressive and, if you are in the area, I urge to visit this amazing place.  For me, it embodies the spirit of the American West – the courage, the romance, the tragedy and the unfailing hope of people, both as evidenced by Korczak and his family and Crazy Horse himself.  This memorial will ensure that this period in American history will never be forgotten.

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I am an American expat based in London with my travel-loving family. I write at Just Go Places Blog about luxury, cultural and family travel.

2 thoughts on “The World’s Largest Mountain Carving: Crazy Horse Memorial”

  1. This is so emotional… Crazy Horse was courageous, but he wasn’t the only one! I wish History hadn’t happened that way, we’ve to regret so many things…

    1. Yes, the history was complicated. The Sioux were fighting a losing battle because the US moving westward was going to happen, and their old way of life wasn’t going to last. BTW, Crazy Horse was from the Lakota tribe and when they got pushed out of their lands by the Americans, they went and pushed the Crow tribe out of theirs. The Crow hated them and helped the US army as scouts. The enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that. Plenty of regret to go around for all involved.

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