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NEWS: Update on South Dakota's Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial by Laurie Borman, Rand McNally

You ask, we answer. Recently, a user named My Love asked for an update on the progress of South Dakota’s Crazy Horse Memorial (the photo of which remains our most popular post by far). So we called Ruth Ziolkowski, who heads the project and whose late husband, Korczak, started it with Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear.

The current focus of the effort is on carving the 219-foot head of the Lakota warrior chief‘s horse, Ziolkowski told us, a step begun after the 1998 completion of Crazy Horse’s face. The order of those steps was a major change Ziolkowski carried out after her husband’s 1982 death; he had planned on working on the warrior’s face after completing that of his mount. “It turned out to be a wise decision because when we finished Crazy Horse’s face, a lot of people saw this the project was not going to fold with Korczak gone,” she said. “It made all the difference in the world. It was amazing, not only from the point of view of publicity, but from that of the people themselves. They’d come in and look at it and say, ‘Wow.’ The only thing that’s made as big an impression was the year Korczak broke through the mountain with the tunnel under the outstretched arm and you could drive by on the highway and see a plain old mountain with a hole through it.”

The horse’s-head effort involves blasting 11 “benches” (road-like ledges). The benches serve as platforms allowing for the placement of equipment, with the upper-most measuring only about 20 feet wide and the lowest, when complete—crews are working on number eight right now—spanning 100 feet or more. And while modern advancements such as detonating cord and other products allow for far more precise and efficient blasting, they also present even more design decisions. “Crazy Horse’s face was finished with a torch, and it’s absolutely smooth, but how do you do the horse’s hide and Crazy Horse’s hair?” Ziolkowski said. “Those are all questions we still have to decide. Korczak left us three books, but those are all measurements. He never got to that point.”

Nearly as daunting as the monument’s engineering challenges have been (and let me say again here that while Korczak had his experience with Mount Rushmore to draw upon, that project involved 60-foot faces while this time around he was tackling a man with an 87-foot face sitting on a horse), the cultural and financial requirements can be nearly as imposing. Standing Bear convinced a group of tribal elders to back his dream when the project was launched in 1948, but after he died in 1953 and those elders passed away, it became apparent that a new effort was needed to earn the trust and cooperation of the next generation.

“There were some who thought the project was wonderful,” Ziolkowski said. “Some think it’s a desecration to destroy a mountain.” Such disagreements remain, but programs such as the foundation’s scholarship program and the Native American Journalism Career Conference have gone a long way toward building good will. And money-wise, a $5 million matching challenge from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, half of which has already been raised, with three more years to come up with the remaining half, has been a “huge help,” she noted. (Those interested in making a contribution can do so on the donation page of the Memorial’s site.)

Overall, Ziolkowski stressed that it’s very rewarding to work on something much larger than herself, literally and in the sense that it won’t be completed in her lifetime. (She declined to give any kind of timeline estimate since factors such as the weather, economy and funding are far too hard to predict.) “It’s wonderful,” she said. “I’ll be 83 in June. You get up in the morning, you put your feet on the floor, you say ‘thank you, Lord,’ and you go to work. You make the dream come true. People asked [Korczak] if he got discouraged, but he said, no, he just got impatient because he knew he could have made it faster with more money and more help. He said you could do anything in this world you want to do, but you have to be willing to work and never quit, no matter how hard it gets. I’m going to do it; I’m going to stick with it; and I’m going to get it done.” — Michael Peck

Crazy Horse Memorial and Model

Memorial and model courtesy Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial Face

Crazy Horse Memorial face by Laurie Borman, Rand McNally

Ruth Ziolkowski

Ruth Ziolkowski courtesy Crazy Horse Memorial

Ruth Ziolkowski

Aerial view from front courtesy Crazy Horse Memorial

Night Blast

Night Blast courtesy Crazy Horse Memorial