Chicago Tribune Magazine

A Head Above the Others

Twenty Miles from Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse Reclaims His Native Lands

The Chicago Tribune | Sunday Travel Magazine

By Jessica Seigel

CLIMBERS aim for the summit because it is there. Bungee jumpers dive off the top because they aren't all there. Spiritual-seekers commune on the peak because something else is there. The challenge of the mountain sends each person over the edge in his or her own way.

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, confronting the mountain from another vantage--the inside--is a local tradition. Almost 60 years ago, dynamite blasts and chisels carved Mt. Rushmore into monumental portraits. Today, the Native American answer to the four stony presidents is finally emerging from solid mountain rock 20 miles up the road. The gigantic image of Crazy Horse, the Native American war hero, is finally visible in pink granite towering over the pines a half century after a lone sculptor from Connecticut began with nothing but a gas-powered jackhammer. (The face will be officially dedicated on June 3, 1998--the 50th anniversary of the first blast on the mountain.)

A work in progress so massive that it must be measured in millions of tons of blasted rock, the 50-story-high, three-dimensional figure will be the largest sculpture in the world--possibly of all time--when it is finished. Since the single-minded artist Korczak Ziolkowski died in 1982, his wife and seven of his 10 children have taken over, carrying his dream into the next generation. When completed, the carving will dwarf Mt. Rushmore, standing taller than the great Pyramid of Giza and seven times higher than the Sphinx.

From the first curl of the driveway to the sprawling Crazy Horse visitors complex, the entrance sign sets the tone for this place where one man--and now his family--have lived and worked according to their own sense of time and possibility: "Crazy Horse is not a state or federal project. It is a non-profit mountain carving to and for Indian people of America." Rather than relinquish control and accept several government offers of multimillion dollar grants through the years, the Ziolkowskis have chosen to add decades to completing their project.

The anti-government mystique at Crazy Horse springs from the sculptor's lone-wolf temperament and the dark side of American history. In the same way that the Civil War still rankles in America's South, White Man versus Red Man still riles tempers in this region of pines and craggy outcroppings amid the harsh Great Plains of the Dakotas. The still-festering wounds go back to the 1870s when the U.S. government broke treaty agreements and forced the Sioux out of their sacred Black Hills to make way for miners and settlers in America's last great gold rush. The mystic Indian leader and warrior Crazy Horse led one of the last band of hold-outs, defeating Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Soon after, the Indians would have to surrender to the U.S. forces.

By the 1930s, with the Indians long ago cordoned off on impoverished reservations and the gold rush only a memory, South Dakota leaders landed on the idea of carving an immense national mountain monument to attract tourists to the remote region. Funded by government grants and private donations, the American presidents emerged from gray granite during the course of 14 years: first George Washington, then Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

The Indians were galled by the American presidents chiseled into the sacred lands the U.S. government had once promised would remain theirs. So an old Sioux chief named Henry Standing Bear sent a written plea to the young sculptor who won first prize at the 1939 World's Fair for his brooding bust of the Polish pianist and patriot Ignace Jan Paderewski.

"My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too," the chief wrote, beseeching Ziolkowski to memorialize Native American history too.

Because Crazy Horse never allowed himself to be photographed, Ziolkowski designed his sculpture with the characteristic Lakota features, including a prominent angled nose and forehead. The carving depicts the warrior pointing with his arm outstretched over the neck of his horse in a gesture enacting his legendary retort to a taunting white trader, who asked after his surrender, "Where are your lands now?"

Crazy Horse pointed to the horizon, proclaiming, "My lands are where my dead lie buried."

Standing Bear had picked the right man to blast away what today amounts to more than 8 million tons of rock from the mountainside. Ziolkowski persevered despite numerous injuries, penury and derision from skeptical locals. ("Artistic" temperament understates the headstrong, cantankerous Korczak, who was known to all simply by his first name.)

His difficult childhood set the stage for a life of controversy. Orphaned at age 4 when his parents were killed in a boating accident, he was raised in an abusive foster home that he left at age 16. After holding numerous odd jobs, he fell into wood-carving at a boat yard, then studied under a master stone-carver at a cathedral. In the summer of 1939, he worked briefly at Mt. Rushmore before he was fired after a fistfight with the son of head sculptor Gutzon Borglum.

Never shy about being quarrelsome, Ziolkowski enlarged a copy of the Mt. Rushmore rejection letter, which today hangs in a prominent place in the Crazy Horse display halls. Borglum's letter reads: ". . .it would be better for you to pursue your creative effort where you are not hampered by any other ways of doing things. I regret that you really are no help to me on this work . . ."

Ziolkowski followed the biting advice and set up shop on his own nearby mountain in 1947. Perhaps by obstreperous design, but more for convenience considering the availability of appropriate sites, Ziolkowski staked out his mountain by making a mining claim in a craggy, wooded area 5 miles north of Custer. The tiny town was named for the famous officer who camped in the area with the 7th Cavalry before Crazy Horse defeated and massacred his soldiers at the battle known as Custer's Last Stand.

The irony is unmistakable that Crazy Horse, the mountain, now towers above Custer, the town. In media interviews and the foundation's publicity material, Ziolkowski attributed his long-running fights with Custer townsfolk to racism against Indians.

"People still take sides," said one resident, who didn't want his name used due to the subject's continued sensitivity. "It's just like in the South."

But according to old-timers, Ziolkowski's scrappy egotism and bad financial dealings connected to his troubled dairy farm and sawmill were responsible for the feuds. He also was seen as a know-it-all Easterner building castles in the sky.

"At first, folks were skeptical of Korczak as someone from the East Coast with big dreams," said Joyce Spear, manager of the Custer Title Co. located in a quaint Main Street storefront. "People around here worked real hard just to get through the winter. Folks had a hard time seeing what he saw in the mountain."

The glossy Crazy Horse brochures only allude to one of the sculptor's most bitter fights in 1970, when some disgruntled person, as the brochure says, took a hammer to sculptures on display in the artist's studio. The vandal chipped the noses off Ziolkowski's sculptures, including the famed Paderewski bust. Ask around and locals will tell how that "unknown person" was one of the sculptor's sons-in-laws, though the case against him ended in a hung jury. For years, Ziolkowski would not even walk past the section of his studio where the damaged works were on display. The sculptures--damage and all--are still on view.

The controversies with the town of Custer have become emotional ancient history since large numbers of tourists began flocking to the area after the sculpture's face became recognizable in the early 1990s.

"We're in a new era, and the community works very well with Crazy Horse now," says local attorney Jerry Baldwin. The tourist traffic provides a steady stream of business.

The individualistic nature of Crazy Horse touches every aspect of the project's complex, which includes galleries displaying Indian art and artifacts from across America. The studio and log cabin--built from native pine and where the artist and his wife raised their large family--is a walk-through exhibit enshrining Ziolkowski's life and work.

In 1950, after his first wife left him, he married one of the idealistic young followers who traveled out West to volunteer on his Herculean vision. Ziolkowski was 42 when he and Ruth, then 24, were married. After his death at age 74, Ruth took over, as long planned. Her idea to switch from focusing on the horse's head to Crazy Horse's face is largely responsible for the quickened pace of the project in the 1990s. Today, Ruth can be seen walking the grounds in what looks like a house dress, ruling the staff--and her now-adult children employees--with the same iron hand that was her late husband's trademark.

Unlike a typical museum exhibit, Crazy Horse is unfolding. The now-grown Ziolkowski children help run what is essentially the family business, doing everything from answering telephones in the administrative offices to hanging from derricks chiseling on the mountain's face. The Ziolkowski offspring can be recognized from their stoic expressions, instilled through years of physical hardship as the family sacrificed all for the sculpture. Their father was uncompromising, and often boasted how his family knew that the mountain came first, then his wife, then the children.

One recent Sunday, Monique, 36, the second youngest, intently hammered a plaque next to one of her father's marble portraits.

Growing up a Ziolkowski, she said, means never forgetting the grand project.

"I've never looked at it (Crazy Horse) as not finished. I could always see it in the mountain," she said, recalling how she and her siblings used to collect pop bottles to sell in town during the lean years. But even then, she did not experience the worst of it. "I'm one of the youngest. I don't remember the hardest days."

The living, breathing character of Crazy Horse lures visitors who return to the site year after year to check on the progress, measuring the glacial change in the stone against their lives. Leon Tillman, 30, a heavy equipment operator from Wyoming, first visited when he was 6 and the mountain was little more than a craggy peak. The site captured his imagination years ago, he said, because as a Shoshone Indian he is proud to see the image of a heroic Native American in stone to counter the official Mt. Rushmore version of American history. "There are people who say Crazy Horse won't ever be done, but I think it will," he said. "I just hope that I'm around to see the end of it."

Sunday, October 5, 1997